German Verb Valency
This is one of those posts that’s only been written, because something very useful has been staring you in the face for years, but no one ever brings it up. I wish someone had explained this stuff to me way back when I first started learning German. But now you guys get the benefit of having this wonderful diatribe on German verbs thrown at you.
So, what exactly is verb valency you ask? Verb valency is basically a linguistic theory that holds that a verb determines the maximum number of nouns that can be in a clause. The nouns are called “arguments” (or “compliments” in some circles) and verbs can take anywhere from 0-3 nouns, depending on the verb. The chart basically goes like this:
- 0 nouns: avalent.
- 1 nouns: intransitive. “Ich1 tanze.” “I1 dance.”
- 2 nouns: transitive. “Ich1 liebe dich2.” “I1 love you2.”
- 3 nouns: ditransitive. “Ich1 gab dir2 eines Gemälde3.” I1 gave you2 a painting3.”
The thing is, though, is that English doesn’t have avalent verbs and neither does German. Not unless you count verbs in the imperative mood, but that’s a separate subject. If it did, then there would be clauses with just a verb and no nouns, such as occurs in other languages like Spanish. For example, “Llueve” means “It’s raining”. In addition, another important concept for the valency theory of verbs, is that valency represents the maximum of nouns a verb can take, but it can take less. So one can say “Ich1 glaube dir2” (“I believe you”) as well as “Ich1 glaube” (“I believe”).
This is cool and all Adlerchen, but how does this relate to German? I’m glad you asked! German is a language with cases, which confuses this even more. As a result, German verbs have a valency for how many nouns they can take and what cases those nouns are. So put another way, there are 5 possible combinations in German:
- intransitive: nominative
- transitive: nominative + nominative
- transitive: nominative + accusative
- transitive: nominative + dative
- ditransitive: nominative + dative + accusative
The above patterns are determined solely by the verb they take. So as an extrapolation, one can say that there are 5 separate kinds of verbs in German based on this. Type 1 verbs have only a subject and no objects. Verb types 2-4 have one subject and one object. The subjects will of course be nominative and the objects’ case is determined by the type of verb at play. The the last verb type has one subject and two objects. The dative object is the indirect object, whereas the accusative object is the direct object. Simple enough, but let’s go a little in depth on each type and give some examples.
Type 1 verbs are relatively rare. In many circumstances standalone subjects are there because a verb actually has a higher valency, but the other arguments are being omitted or are simply not needed anyway. So, don’t always assume that clauses with one noun use verbs of this type, especially since all the other verbs from the other types have the technical potential to take only one noun. (Though in practice many verbs almost always use their maximum valence). “Ich schlafe” (“I sleep”) is an example of the first type.
Type 2 verbs are the rarest of them all. There are only three of them, namely sein, haben, and bleiben. So it’s not going to be any trouble to memorize this group. What’s peculiar about them though, is that the objects take the nominative which in any other case wouldn’t happen, because the nominative is for the subject. An example of this is the phrase “Sie ist der Hammer!” (“She rocks!”). Notice how the article stays der instead of becoming den.
Type 3 verbs are overwhelmingly the most common. If you have to guess what case the object of a clause is, presume it’s accusative unless it’s being modified by a preposition that takes the dative or the genitive. “Ich schreibe ein Buch” (“I’m writing a book”).
Type 4 verbs are another rare breed. There are only a handful of them, so it’s best to just memorize them separately. They include antworten, begegnen, danken, fehlen, folgen, gefühlen, gehören, gelingen, glauben, gratulieren, helfen, nützen, raten, schmecken, vertrauen, widersprechen, zuhören, and zuschauen. An example is the phrase “Ich danke dir” (“I thank you”).
Type 5 verbs are about as rare as type 4 verbs. They include anbieten, beantworten, beweisen, bringen, empfehlen, erklären, erlauben, erzählen, geben, leihen, mitteilen, sagen, schenken, schicken, verbieten, versprechen, vorschlagen, wegnehmen, wünschen, and zeigen. An example in action is “Ich bringe dir das Buch” (“I’m bringing you the book”).
Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, go forth and German! With these handy lists you can start memorizing which cases you need for which verbs. After that, all you have to do is memorize which prepositions each verb takes. ;)