German Grammar - Nouns - Cases - Genitive

Genitive

First evidence of a decline of the genitive case can already be found in colloquial language of Early New High German (spoken from 1350 to 1650). When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, the use of the Genitive case (along with the Preterite) was already rather unusual in most of the German dialects. Nevertheless, Luther used the bureaucratic language of Saxony for his translations which still made extensive use of the Genitive (and other "archaic" elements more usual in Middle High German than in New High German) and thereby slowed down the loss of the Genitive to a certain extent. Today the use of the genitive case is still rare in spoken language - speakers often substitute the dative case for it in conversation, quite similar to the language's Germanic relative Faroese. But the genitive case remains almost obligatory in written communication, public speeches and anything that is not explicitly colloquial in German and is still an important part of German Bildungssprache (language of education). Television programmes and movies often contain a mixing of both, dative substitution or regular genitive, depending on how formal or "artistic" the programme is intended to be. The use of the Dative substitution is more common in southern German dialects, whereas Germans from northern regions (where Luther's Bible-German had to be learned like a foreign language back then) use the genitive more regularly. Though it has become quite common not to use the genitive case when it would formally be required, great numbers of Germans know how to use it and generally do so. Especially among people of higher education, it is considered a minor embarrassment to be caught using the dative case incorrectly. Therefore, it is by no means recommended to avoid the genitive when learning German, since the decline of this case, which has been going on for about 600 years, is proceeding very slowly, because the historical development of German Standardsprache has reestablished this particular case in German language to some extent, and not necessarily just in written form. For example, the genitive is rarely used in colloquial German to express a possessive relation (e.g. das Auto meines Vaters "my father's car" is likely to sound odd in colloquial speech), but the partitive genitive is rather common today (e.g. einer der Besten "one of the best").

Yet, a German book called Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod ("The Dative is to the Genitive its death") alludes to this phenomenon (being called "genitive's death struggle" by the author) in its title. In standard German, the title would be "Der Dativ ist der Tod des Genitivs" ("Dative is Genitive's Death"). As is apparent, the book uses an Upper German dialect way of speaking, i. e. by employing the dative case together with a possessive pronoun instead of the genitive, to poke fun at what the author perceives as a decline in the German language, since in written German a dative construction replacing the genitive is still considered a major error. This is, by the way, not how Standard German speakers would colloquially replace the genitive case; they would construct Der Dativ ist der Tod vom Genitiv, which is (being literally the English "of the Genitive") incorrect in the Standard as well, but far less incriminated.

Linguistically, the thesis of the genitive case dying out can easily be refuted. Indeed, the genitive case has been widely out of use in all dialects of the German language for centuries. The new phenomenon is only the replacement of dialects by a colloquial Standard German, which does not at all, however, affect the use of the genitive case in the written language. Also, many Germans wrongly use the genitive after prepositions including nahe, gemäß or entgegen, although the dative is required.

There are, however, legitimate dative constructions to indicate possession, as in "Dem Knaben ist ein Buch zu eigen". The construction "zu eigen", however, doesn't practically appear but in Latin beginners' translations, as the sentence should indicate (puero liber est). Some dialects have "Dem Knaben ist ein Buch" which is literally a dativus possessivus. If a genitive is unmarked and without article (practically, in the plural), usage of von (and after it, a dative) is not only legitimate but required, as in: "Die Belange von Minderheiten sind zu schützen" (minorities' affairs are to be protected). In that case, Belange der Minderheiten would produce a definite article which is not intended, and Minderheiten itself is somewhat an unmarked plural. Additionally, the dative case is commonly used to indicate possession of bodily parts that are the direct objects of an action. Constructions such as er brach sich den Arm ("he broke his arm", but literally "he broke himself the arm") and Du stichst dir die Augen aus, Junge! ("You'll put your eyes out, kid!" but literally "you put yourself the eyes out, kid!" ) are typical and correct in any context. In English this construction only occurs in the construction to look someone in the eye and its variants.

Read more about this topic:  German Grammar, Nouns, Cases

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