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Focus on Germany

Forget the grammar you learn at school

WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook – social media are not the only arena where the kind of German used makes purists tear their hair out. Take it easy, says Vilmos Ágel: You shouldn’t fight linguistic change but follow it meaningfully. To this end, the Hungarian linguist has developed a completely new grammar.

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  • Interview: Lilo Berg
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Professor Dr Vilmos Ágel (59) is Hungarian and comes from Budapest. He started learning German at the age of 14 and later read German, Geography and Portuguese at university there.

In the 1990s, Vilmos Ágel was a Humboldt Research Fellow in Germany. He has held a professorship at the University of Kassel since 2004, heading the field of Linguistics/ System-Oriented Linguistics in the Department of German Studies. In 2005, Ágel received the Humboldt Foundation’s Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award.

His new book “Grammatische Textanalyse. Textglieder, Satzglieder, Wortgruppenglieder” was published by De Gruyter in March 2017. Vilmos Ágel lives with his family in Kassel – at home they speak Hungarian.

Vilmos Ágel

Kosmos: Professor Ágel, Hungarian is your native tongue and, in addition to German, you also speak English, French and Portuguese. What is particular about German grammar?
Vilmos Ágel: The fact that there are three grammatical genders, for example, as “der Tisch” (table, masculine), “die Lampe” (lamp, feminine), “das Buch” (book, neuter). From a German point of view, this is quite normal, but French people, who only have two genders in their own language, have their difficulties, and Hungarian manages without any grammatical genders at all. Positively exotic in the international context is the use of the reflexive passive in German. Parents, for instance, use it with their children in sentences like “Jetzt wird sich aber hingesetzt”, which roughly translates as “Now it’s time for the sitting down of yourselves”. Only very few languages have this grammatical option.

Kosmos: You recently produced a new, 900-page German grammar that you’ve been working on for years. Why did you go to such lengths?
Vilmos Ágel: Because I wasn’t happy with the existing grammar books and haven’t been for a very long time. I’ve been making notes on the subject for more than 20 years.

Kosmos: What exactly would you like to change?
Vilmos Ágel: What I’m interested in is a different perspective. According to the rules of grammar you learn at school, you first consider individual words, then phrases and finally complete sentences. You usually don’t look at the text in its entirety at all. By contrast, I suggest analysing language texts from top to bottom, taking the whole text, then the sentences and, last of all, the word groups and words.

Kosmos: What are the advantages of this approach?
Vilmos Ágel: It reflects our natural experience. We don’t usually encounter language in isolated words and sentences but in texts and conversations. If you start with the entire text, certain linguistic structures have a completely different meaning than they do in classic grammar. And some- thing that is otherwise seen as breaking the rules can turn into a creative tool in a grammatical text analysis.

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Kosmos: Can you give me an example?
Vilmos Ágel: Let’s look at a passage from the novel “Das ewige Leben” by the prize-winning Austrian author Wolf Haas: “Wer redet, bleibt. Wer schweigt, geht. Obwohl. Gegangen ist der Brenner ja schon. Nur. Wohin gegangen? Weil es gibt ein Gehen, das ist schlimmer als das schlimmste Bleiben.” (The speaker stays. The silent one goes. Although. Brenner has already gone. Only. Gone where? Because there’s a going that’s worse than the worst staying.) In terms of standard grammar, the use of the words “obwohl” (although) and “weil” (because) is quite simply wrong. The subordinate clauses, which have to follow these words in purist grammar, are missing. But in the Haas text, these subordinate clauses themselves would be wrong because “obwohl” and “weil” followed by a subordinate clause would have a completely different meaning and totally distort the import of the text. “Wer redet, bleibt. Wer schweigt, geht, obwohl der Brenner ja schon gegangen ist. Nur. Wohin gegangen, weil es ein Gehen gibt, das schlimmer ist als das schlimmste Bleiben?” (The speaker stays. The silent one goes although Brenner has already gone. Only. Gone where, because there’s a going that’s worse than the worst staying?). Seen from the perspective of the textual meaning, “obwohl” and “weil” with a subordinate clause would be wrong because they don’t make sense. In this context, the apparent breaking of the rules turns out to be a powerful creative element.

Kosmos: Classic grammar strictly adheres to the rules. Is it fighting a losing battle?
Vilmos Ágel: It doesn’t have much of a chance against natural changes in language. Classic grammar basically sets the laboratory norms which are constantly challenged by creative use of language. And if you look closely, today’s broken rules are often tomorrow’s norms.

Kosmos: So, will the dative really be the death of the genitive as the title of a well-known German book suggests?
Vilmos Ágel: Not the dative, because it doesn’t have much to do with the genitive. If that book title means that a structure like “das Haus meines Vaters” (my father's house) could be supplanted by a structure like “das Haus von meinem Vater” (the house of my father), then it would be the preposition “von” (of) that was the death of the genitive and not the dative. If such a development were to occur, however, and I don’t believe it will, written grammar would have to adapt. Just as people today already adapt to certain situations. No one would use the genitive in a phrase like “wegen dieses Mistes” (instead of the more commonly used “wegen diesem Mist” nowadays). It is not the task of grammar to try and stop such changes. Instead, it should rather describe language transformation and try to understand it.

Kosmos: This sounds very laid-back. In that case, why should schoolchildren bother to learn the rules of grammar in the first place?
Vilmos Ágel: We should only deal with grammatical rules in foreign language teaching. German lessons are a way of acquiring the fundamental concepts of grammar which we need for reflecting on language and learning foreign languages. Ideally, this should be done on the basis of whole texts: then schoolchildren experience how using grammar helps them unravel the meaning of language texts.

Kosmos: Many of them still think learning grammar is a tedious, useless undertaking.
Vilmos Ágel: And all the while it’s a wonderful tool, a real key to finding your way around an ever more complex and complicated world. This is also true of acquiring literary text skills because a text-based analysis of grammatical structures creates a natural connection to the scientific analysis of literary texts.

Kosmos: Does your new grammar book just deal with present- day German?
Vilmos Ágel: You can use it to study historical texts and trace the evolution of language as well. Interesting parallels emerge between grammar and worldview. In early 18th century texts we still find a surprising number of verbs without a subject like “mir träumt” (to me it dreams) or “mich friert” (to me it freezes). In the same century, however, they were increasingly supplanted by verbs with a subject, i.e., “ich träume” (I am dreaming) and “ich friere” (I am freezing), to cite the same examples. This reflects the enhanced status of the responsible subject in modern times. It is a process that took many decades – grammatical change is extremely slow.

Kosmos: Even today? Aren’t Twitter, WhatsApp and other new media fuelling change?
Vilmos Ágel: We don’t have any evidence to suggest the language is changing more quickly. Admittedly, we adopt a lot of Anglicisms, but they usually disappear again fairly quickly. The word “job” is something of an exception – it has established a place for itself in German. As a rule, things that prove useful in German are integrated into the vocabulary and no longer thought of as foreign or strange. Just think of the wealth of old cultural words like “Ziegel” (brick), “Pflanze” (plant) or “Wein” (wine) which all come from Latin. It’ll take 50 years before we know whether Twitter and Co. will sustainably change the vocabulary or even the grammar of the German language.

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