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This question popped up because I frequently see people falsly capitalize the letter after "am". They probably think that they're supposed to use a prepositional phrase am Besten. But this is false.

What is am in am besten?

3 Answers 3

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In the second sentence you give, it should be

Die Sonne ist am Untergehen.

This is a nominalization of the verb untergehen and has nothing to do with the superlative.

Generally, the am in the superlative has nothing to do with such nominalized verbs, am just represents the highest level an adjective can be scaled. It's a rule to build the superlative, that's it. (And as you noticed, the adjective itself shouldn't be capitalized.)

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  • removed it, sorry. The question is: What is "am" in the superlative? a particle? a preposition? a .... what? Nov 26, 2023 at 22:49
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They probably think that they're supposed to use a prepositional phrase am Besten.

In reference to the next example, "die Sonne ist am untergehen", one can point to nominal Untergang, e.g. Die Sonne ist im Untergang begriffen, theoretically ? Die Sonne steht am Untergang, cp. Gang (direction, way, passage), am Abgrund stehen, also of the hands of time, am/auf Anschlag, die Zeiger stehen (auf) kurz vor Zwölf. Cf. Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch: begreifen:

Treffend heiszt es von der nacht, welche einbricht, mit gewalt einfällt, uns anfällt, uns auf den hals kommt, anstöszt, irruit, dasz sie begreife (surprenne). mnl.[mittelniederländisch]

die nacht hevet mi hier begrepen

This might imply that -m- stood in relation to reflexive singular pronouns. The examples of other prepositions are ambiguous. If im "ihm" belongs here, I don't know ("dies weib ist begriffen auf frischer that im ehebruch." "ein armer derwisch, als er im laster der unzucht begriffen, und vermutet, es würde ihm nicht wol bekommen.").

Another example is bei-m, ich bin bei'm Essen, ich bin am essen, the irony being that bim is historically correct for 1PSg bin: ick so bim essen, kommt a so'n Typ rinn? The ending is original, cf *es-mi > AGr. ἐγὼ εἰμί (ego eimi "I am").

All this is irrelevant because people smarter than I myself have spent less time thinking on this and infinity times null equals nonsequitur, so Duden has an awesome explanation. To wit: "nicht auflößbar”

Grammatik

  • nicht auflösbar; bildet mit dem substantivierten Infinitiv und „sein“ die Verlaufsform

Ich bin noch am Überlegen

The superlativ "am besten" is not nominalized, although we may equivalently say: das wird das Beste / am besten sein, bzw. mir das Beste sein, etw. zum Besten geben (?) etc.

Grammatik

  • nicht auflösbar; dient zur Bildung des Superlativs undeklinierter Adjektive und steigerbarer Adverbien

am besten, am schönsten, am liebsten, am meisten

It may be assumed that the definite ending is a reinterpretation of some sort, labial assimilation not excluded.

By the way, the reference to superlative invariably resembles Latin -issimus, supremum, optimum, pessimus, see Proto-Germanic *-umô. I guess this was added to the preverb, am, competing with the different inflection of the other preverb, unter-. It is sufficient in this view to say, die Sonne geht unter, ich bin einkaufen, I bim awesome.

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The etymology of am is simply an + dem, including when am is used to form a superlative, in which case it is not separable.

So its part of speech is still a contraction, of a preposition and an article, though it is somewhat grammaticalized or calcified.

The lowercasing in the current orthography is rather arbitrary.

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