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I am using the C1 tetbook to improve my German. In the answers to an exercise about forming a sentence in the nominal form the following two answers are given as correct:

Die Vemittlung der Fremdsprachen in der Schule.

Das leichte Erlernen von Sprachen im Kinderalter.

My question is: Why is the genitive used in the first example but not in the second? To my naive understanding "der" or "von" could be used in both sentences, is this correct?

2 Answers 2

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You are correct, in both sentence fragments "der" and "von" can be used.

German can use "von" as a kind of replacement for the genitive case, with written language strongly preferring the genitive where possible. And German has the conceptual distinction between definite and indefinite articles. And what's important here is the plural situation.

So, there are eight combinations of

  • singular vs. plural,
  • definite vs. indefinite article,
  • using genitive or preposition "von".

Not all of them are good style or even possible.

  • "Erlernen der Fremdsprache": singular, definite, using genitive, talking about one specific language.
  • "Erlernen von der Fremdsprache": singular, definite, using preposition (inferior!), talking about one specific language.
  • "Erlernen einer Fremdsprache": singular, indefinite, using genitive, talking about a non-specific language.
  • "Erlernen von einer Fremdsprache": singular, indefinite, using preposition (a bit inferior), talking about a non-specific language.
  • "Erlernen der Fremdsprachen": plural, definite, using genitive, talking about some specific languages.
  • "Erlernen von den Fremdsprachen": plural, definite, using preposition (inferior!), talking about some specific languages.
  • "Erlernen [...] Fremdsprachen": plural, indefinite, using genitive, talking about languages in general. As there is no indefinite article expressing genitive plural, such a phrase is impossible.
  • "Erlernen von Fremdsprachen": plural, indefinite, using preposition (perfectly okay here), talking about languages in general.
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Your first example is what would have been called a "genitivus objectivus" in Latin - Here, the genitive expresses the target of an action (the teaching of a language). It's the genitive case that transports the objective meaning.

The second example conveys the same meaning, but uses a preposition ("von"), basically doing the same thing as English does when it expresses the genitive with a prepositional construct. "von" in German is a preposition that calls for the dative. Here, it's the preposition that conveys the objective meaning.

These two possibilities are for the most part completely interchangeable. German has two ways to express the objective of the action, English only has one (with the preposition) because it has lost most meanings of the genitive apart from the possessive over time.

The difference between the examples you give are the same as the difference between "my father's house" and "the house of my father" in English.

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  • It is one of the differences between German and English (and the reason why the english genitive is not considered a regular case) that English has no way to create genitive chains: "my fathers house", but not "my fathers wifes sisters house", whereas German has: "das Haus der Schwester der Frau meines Vaters" and not "das Haus von der Schwester von der Frau von meinem Vater".
    – bakunin
    Dec 7, 2023 at 8:18
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    @bakunin You could easily argue that English doesn't have a genitve at all - It does have it degenerated to a possessive, though. Regarding your statement: You might want to have a look here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/94619/… (boiling down to "you shouldn't, but can")
    – tofro
    Dec 7, 2023 at 9:04
  • I concur. I have learned that genitive in English is a "Fallrest" (I have no translation for that - "Kasus remainder"?) and not a real Kasus any more. The link you gave was very informative, thank you.
    – bakunin
    Dec 7, 2023 at 9:29
  • @bakunin Call it a "degenerated genitive".
    – tofro
    Dec 7, 2023 at 16:12

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