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I was recently comparing Swedish, English, and German ways to express the following:

The snow has melted.

Eventually I looked into French and Spanish too.

In Swedish you would say

Snön har smält.

Swedish and English are grammatically identical except for the union of "the" to the noun.

In Danish

sneen er smeltet

Danish does not appear to distinguish between "is" and "has" (I used an online translator to compare - I am not fluent in Danish). In Swedish, homophonic "är" means "is" (present tense of to be).

In French

La neige a fondu

where "a fondu" I take means "has melted". Here again there appears to be no distinction between "has" and "is" during an online translation, but I assume "a" translates into "has".

In Spanish

La nieve se ha derretido.

which can be interpreted (but doesn't mean) "The snow has melted itself" ("hat sich") because of use of "se ha".

Finally, in German,

Der Schnee ist geschmolzen.

which is a passive conjugation afaiu.

Perhaps it's all historical accident and would take too long to explain, but I was somewhat startled by the differences, in particular between Swedish and Danish (which seems ambiguously compatible with either I suppose, but more similar to German), and similarities, for intance between English, Spanish, French and Swedish. Although discussions of other Germanic languages might be off-topic, perhaps someone cares to briefly explain these differences, including why Danish does not appear to distinguish between "has" and "is" (possessive? vs passive?) while German ended up using a unique passive conjugation "ge-" with ambiguous meaning, rather than resembling Swedish, or English, which I assume received a heavy dose of proto-French).

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    "Der Schnee ist geschmolzen" is not Passiv, but Perfekt. The Präsens form would be "der Schnee schmilzt". It is true that the Partizip Perfekt (with which Perfekt is built in German) has a passive quality, but that doesn't mean that Perfekt is Passiv per se. Passiv would be "der Schnee ist geschmolzen worden".
    – bakunin
    Commented Jan 24 at 13:19
  • @bakunin: I suggest to make an answer based on that comment, since I suspect that the misunderstanding caused to question to move into a wrong direction.
    – guidot
    Commented Jan 24 at 16:33
  • German and English have different tenses, and as a learner you have to know which tense applies in a given circumstance; it's not just a matter of translating word for word. For example "Der Schnee ist geschmolzen." could mean "The snow has melted" or the "The snow is melted" in English, and the English versions have slightly different meanings. It's wrong to assume a sentence means exactly the same thing as the sentence given by an automatic translator, especially when you draw inferences from that assumption.
    – RDBury
    Commented Jan 24 at 17:45
  • @bakunin I feel like I am back in grammar school which I guess I am.
    – Buck Thorn
    Commented Jan 24 at 21:05
  • @RDBury "the snow is melted" would be a somewhat odd thing to say. One might perhaps say (regarding some water for instance) "that is melted snow", but then the verb would become an adjective. "The snow is melted" has a poetic ring such as "my kingdom is fallen", mixing passive and active conditions. My confusion lied partly with use of "to be" versus "to have" (sein/haben) which varies between languages in strange ways. But I digress. Thank for your helpful comments.
    – Buck Thorn
    Commented Jan 25 at 9:46

2 Answers 2

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German has two auxiliary verbs for the perfect tenses. Most verbs build their Perfekt tenses with the haben — to have auxiliary. But some verbs, notably those for movement or state change build their perfect tenses with the sein — to be auxiliary.

German does not use the sein auxiliary for marking passive voice. It uses the werden — to become auxiliary instead. Same as for the future tenses, those use the infinitive instead of the past participle so you can tell those apart.

To make it even more complicated, there is a second sort of passive voice called Zustandspassiv which indeed uses the sein auxiliary. You can only build it for verbs that do not use the sein auxiliary for their perfect tenses. Those are coincidentally those particular verbs of movement and state change for which Zustandpassiv makes no sense semantically.

On top of that, there's a third passive voice that uses the auxiliary bekommen — to get and that turns the dative object of an active voice clause into the subject of the passive voice clause. Instead of the accusative object in the "normal" passive voices you know from other languages.

And finally, German allows a fourth subjectless passive voice which is ruled out in most other languages. It doesn't need any object in the active vocie clause to turn into a subject so you can build it even from intransitive verbs. It's also built with the werden auxiliary.

You may even argue that German has no passive voice at all but that those are all copula phrases with slightly different meanings. You can also argue that there are no intransitive verbs in the common sense in German.

while German ended up using a unique passive conjugation "ge-"

That ge- prefix had marked the perfective aspect in Middle High German and early New High German. Most verbs existed in an imperfective and in a perfective variant. This distinction is still common in the Slawic languages for example but such pairs still exist in contemporary German as well. Even English has remnants of it. Compare the verbs to lay and to lie. Those are such an imperfective/perfective pair.

But eventually a new form of the perfect tenses had been developed: instead of conjugating perfective verbs, a form of them got frozen as the Partizip II and that was combined with an auxiliary. Same in the other Germanic languages but those also got rid of the ge- prefix.

Also, the verbs with inseperable prefixes have been perfective from the beginning which is why their Partizip II doesn't feature the ge- prefix. And finally, there's still perfective verbs as gewinnen — to win whose infinitive still features the ge- as a perfective marker and their Partizip II of course does not get an extra ge-.

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  • Thanks for your very helpful analysis. This will take some time to internalize! If possible I encourage you to include some examples.
    – Buck Thorn
    Commented Jan 24 at 21:06
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    Your question is way too broad. I tried to give a overview to allow you to ask more specific questions.
    – Janka
    Commented Jan 25 at 1:28
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I think your premise is wrong and this is where your confusion starts.

Der Schnee ist geschmolzen.

This is not Passiv but Aktiv. You confuse a Modus and a Tempus (Perfekt, in this case).

It is true that the Partizip Perfekt ("geschmolzen"), with which German builds Perfekt and other Verb forms, has some passive qualities. In fact I learned in school the name of the form "geschmolzen" as Partizip Perfekt Passiv (PPP). Still,the PPP (or however you want to call it), is simply the way German constructs a lot of verb forms, Perfekt Indikativ Aktiv among them.

Passiv Indikativ of "Schnee schmelzen" is:

Der Schnee wird geschmolzen. (Präsens)
Der Schnee ist geschmolzen worden. (Perfekt)

Aktiv Indikativ, on the other hand:

Der Schnee schmilzt. (Präsens)
Der Schnee ist geschmolzen. (Perfekt)

Notice that the Perfekt (and other forms) are built in two different ways:

[sein] + PPP (e.g. "Ich bin gelaufen.")
[haben] + PPP (e.g. "Ich habe gesehen.")

Which Modalverb, "haben" or "sein" has to be used depends on the Verb and I have found no real pattern - you have to learn the Modalverb to be used with a certain Verb by heart. A rule of thumb might be that Verben, which have a meaningful Passiv use "haben" (and switch to "sein" for Passiv), but I am not sure if this holds - right now I can't think of a counter example. Perhaps the reason for this is what @Janka explained in his answer.

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