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My German is very basic (at best) but I sometimes have to write little blurbs about music and sometimes the music I write about is German. Since it's getting close to Christmas, I needed to write something about the Bach chorale Jesus bleibet meine Freude (usually translated into English as Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, although that bears little resemblance to the original). And when I typed the title, the grammar-checker I use complained that I had misspelled "bleiben". My editor hates it when I misspell words, so I checked all the versions I could find online, and they almost universally wrote "bleibet". (One of them used "bleibt", but it turned out to be a typo, since "bleibet" clearly appears on the album cover.) So I'm sure "bleibet" is correct, but I'm curious as to why.

According to Duden's conjugation for bleiben, the only place "bleibet" shows up is in the second person plural subjunctive "ihr bleibet". It's hard for me to see how this could be appropriate, although I could be missing some subtlety; I would have thought that the correct conjugation would be "bleibt" (third person singular, present tense).

The text which Bach adapted for his cantata was written around 1665 by Martin Jahn (or Janus) (according to en.wikipedia/de.wikipedia, which cites the work in both language editions as Jesus bleibet meine Freude). So I suppose it could be an archaic usage. Or it could be an phonological modification to fit the meter, which requires "bleibet" to be sung as two syllables.

In pursuit of a possible archaic usage, I noted that the English adaptation (it's certainly not a translation) uses the archaic Latin vocative "Jesu", which must have sounded poetic but also doesn't seem to me to be appropriate; the phrase is not addressed to Jesus, even metaphorically. And as far as my research indicated, the original text in German was always "Jesus". (I did find several references in German which call it "Jesu bleibet meine Freude", but I suspect that these are the result of contamination by the English title.) But if the phrase were considered to address Jesus rather than referring to him, then a different conjugation would be appropriate, presumably "bleibst".

Anyway, if someone has some insight which could satisfy my curiosity, I'd be grateful. In the meantime, I'm just ignoring the squiggle produced by my grammar-checker (as I often have to do).

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    I always thought it's some kind of subjunctive. As in "God save the queen". You wouldn't want to give orders to god or Jesus. When translated to french, both "bleibet meine Freude" and "God save the queen" are translated with subjunctive, which feels natural in french. Dec 13, 2022 at 17:18
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    See also german.stackexchange.com/q/64972/35111
    – David Vogt
    Dec 15, 2022 at 13:30
  • Side note: "Jesu" is genitive, e.g. in "Auferstehung Jesu". I wouldn't expect "Jesu" in a nominative as your example; the nominative is "Jesus". See de.wiktionary.org/wiki/Jesus
    – Robin
    Dec 15, 2022 at 15:20
  • @Robin, I didn't say it was nominative; I said it was vocative. And moreover archaic and Latin. German apparently no longer has vocatives, but Jesu is listed as such in the authority you reference: de.wiktionary.org/wiki/Jesu.
    – rici
    Dec 15, 2022 at 17:22
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    @EricDuminil: "Jesus, bleibest meine Freude" oder "Jesus, bleib Du meine Freude" müssten nicht als Befehl, sondern können als Appell verstanden werden. "Dein Reich komme", "unser täglich Brot gib uns heute" usw. sind von ähnlichem Typ und in der Sprache der Religiösen gang und gäbe. Das "bleibet" verstehe ich aber auch als "bleibt" und damit als eine Art Schwur, als Signal der Selbstverpflichtung, an Dritte gerichtet. Dec 15, 2022 at 21:27

7 Answers 7

15

Good question, and your observation and speculation as to the origin is imho correct.

The usually needed form is "bleibt" and "bleibet" is archaic and meanwhile wrong outside these special contexts: The 3. Person singular used to end in '-et' instead of just '-t' for some verbs / conjugations which is nowadays encountered this way only in old songs or poems where the rhythm requires it. There are similar usages in other songs. One other instance which comes to my mind is the famous children song or riddle of

Auf der Wiese gehet was,
watet durch die Sümpfe,
hat ein schwarz-weiß Röckchen an,
und trägt auch rote Strümpfe...'

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    "Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage!" — from Bach's Christmas Oratorio (although in this case for 2nd plural), comes handy in this present month.
    – LoremIpsum
    Dec 13, 2022 at 22:33
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    Bach's Christmas Oratorio is full of this (bachfestleipzig.de/de/bachfest/text-des-weihnachtsoratorium), starting with the very first line "Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage!". However, it isn't used consequently, it was optional in Bach's time ("So geht denn hin, ihr Hirten, geht ...", "Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben...").
    – HalvarF
    Dec 14, 2022 at 14:54
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    It’s not as if this suffix didn’t exist in English too. You can translate “bleibet” directly to “stayeth” or “remaineth
    – Holger
    Dec 15, 2022 at 16:18
  • One additional reason for using this in poetry, and especially poetry designed to be sung (the word "lyrics" feels too modern in this context) is that "bleibt" is one syllable, while "blei-bet" is two, so it may be adapted to fit into the verse meter. Plus "bleibet" just sounds more solemn...
    – rob74
    Dec 16, 2022 at 8:52
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    In the examples "Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage!" and "Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage!" the forms are imperative and not 3rd person singular, though also archaic.
    – kof
    May 10, 2023 at 12:12
15

The word bleibet is just an outdated form of bleibt.

The cantata was written in 1723, 300 years ago. And as you said, the text is even older, from 1665, so almost 360 years old.

German is a living language, which means that it is constantly changing. Otherwise, you and me would still be speaking a variant of the Proto-Indo-European language.

William Shakespeare died in 1616, just 50 years before the text of Jesus bleibet meine Freude was written, so his texts have a similar age to the text of this cantata. And I think, since you are a native English speaker, it is obvious to you that Shakespeare's English differs in many ways from modern English. And in a comparable way, the German of J.S.Bach and the authors of that time differs from modern German.

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    Perhaps a more apt comparison is Handel's Messiah: "Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The Kingdom of this World is become the Kingdom of our Lord ..." Definitely not the way people talk these days.
    – RDBury
    Dec 13, 2022 at 10:03
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    Sure, I understand that languages change over time. The evolution of English is visible through a comparison between Shakespeare's early and late writing, although the written evidence is ambiguous; by Shakespeare's time, the -th conjugation had almost disappeared from the spoken language, but was still common in written English. It could still be pronounced for metrical reasons, and Shakespeare sometimes used both forms in the same line. At roughly the same time, the informal 2nd person was vanishing, leading to the loss of the -st conjugation.
    – rici
    Dec 13, 2022 at 15:19
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    Similar histories must exist in German, and I should have made it clearer that I was seeking that sort of information. I apologise if my question sounded like a complaint about inconstancy of language; rather, I was curious about whether bleibet is an older morpheme, or a conjugation which no longer exists, or a metrical device which is no longer written (but might still be sung) or something else.
    – rici
    Dec 13, 2022 at 15:25
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    Such forms are still pretty common with Heinrich Heine, and at least occasionally found e.g. in Hofmannsthal („in dem Wort, dem abgegriffnen, liegt, was mancher sinnend suchet …“). Dec 14, 2022 at 21:46
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On the one hand, yes this is simply an archaic form of conjugation.

On the other hand, this conjugation is heavily used in musical lyrics for other reasons:

  • first, it's two syllables instead of one and easier fits into the metrics.
  • plosives like in bleibt are harder to sing (synchronize in a choir) than closing syllables "-et" - (because they have no tone to it) and thus often lost in music. Even more modern music (e.g. "Der Wald ist schwarz und schweiget" in "Der Mond ist aufgegangen) tend to use these archaic forms.
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    While I follow your reasoning for usage of these forms in lyrics and especially in sung language, the argument of "modern music" with respect to the Abendlied (Der Mond ist aufgegangen) doesn't hold. The lyrics are similarily old (or possibly even older) as the texts from Bach's music (e.g. compare de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abendlied_(Matthias_Claudius) ) Dec 13, 2022 at 19:07
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    "Wenn die Leute fragen, Lebt der Hecker noch? Könnt ihr ihnen sagen: Ja, er lebet noch."
    – Jan
    Dec 14, 2022 at 12:50
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The use of bleibet is just archaic.

Regarding your remarks on the use of vocative in the English translation, I agree with you, there is no vocative here. First, as you mentioned, Jesus is not addressed. Second, Bach would not have refused to use the Latin vocative in German, if he meant to: In other pieces of Bach, the Latin vocative is used, for instance in the catantata Komm, Jesu, komm, or in the motet Jesu, meine Freude. Given that the latter is one of the most famous works of Bach, I would consider it probable that the translators confused the two titles.

6

The literal meaning of the sentence is "Jesus stays my joy", so even though it looks strange, Jesus is the nominative object here.

In modern German spelling, the phrase needs to be written as

Jesus bleibt meine Freude.

Indeed, "bleibet" is, in modern spelling, only correct for the second person plural, which is not applicable here because "Jesus" obviously is only one person.

What's left are the two options you mention: Archaic usage or adoption to fit the meter. I cannot find an archaic use either, so the second option remains. There's one possible hidden justification for it, though. If the phrase was

[Ihr] Jesus, bleibet meine Freude

as in

Ihr mein König, bleibet mein Gebieter

the plural form is justified as a very formal address.

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    If it's in nominative case, then it can't be an object. If it is in nominative case, then it is the subject. It there is a second word in nominative case in the same clause, then it is a "Gleichsetzungsnominativ" which also isn't an object. I've recently asked questions about this topic (but I asked in German language): german.stackexchange.com/q/72213/54398
    – Alina
    Dec 14, 2022 at 9:11
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    @Alina I know. I was using "object" in the sense of "grammar item" here.
    – PMF
    Dec 14, 2022 at 10:42
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If you take a look at the text, then it's fairly obvious that your assumption of archaic language that is used to fit the meter is pretty on point:

Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe,
o wie feste halt ich ihn,
dass er mir mein Herze labe,
wenn ich krank und traurig bin.
Jesum hab ich, der mich liebet
und sich mir zu eigen gibet;
ach drum lass ich Jesum nicht,
wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht

Jesus bleibet meine Freude,
meines Herzens Trost und Saft,
Jesus wehret allem Leide,
er ist meines Lebens Kraft,  
meiner Augen Lust und Sonne,
meiner Seele Schatz und Wonne;
darum lass ich Jesum nicht
aus dem Herzen und Gesicht.

The author continuously, throughout the poem, adds "e"s that aren't typical anymore like "Herz(e)" (heart), "lieb(e)t" (loves) or especially uncommon "gib(e)t" (gives) which is kind of a forced rhyme as with that addition "liebet" and "gibet" end on the same syllable. For lieb(e)t that's already uncommon, but possible but gib(e)t is just weird and only there to complete the rhyme and meter. Sidenote: A reason why "gibet" is particularly weird is because it changes the pronunciation of the word, so "gibt" would have a short "i" sound while "gibet" puts more emphasize on the "i" as it's the end of a syllable and not the middle part of one, leading to a slightly longer pronunciation.

Also out of context "Jesus bleibet meine Freude" could be interpreted in various ways. It could address Jesus to remain his joy in various forms of politeness from an informal "bleib(t) (doch)" meine Freude to a very formal "bleitet (ihr doch)" meine Freude, it could be archaic for bleibt and so on. Also it would be ambiguous as to whether you're asking him to remain "Jesus = joy" or to just asking Jesus to stay for it is a joy and so on. A little weird that your grammar tool recommends "bleiben" as that's the infinite form but also weird in that sentence.

However from the context the expressed meaning is "Jesus will remain to be my joy,... solace and vitality of my heart, when I'm sick and sad, I'll still have Jesus who loves me." So yes in modern German it would be "bleibt" in the sense of "will remain" and not in the sense of a commanding "stay with me" and the archaic form is likely used because it better fits with the rhyming and general metric of the poem. Which is quite common that there are poetic versions of words that are understandable, but often not correct grammar.

Also yeah language modifies over time and apparently the first serious attempts at standardizing German grammar where made in the late 19th early 20th century.

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    From what I've read since I posted this question, the conjugation of "gëben" in Middle High German was "ich gibe", "du gibest", "ër gibet", "wir gëben", "ir gëbet", "si gëbent". AIUI, MHG is conventionally written (now, not then) using explicit vowel-lengthening represented with a circumflex. So in "ër gibet", the "i" was short; the long "i" would have been "î". See Wikipedia or these class notes, which unfortunately have the wrong encoding declaration (should be cp1252).
    – rici
    Dec 14, 2022 at 16:56
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    How relevant that is I could not say. In the 17th century, when the poem was written, MHG had long since passed, and in any case the pronunciations conventionally assigned are completely speculative (and undoubtedly varied by dialect). Still, it's some sort of indication that "gibet" might have been pronounced with a short "i". To me, it's interesting that the same phonological process, elimination of "e" in conjugation suffixes, was also going on at about the same time in English, whose past tense was changing from "-ed" (still used in writing) to "-t" / "-d"...
    – rici
    Dec 14, 2022 at 17:01
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    You can see this shift in Shakespeare, who used both the pronounced "ed" and the devocalised version for metrical purposes, sometimes in the same line. Example from Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 3. "There is no world without Verona walls, / But purgatory, torture, hell itself. / Hence - banished is banish'd from the world, / And world's exile is death: then banished, / Is death mis-term'd: ..."
    – rici
    Dec 14, 2022 at 17:07
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    @rici I'm pretty sure Bach's lyrics are way closer to our modern language than to MHD (even if the text he re-used was about 60 years old when he composed the choral). [MHD: up until ~1300, frühneuhochdeutsch starting from 1350, lyrics from ~1660, now].
    – tofro
    Dec 14, 2022 at 17:09
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    "bleiben" = "to remain" is only an approximation, of course. Many senses of bleiben would be better expressed as "will always be" rather than "will remain". "Remain" in this sense is itself a little archaic. Dec 14, 2022 at 17:44
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I think it's Konjuntiv I used to for direct quotation but for expressing a wish. After all, one wouldn't use the imperative form with Jesus (!) and instead expresses the strong wish by using Subjunctive One. Subjunctive Two would bring in too much doubt.

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    That's true, but Konjunktiv I would be "bleibe", not "bleibet". "Jesus bleibe meine Freude" would indeed express a wish. "Bleibt" or "bleibet" is a simple 3rd person Indikativ here, not an imperative. Jesus remains my joy.
    – HalvarF
    May 9, 2023 at 13:30

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