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I came across this sentence (courtesy to Nicos Weg):

Du bist der Schnellste.

This, as I came to understand thanks to Google Übersetzer, translates to:

You are the fastest.

I have also seen something like:

Du bist der Schönste. (Phew, thanks again Google).

These examples, as I understand, make a description in the superlative form. If so, why not just say, e.g.:

Du bist am schnellsten.
Du bist am schönsten.

Side note: It's funny how I already feel this isn't German. I know languages don't always directly translate between one another; anyways, would it be right to say it this way instead?

Also, from

Du bist der Schnellste.

it is clear that der Schnellste takes a noun form. How?

Also, I searched www.verbformen.com and cannot find anything like Schnellste or Schönste. What is the rationale behind these forms? Even more brutal, since it takes a noun form, what happens in the accusative, dative cases, or in plural? Are there feminine forms, too? Oh my, German is something …

What is the overarching term for forms like these? I did not know how to even google it up since I don't have an overarching term. I would be glad to get any links to some great articles on this topic.

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4 Answers 4

15

There is nothing wrong with

Du bist am schnellsten.
Du bist am schönsten.

These are perfectly correct German sentences.


Steigerungsformen (increments)

  • Positiv (positive)

    Du bist schnell. Du bist schön.
    You are fast. You are beautiful.

  • Komparativ (comparative)

    Du bist schneller. Du bist schöner.
    You are faster. You are more beautiful.

  • Superlativ (superlative)

    Du bist am schnellsten. Du bist am schönsten.
    You are fastest. You are most beautiful.


Substantivierung (nominalization)

You can create nominalized forms from all three increments:

  • substantivierter Positiv (nominalized positive)

    Du bist der Schnelle. Du bist die Schöne.
    You are the fast. You are the beautiful.

    This form is rare in English (so are all nominalizations) but used for example in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  • substantivierter Komparativ (nominalized comparative)

    Du bist der Schnellere. Du bist die Schönere.
    You are the faster. You are the more beautiful.

  • substantivierter Superlativ (nominalized superlative)

    Du bist der Schnellste. Du bist die Schönste.
    You are the fastest. You are the most beautiful.


These words are nouns!

Although these words are called "substantivierte Adjektive" (nominalized adjectives) a better name would be "adjektivstämmige Substantive" (adjective-based nouns) because they are nouns, not adjectives. (This is why you always write them with uppercase first letter. You do this with nouns only, never with adjectives or verbs.)

And because they are nouns they have a gender and can appear in all 4 grammatical cases. But - different from "normal" nouns - these nominalized words have flexible genders.

  • A man (anything that is grammatically masculine):

    Er ist der Kluge. Er ist der Klügere. Er ist der Klügste.

  • A woman (anything that is grammatically feminine):

    Sie ist die Kluge. Sie ist die Klügere. Sie ist die Klügste.

  • A child (anything that is grammatically neuter):

    Es ist das Kluge. Es ist das Klügere. Es ist das Klügste.

Cases (here for the masculine form of the nominalized positive):

1. Nom: Der Kluge denkt nach.
2. Gen: Der Hut des Klugen ist schwarz. Der Mentor nimmt sich des Klugen an.
3. Dat: Der Hut gehört dem Klugen.
4. Akk: Ich sehe den Klugen.


Declension and inflection vs. creating new words

You did not find anything at verbformen.com about nominalization, because verbformen.com is about declensions and inflections of words (i.e. different forms of the same word). But nominalization is a method to create new words from existing words.

When you do declension or inflection, a verb still remains a verb and a noun remains a noun. The kind of word does't change when you inflect it.

But when you take a verb or an adjective and nominalize it, then you create a noun from it. You don't get a form of the already existing word. This new noun can be declined as shown above.

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  • 1
    "Die ist die Klügere" sollte wohl "Sie […]" heißen.
    – xehpuk
    Apr 12 at 12:17
  • 1
    Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand ... Apr 12 at 21:36
  • Your information about the declension is incomplete. The nominative singular masculine of ‘substantivized’ adjectives has two forms: der Kluge or Kluger, the dative singular masculine has two forms: dem Klugen or Klugem, etc. etc. In other words, ‘substantivized’ adjectives continue to decline exactly like adjectives. They decline by definiteness and gender, two categories that do not occur in noun declension. ‘Substantivized’ adjectives are nouns only with regards to orthography. With regards to grammar, they continue to be adjectives.
    – mach
    Apr 13 at 8:51
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The German “Du bist der Schnellste” is in fact analogous to English “You are the fastest”.

 Du bist der Schnellste
 │   │   └──────┬─────┘
 │   │   ┌──────┴───────────────────────────────┐
You are  the one who is faster than everyone else        
 │   │   └────┬─────────────────────────────────┘
 │   │   ┌────┴────┐
You are  the fastest

On the other hand, “du bist am schnellsten” keeps “schnell” as a superlative-adjective instead of nominalizing it. This would correspond to simply “you are fastest” in English

 Du bist am schnellsten
 │   │   └──────┬─────┘
 │   │   ┌──────┴───────────────────────────────────────────────────┐
You are  blessed with the property of being faster than everyone else
 │   │   └──┬───────────────────────────────────────────────────────┘
 │   │   ┌──┴──┐
You are  fastest

But this is a bit awkward on its own. Not sure why, but semantically it would seem to be that the “property of being faster than everyone else” is just a bit of an overcomplicated concept, and by construction it only applies to a single person, so it's simpler to just point at that person instead of essentially defining a one-person set fulfilling the property.

I would only use it in a context, where you are contrasting it with other adjectives that can't be nominalised, like

Max ist schnell, Frank und Michael sind schneller, aber du bist am schnellsten.

Max is fast, Frank and Michael are faster, but you are fastest.

Actually, in English this still feels weird, I'd rather write “you are the fastest” also here; but the German version is indeed how I would put it, not “aber du bist der Schnellste”.

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To supplement Hubert Schölnast's answer a bit, you can also change adjectives to nouns in English, but this occurs less frequently and with a slightly different meaning. (This question also talks about the phenomenon.) For example in the saying "The rich get richer and the the poor get poorer," the phrases "the rich" and "the poor" are collective in nature -- "those who are rich" and "those who are poor". In German the result is only plural if you use the plural form, so die Armen and die Reichen. In the singular the result is a single representative of the group, so der Arme would be a (male) individual who is poor. It might be translated as "the poor man" or "the poor one". This is occurs in English as well, but not consistently, so der Erwachsene = "the adult", die Erwachsenen = "the adults". Since turning adjectives into nouns is more frequent in German, you might expect there to be more variation in meaning, and there is. I've heard someone say, very sarcastically, Oh, du Armer! with the same meaning as you might say "Aw, you poor thing!" in English. As mentioned in the other answer, almost any adjective can be used this way, including comparatives and superlatives, and also participles.

Another thing to note is that these nouns are not inflected like nouns, but like the adjectives they are derived from. So they not only have flexible genders as mentioned in the other answer, but they're inflected according to gender/number, case, and the preceding article or determiner. In the above example, du Armer only works for males and you'd use du Arme for females.

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The superlative takes different forms when used as a predicative or when used as an attribute. When used as a predicative, it is preceded by «am»:

  1. Sie ist am schnellsten.
  2. Er schwimmt am schnellsten.

When used as an attribute, there is no «am»:

  1. die schnellste Frau
  2. der schnellste Schwimmer

With regard to the declension, a ‘substantivized’ adjective behaves exactly like an attributive adjective, except it has no following noun:

  1. die Schnellste
  2. der Schnellste

This means that grammatically speaking, the ‘substantivized’ adjectives are normal adjectives. Nouns decline according to case and number; adjectives decline not only according to case and number, but also according to gender and definiteness – and so do ‘substantivized’ adjectives.

In the definite nominative singular, for instance, the ‘substantivized’ adjectives have different forms for all three genders:

  1. Liebster – Liebste – Liebstes

These are exactly the same forms as for ‘non-substantivized’ adjectives:

  1. liebster Mann – liebste Frau – liebstes Kind

Another example: In the masculine singular nominative, ‘substantivized’ adjectives alternate between definite (or strong) and indefinite (weak) endings:

  1. Liebster – der Liebste

Again, these are exactly the same forms as for ‘non-substantivized’ adjectives:

  1. liebster Mann – der liebste Mann

And a third example: In the masculine singular dative, ‘substantivized’ adjectives alternate between definite (or strong) and indefinite (weak) endings:

  1. auf Grossem – auf dem Grossen

Yet again, these are exactly the same forms as for ‘non-substantivized’ adjectives:

  1. auf grossem Fuss – auf dem grossen Fuss

So grammatically speaking, ‘substantivized’ adjectives are just regular adjectives with all the quirks of German adjective declension (sorry). The only difference between a ‘substantivized’ adjective and a regular adjective is the capitalization.

In my opinion, the definition of ‘substantivized’ adjectives is quite circular: An adjective is capitalized when it is ‘substantivized’, and an adjective is ‘substantivized’ when it is capitalized. Sure, you could try and formulate conditions when an adjective without a following noun counts as ‘substantivized’, but you would soon get lost in all kinds of special cases and exceptions. And even the relevant paragraph 57 of the German orthography rules says that ‘substantivized’ words have noun features (not grammatically though, as I have shown), and it links to paragraph 55 which states that the feature of nouns is their capitalization.

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