Der Konjunktiv

Here is the transcript of the episode Der Konjunktiv. You can read more about this episode on the episode web page.

The transcript has been edited for readability.


LG = Luke Green
VH = Verena Hofstätter


LG: Ich hätte gerne ein Stück Kuchen. Mein Freund sagt, er habe auch Hunger. Both of these sentences contain a certain feature of German: the subjunctive. In German, the Konjunktiv. This mood allows us to express all kinds of different things, such as hypothetical situations, like in Ich hätte gerne ein Stück Kuchen, ‘I would like a piece of cake’, or report things that others say without claiming that they’re true, like in Mein Freund sagt, er habe auch Hunger, ‘my boyfriend says he’s also hungry’. Despite its uses, the subjunctive often suffers from being invisible, sometimes arguably redundant, and therefore at times overlooked in German. In today’s episode we’re going to give the German subjunctive the love and attention it deserves. We’ll look at what it is, what it looks like, and when it’s used, as well as the identity crisis it’s currently going through.

So are you in the mood for some grammar? I certainly am, so let’s crack on with the show.

[Theme music]

I’m Luke Green and this is Yellow of the Egg, the podcast where we absolutely insist that the German language join us for dinner. Today I’m joined by Verena Hofstätter for this episode, Der Konjunktiv.

[Theme music]

VH: Words are not just words. We do things with words. Because what makes language meaningful is not words alone. It’s words being used in social interaction. So, knowing the dictionary definition of a word is not enough to communicate effectively. And things like the Konjunktiv put your words in the right perspective. It sits on top of verbs and gives them additional meaning. An additional meaning which can be crucial to communication. My name is Verena, I'm a linguist and German teacher living in Vienna.

LG: Verena Hofstätter is the person behind Das Lehrwerk, and also has her own podcast, Wissen schafft Sprache, which is all about the German language.

VH: And as a non-practicing scientist, I'm mainly interested in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis. But as a teacher, I also work a lot with language structures, so with grammar, with the German grammar. And those two things don't really go together at first glance, but I came to understand that those two things are not mutually exclusive because, and I say this as a language learner myself, I know that language skills, so knowing your grammar and your vocabulary, always go hand-in-hand with language attitudes, so the way we think and speak about particular languages and language practices. And that's actually why I started my own podcast a while ago where I answer questions about language and languages from a scientific perspective.

LG: One of these questions that Verena has tackled on her podcast is the question of the German subjunctive, known as the Konjunktiv in German. Even if you’re not familiar with the terms subjunctive or Konjunktiv, you’re very likely to have heard it in action.

VH: We are talking here about sentences like, Ich hätte gern einen Kaffee bitte. Like, ‘I'd like to have a coffee, please’. Or sentences like, Der Minister sagt, er habe von dem illegalen Geschäft nichts gewusst. ‘The minister says that he didn't know about the illegal operations’.

LG: The different forms of haben in ich hätte and er habe gewusst are both different types of the subjunctive mood. And when I say mood, I don’t mean the kind of mood like a good mood or a bad mood or a happy mood. The kind of mood we’re talking about here doesn’t express emotions.

VH: It's a grammatical feature of verbs that we use to signal modality. So, mood enables us as speakers to express our attitude toward what we are saying.

LG: So the word mood in the grammatical sense is actually essentially a mode, it comes from the Latin modus, and in German it’s also Modus. It just so happens to look and sound like the word mood in the emotional sense, which has Germanic roots. If we take the grammatical mood to basically be the ‘mode’ of a verb, we can see the connection to the word modality, which is what grammatical mood expresses.

VH: So, in a nutshell, there are three of those moods in German and in English as well. There is indicative, imperative and subjunctive, and these moods should not be mistaken for tenses. Because tenses express time, so when something happens or happened in time, and mood expresses how we feel about what's being said, how we want something we say to be understood by others.

LG: The first of these three moods, the indicative, is the most basic of the three and it’s the one people usually learn first when learning a new language. We use the indicative mood when we state something as a fact.

VH: Ich bin Deutschtrainerin, for example, ‘I'm a German teacher’. And that's basically your default mood. It gives the facts. It tells us what is happening at the moment, what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. So, this mood exists in basically all the tenses: present tense, narrative past, perfect, past perfect and future.

LG: Note that just because we use the indicative mood, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a fact. I could say Ich bin Elektriker, ‘I’m an electrician’, and even though it’s not true, I’m stating it as a fact. That’s me expressing my attitude towards the statement; I’m presenting it as true. Then we have the imperative mood. That’s where we state something as a command or a request.

VH: Mach das Fenster zu, ‘close the window’. This is not very nice, I know, but that's just the imperative mood being imperative, I guess.

LG: Notice the difference between the indicative ich mache das Fenster zu and the imperative mach das Fenster zu. In the latter we often don’t include the subject, and the verb often has its own imperative form. And then we come to the mood we’re actually interested in today: the subjunctive. We can do different things with the subjunctive mood, such as stating something as a desire or a wish, but with this mood we’re essentially stating something as unreal or impossible.

VH: Then the sentence from before would sound very different. It would sound like, Würdest du bitte das Fenster zumachen, for example. And there's a big difference between the last two examples, Mach das Fenster zu and Würdest du bitte das Fenster zumachen.

LG: Here it’s not about the inclusion of the word bitte.

VH: It's the choice of moods. Because in the first sentence I used imperative mood, Mach das Fenster zu, ‘close the window’. This is a command, a very strong request. And Würdest du bitte das Fenster zumachen, so in the second sentence, I used subjunctive mood. And here, I'm not expecting you to do this, to close the window. Or at least I don't want you to think that I expect you to do this. And that's the big difference. That's what makes the second sentence so much more polite. And here we are. One of the purposes of the subjunctive is to make things or requests more polite, which is already a very useful pragmatic feature or communicative feature.

LG: We’ll get into the nitty-gritty of subjunctive phrases like these in a moment. But before we do, you might have noticed that the word we’ve been using for this mood isn’t the same in English as it is in German. In English we’ve been saying subjunctive, but in German it’s different.

VH: We don't use the term subjunctive in German, actually. We use Konjunktiv instead, so conjunctive. Both terms are absolutely fine because they basically mean the same thing. The Latin words subiunctivus and coniunctivus both mean ‘connective’, depending on how the relation between the two things being connected looks like. But that's another story. The meaning ‘connective’ goes back to Greek, actually, because in Greek at the time the conjunctive was described by grammarians as a verb form that only appears together with a conjunction, so with a linking word that stands between two sentences or two clauses. So the term itself, or both terms actually, are not very meaningful today because the usage of the conjunctive has somehow shifted over time. So the Konjunktiv we use in German today is not the same as the conjunctive we had in Latin or ancient Greek. And the modern German Konjunktiv also differs to some extent from similar grammatical phenomena in other languages like French, for example, or English.

LG: This is why we need to be careful when comparing languages. Just because something is labelled in the same way or in similar ways, doesn’t mean they are the same thing or fulfil the same functions in different languages. But more on that later.

VH: But to make it short, when we talk about the subjunctive mood today, we're talking about the Konjunktiv in German, and the forms and purposes of the Konjunktiv in the modern German language.

LG: And when we talk about the Konjunktiv in the modern German language, we’re talking about two different things. That’s because – get ready – there is not just one subjunctive in German, but two. Hooray!

VH: There’s Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II, and they have different forms and different purposes.

LG: Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II. So basically, the first and second subjunctive.

VH: And these terms do not have any other meaning than one being the older one, like historically speaking or grammatically speaking, and two being the younger one.

LG: Seems simple enough. Konjunktiv I came first, Konjunktiv II came second. You might see these two types of subjunctive being referred to by other names too, though.

VH: Sometimes the first one is called Konjunktiv präsens, so ‘present subjunctive’, and the second one is called Konjunktiv präteritum, so ‘past subjunctive’.

LG: These names don’t have anything to do with the present or the past in terms of time, though. That’s just a grammatical thing.

VH: So the reason why we sometimes call them Konjunktiv präsens or präteritum is that the first subjunctive builds off the infinitive forms, like the present tense, and the second one builds off past tense forms, like narrative past tense forms. So, the names are there for a reason, but they just refer to the forms of present and past tense verbs.

LG: We’ll see some examples of this as we look at the two types of subjunctive in more detail. Let’s start with Konjunktiv I, otherwise known as the Konjunktiv präsens. That’s the subjunctive that you hear in sentences like Er sagt, er habe nichts gewusst. Instead of er hat, we have er habe. It’s actually very easy to form this type of subjunctive.

VH: Because it's very- It's completely regular, actually, except for the auxiliary verb ‘to be’, so sein. There are no unexpected exceptions or spelling irregularities whatsoever. We take the stem of the infinitive, so the first part of the base form without the -en at the end, and we add the endings for the conjunctive, so -e, -est, -e, -en, -et, and -en.

LG: If we take the example of sprechen, ‘to speak’, we take off the -en and we’re left with sprech-. Then we just add the relevant endings.

VH: Ich spreche, du sprechest, er spreche, wir sprechen, ihr sprechet, sie sprechen.

LG: The irregular verb ‘to be’ is formed in the same way, but instead we leave out the -e ending in the first and third person singular.

VH: So, ich sei, du seiest, er sei, wir seien, ihr seiet, sie seien.

LG: And that’s it. It’s as simple as that. Of the two subjunctives, Konjunktiv I is probably the easier one to form, but it’s also used a lot less frequently than Konjunktiv II, and it’s much more restricted in its uses.

VH: It's mainly used for reported speech. So if I wanted to tell you something my neighbour said yesterday, I could use Konjunktiv I for that.

LG: You could, but in practice, you probably wouldn’t.

VH: If I wanted to report to you what my neighbour said, I'd probably just use indicative. This is ambiguous, of course, because as we heard earlier, the indicative states facts. So, when we hear an indicative form in reported speech, we don't know if it's just words or if it's reality. But we accept this because, you may not believe me when I say this, but German speakers also prefer simplicity sometimes when it comes to language. So, in modern German, the Konjunktiv I is getting more and more dropped in everyday language for convenience because it's easier to use indicative all the time.

LG: If we drop the Konjunktiv I and just use the indicative, we can still signal this ‘subjunctive’ meaning by using phrases like Er sagt, Sie behauptet, and so on. This makes it so that the subjunctive isn’t really necessary in practice a lot of the time. Which begs the question: why does the Konjunktiv I still even exist?

VH: The Konjunktiv I in reported speech has a very specific role, and it creates distance between the person speaking and the person reporting what has been spoken. So when the minister from our example from before says, Er habe nichts von den illegalen Geschäften gewusst, ‘he didn't know anything about the illegal operations’, I do not claim truth for that statement. It may be the truth, it may be a lie, but it's not important here. What's important is that I don't judge what he said. I'm just reporting it.

LG: The Konjunktiv I is even quite crucial in some cases. Just the other day I heard a situation which really highlights the importance of the first subjunctive in German. Someone I know is a psychologist and was asked to write a report based on what a client said during a session with her. It was vital that she use the subjunctive when writing down what the client said. This way, she’s simply repeating the client’s message, and not making any claims as to whether it’s true or false. For example, the client might talk about his feelings and say “ich habe Angst”, ‘I’m scared’. The psychologist wouldn’t write down, “Der Klient hat Angst” because she can’t really know for sure if this was true. Instead, it would be, “Der Klient sagt, er habe Angst“. Interestingly, even when the psychologist was reporting on something she knew to be true, she used the subjunctive anyway. For instance, if the client says, “Mein Bruder ist älter als ich”, ‘My brother is older than me’, the report would read: “Der Klient sagt, sein Brüder sei älter als er”. This way, all the psychologist is doing is reporting what was said. Her own voice and perspective are minimised. Situations like these are admittedly quite specific. You might not be a psychologist asked to write a report, so it might not be relevant to you. But the Konjunktiv I can be found in much more common situations, too, such as journalism.

VH: Because it makes a newspaper text look impartial, which is very important, I guess. But yeah, that's basically it. The Konjunktiv I does not have any other jobs to do in German.

LG: You can still see the Konjunktiv I sprinkled around here and there, though.

VH: There are, however, a few set phrases, so fossilised idioms or expressions that have preserved the Konjunktiv I, like Lang lebe die Präsidentin, ‘Long live the President’, or gottseidank, ‘Thank God’. Lebe and sei in these sentences are in Konjunktiv I, but these forms are so isolated and so archaic that they are not even recognised as Konjunktiv anymore. They’ve practically lost all their grammatical value, I'd say. So when it comes to Konjunktiv I, I always tell my students to learn the basics and to learn how this mood is used and how it looks in a text so that they can feel the attitude of the writer towards their text. They should be able to recognise if a newspaper article is impartial or not, but unless they want to become journalists themselves, they will probably never need the Konjunktiv I in everyday life. It's really not used at all in spoken language anymore.

LG: The same can’t be said for the second subjunctive, the Konjunktiv II. This subjunctive is very much alive and well in both written and spoken German, and is by far the more commonly used of the two types of subjunctive.

VH: German learners are often surprised when I tell them that they probably already know some Konjunktiv II forms in the beginning because phrases like Ich hätte gerne einen Kaffee, ‘I would like to have a coffee’, or Ich möchte mich anmelden, ‘I would like to register’, or Könnten Sie mir bitte helfen, ‘Could you help me, please?’ All those are Konjunktiv, and learners who come to- first come to a German-speaking country or region, they learn those phrases by heart because they are handy, and so they use them every day without even realising that they make use of the Konjunktiv II. That’s how important this mood is in German.

LG: And unlike the Konjunktiv I, we can use the Konjunktiv II in so many more contexts. It really has a lot of uses in German, so we see it all the time.

VH: So there is politeness, of course, we've already talked about that. Könnten Sie bitte anfangen? ‘Could you start, please?’ There are suggestions and advice. Wir sollten anfangen, ‘We should start’. We use it also for wishes, so, Ich würde gern anfangen, ‘I would like to start’. There is also regrets in the past, so, Wenn wir bloß früher angefangen hätten, ‘If only we would have started earlier’. And there are unreal comparisons, like, Wenn ich du wäre, würde ich früher anfangen, ‘If I were you, I would start earlier’. And there are unreal conditional sentences, like wenn-Sätze, basically. Wenn wir Zeit hätten, würden wir früher anfangen, ‘If we had the time, we would start earlier’.

LG: Remember we have other names for Konjunktiv I und II, we can call them Konjunktiv präsens und präteritum respectively. We heard that we form the Konjunktiv präsens by using the present form of a verb. With the Konjunktiv präteritum

VH: …we take the stem of the narrative past of a verb and combine it with the same endings we already saw for the Konjunktiv I. And if possible, we also add an umlaut to the stem vowel. So, to every a, o, u and au of strong verbs, so irregular verbs. Because we call irregular verbs ‘strong verbs’, don't ask. So that leads us to forms like ich war, ich wäre, or sie brauchten, sie bräuchten.

LG: This might sound like it’s a bit more difficult. You need to think of what the past tense of a verb is, add the endings from the Konjunktiv I, sometimes add an umlaut, it can be a lot to think about. But a lot of the time, we use the Konjunktiv II with the same verbs over and over again. It’s common to say ich hätte or ich wäre, sometimes ich bräuchte or ich wüsste. But there are lots of words that are less frequently heard in the Konjunktiv II. Partly because they’re less frequent verbs anyway, but a lot of the time, it’s because there’s no distinction between the subjunctive and the indicative. Take the verb wollen, ‘to want’. In the past tense indicative, we would say ich wollte. The Konjunktiv II would also be ich wollte. So we have a similar problem here as we do in the Konjunktiv I, in that often we can’t tell that the subjunctive is there at all.

VH: Both Konjunktiv forms have a little identity problem, as I like to call it, because many, if not most, of the forms are either indistinguishable from the indicative forms in the present or the narrative past, or they are so archaic that speakers just don't use them anymore.

LG: Luckily, we have a solution for that.

VH: So if the problem occurs in the Konjunktiv I, we just replace it with the Konjunktiv II. So if the Konjunktiv I form sounds like indicative or antiquated, we just use Konjunktiv II instead. So instead of saying, Er meint, die Studierenden haben gegen das neue Gesetz demonstriert, where haben demonstriert sounds exactly like indicative, we say Er meint, die Studierenden hätten gegen das neue Gesetz demonstriert, ‘He says the students demonstrated against the new law’.

LG: This is partly why Konjunktiv II is much more common in everyday speech – because it’s literally being used to replace the Konjuntiv I. We only really actively use the Konjunktiv I in the third person singular today, as we heard earlier.

VH: So, the other forms are either obsolete or identical to the indicative and therefore get replaced by Konjunktiv II. Which means the Konjunktiv II has a double task in German: it has to express unreal or impossible circumstances, and it has to stand in for the Konjunktiv I when its forms are unusable, I'd say, in modern German.

LG: But that’s ok, right? The Konjunktiv II can simply do both jobs. Wonderful! We have one form that can take on two tasks. But this comes at a price.

VH: Because replacing the Konjunktiv I with the Konjunktiv II also means adopting the purpose of the Konjunktiv II. So adopting this element of impossibility or irreality of the Konjunktiv II. Which can be an issue with reported speech, because if the goal is to appear impartial when repeating the words of others, repeating them in Konjunktiv II is definitely not the way to go. And because when we say, Die Minister sagten, sie hätten davon nichts gewusst, like our example from before in the plural, we are implying that what they said is untrue because the Konjunktiv form hätten makes it unreal. And we are implying that in reality they knew about it and that they just said that they didn't. So we are basically just accusing them of lying, aren't we? But the thing is, when we keep the Konjunktiv I in the sentence, so when we say, Die Minister sagten, sie haben davon nichts gewusst, we are making things even worse because here haben in haben gewusst sounds and looks exactly like the indicative, and indicative, we already heard that before, is telling us the facts. So using indicative in the sentence sidelines all doubts. They didn't know, and that's a fact.

LG: Hmm. So in cases like this where we’re reporting someone else’s speech and we want to be impartial when it comes to the truth value of what they’re saying, we have a choice. We can choose Konjunktiv I, “sie haben nichts gewusst”, which makes it sound like it is the truth because it’s indistinguishable from the indicative. Or we can choose the Konjunktiv II, “sie hätten nichts gewusst”, which makes it sound like it’s not the truth. Neither are really impartial. How can we make sure, then, that the listener knows we’re not making a truth claim?

VH: One simple solution, actually, to this problem is to avoid Konjunktiv altogether and to always use expressions which point to the source of the statement being reported. So we could insert introductions like the ones I used before, like Die Minister sagten, or Die Forschenden behaupten, ‘the scientists claim’. Or another solution would be prepositions like laut or gemäß. So, Laut der Pressesprecherin hat der Minister die Wahrheit gesagt, ‘According to the press officer, the minister said the truth’.

LG: So let’s pause and take stock. Both Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II have forms that are indistinguishable from the indicative. In the Konjunktiv I, people often get around this by using the Konjunktiv II instead, although this could be seen as making a claim that what was said isn’t true. Another solution to this is to avoid the Konjunktiv altogether and use phrases like laut or gemäß, or use verbs like sagen or behaupten to make it clear that these are not your words and you’re not judging the truth of the claims. These are solutions to the Konjunktiv I problem. With the Konjunktiv II, which often looks like the normal narrative past, we can get around this problem in a different way.

VH: If the problem occurs in the Konjunktiv II, we just replace it with a two-word form instead of the one-word form.

LG: The two-word form being würde and the infinitive of the main verb.

VH: And this happens a lot, actually, because not only are most of the Konjunktiv II forms antiquated, but the Konjunktiv II forms of regular verbs are always identical to the narrative past in the indicative. So instead of saying, Wenn sie Zeit hätte, machte sie eine Pause, ‘if she had the time, she would take a break’, which sounds like narrative past in German, we say, Wenn sie Zeit hätte, würde sie eine Pause machen. So machte becomes würde machen. The two-word form of the Konjunktiv II is always a combination of a form of werden, so würde, which is the Konjunktiv form of werden, and the infinitive of a verb.

LG: This is very convenient because while there might be some regional differences in the use and frequency of this two-word form, there is no real meaning difference between the one-word and the two-word forms.

VH: I'd say that combined forms, like the two-word forms are more in use the more south you get in the German-speaking region. So, I think in Austria we use the two-word form for modal verbs more often than in the north. But there is no difference in meaning.

LG: If only we had an equivalent solution for the Konjunktiv I, maybe it wouldn’t be so neglected. It really is the case that Konjunktiv I is used so seldom when compared to Konjunktiv II that when many people think of the subjunctive or if they hear the word Konjunktiv, they automatically think of the Konjunktiv II. For many people, the second subjunctive is the subjunctive in German.

VH: Yes, kids learn about Konjunktiv I in school and they are asked to use it in essays and stuff, but I believe that most of the people forget about it after their graduation. And I actually do have a funny story about that because I have a very enthusiastic student at the moment, and she has been struggling for quite some time now with the Konjunktiv II. And one day she got to her office straight after one of our classes and she started ranting to a colleague, who is a German native speaker by the way, about how difficult German grammar was, and how impossible it was to learn all the rules for Konjunktiv II and that she would never get it right. And after she went on and on and on for a while, her colleague stopped her and asked her what she was talking about because he had never heard of such a thing as a second Konjunktiv in German. And that's not because he doesn't know Konjunktiv II or how to use it, it's because he does not know Konjunktiv I, or forgot about it. And therefore, he was considering the Konjunktiv II the only Konjunktiv in German for all those years of native experience in talking or in speaking German.

LG: It’s one thing to use a grammatical feature in a language you’re proficient in, but it’s another thing to actually be aware of it being there, or know what’s it’s called. This is something a lot of English speakers might be able to relate to. In English, we actually have a subjunctive mood, too. But many people are completely unaware that it exists, even though it’s almost certain that they’ve used it at some point.

VH: There are two kinds of subjunctive in English. There is the present subjunctive and the past subjunctive.

LG: So just like German!

VH: I am not an English native or an English expert by any means. But as far as I know, the present subjunctive is used to express demands or recommendations, for example, but in very formal English, though. It’s mainly used in written and formal speech. So you would read sentences like, “it is vital that they be informed immediately”, with be in the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. So the present subjunctive is essentially just the base form in all the persons of the verb. So, basically, it looks just like the present tense forms without the -s on the third person singular. Take to go: the forms would be I go, you go, he/she/it go, we go, you go, they go.

LG: Mhm. Sounds familiar. And just like German, there is one exception to this pattern.

VH: The only verb having a distinctive subjunctive I form in all grammatical persons is to be. I be, you be, he/she/it be, and so on. And here we go again. Because there is essentially the same problem as in German. And it's worse, if that's even possible, because the subjunctive present forms in English are often mistaken for simple present tense as well.

LG: The present subjunctive in English is even less distinguishable from the indicative than in German. The only difference you can see is in the third person singular and with the verb to be. But that’s not all.

VH: And there is a similar issue with the second subjunctive as well, with the past subjunctive. Here the problem is not so much the formality of the mood in use, because it is used quite a lot actually. But here again, the forms are practically indistinguishable from the simple past forms, this time, of a verb.

LG: Again, like German.

VH: Because actually, the past subjunctive is widely used in so-called hypothetical conditional sentences, so after expressions that convey hypothetical circumstances, like “if I had the time, I would take a nap”, or “if only we brought an umbrella”. So when it starts pouring outside and you realise that you forgot your umbrella at home. So verbs like had, would and brought are all subjunctive forms. But they could perfectly be simple past as well because the forms are identical.

LG: That’s essentially what’s taught in schools. When you learn about so-called “if sentences” in English, you learn that in the second conditional, so a hypothetical sentence, you use a simple past form in the if-clause and a would plus base form in the main clause. For example, if I won the lottery, I would buy a house. Past tense if I won, and would plus base form I would buy. Many students are confused as to why we use the past tense to talk about a hypothetical situation in the future, but in fact we’re using a subjunctive that just takes the same form as the past tense.

VH: And the only verb that has a distinctive past subjunctive form, again, is the verb to be, because we can hear the irregularity of the verb in the indicative, so I was, you were, he/she/it was, but not in the subjunctive. Because the past subjunctive form is always were. I were, you were, he/she/it were. As in “if I were you, I wouldn't do that”. And I'm aware of the fact that people in the streets say stuff like, “If I was you”, or “She acts as if she was the boss”, and that's perfectly fine because language evolves, and spoken language evolves even faster than written language. And in English, this change is also very understandable because all the other verbs already look like simple past. So I guess these forms are not mentally processed as subjunctive anymore, but technically there should be a were in place of the was in these sentences.

LG: So in English we have the more formal uses of the present subjunctive, like The doctor suggested he take this medicine, and the pretty much ‘hidden’ past subjunctive in hypothetical sentences and in combination with certain expressions. In addition to these, you can see the English subjunctive here and there in fixed phrases.

VH: Like fossilised idioms and expressions, and we've already seen German counterparts today, like “Thank God” or “Long live the President”.

LG: But while there are lots of parallels between the English subjunctive and the German subjunctive, the English subjunctive is much less talked about, and the German subjunctive is more visible, at least the Konjunktiv II, because you can’t replace it. You’ve got the one-word and the two-word forms, but it’s there and it’s unavoidable, and in some frequent verbs it has distinct forms. This is probably why it’s usually taught more explicitly as the Konjunktiv and not like in English as just the “past tense” in an “if sentence”. Even just the idea of the subjunctive in general is sometimes a tricky one to get your head around as a learner.

VH: Many of my students struggle at one point or another with the Konjunktiv. Not in the beginning, actually, because the gist of it is very intuitive. It makes sense. So, this idea of a world in layers where some things are facts and some things are just thoughts and ideas and attitudes. This is quite easy to understand, I think people can relate to that. But things get more complicated when it comes to unreal comparisons, or unreal conditionals, especially in the past. Because firstly, these contexts are not so intuitive anymore. And secondly, people tend to model their German conditionals on English conditionals a lot, either because their native language is English or because English is their first foreign language, and they are transferring their grammatical knowledge to the second or third foreign language.

LG: This can be tricky because while English conditionals largely work in a similar way as German conditionals do, they look quite different. Here’s an example in English, translated into German.

VH: The English sentence If I had missed the train, I would have been here earlier becomes German Wenn ich den Zug nicht verpasst hätte, wäre ich früher hier gewesen. So had missed becomes verpasst hätte. And there are two main problems here that I observe all the time. The structure of the sentence is essentially the same, it’s just that in English we often don't recognise the subjunctive forms as such, which means that we read them as simple past, and German learners tend to use simple past in these sentences in German as well.

LG: In this case, had missed could come out as verpasst hatte instead of verpasst hätte. Which is a mistake I’ve definitely made before, and a mistake which admittedly still slips out every now and then.

VH: So that's one problem. And the second one is even worse because there is the feared and famous subordinating word order in German. Because a wenn-Satz in German makes the conjugated verb, so the finite verb, move to the very end of the sentence. And that’s in addition to knowing the correct Konjunktiv form. So, yes, using Konjunktiv II in German is not trivial, because for one, we use it very often and with great enthusiasm, I'd say, and also sentence structuring can get very complex, very fast. Because if you think about it, you can end up with up to six different verbs that you would have to build and position correctly at the same time in one single sentence. Wenn ich nicht meine Brieftasche von zu Hause hätte holen müssen, hätte ich sofort ein Taxi nehmen können.

LG: Let’s not get started on the word order of hätte holen müssen. Which in colloquial speech can even be rearranged to holen hätte müssen, with the finite hätte in between the two infinitive verbs holen and müssen. It’s a mess.

VH: So yeah. German Konjunktiv is a fairly complex creature. But, and yes, there is a ‘but’, I absolutely love teaching the Konjunktiv II, at least. Because it is so magical. It helps us express our hopes and our dreams, stuff that only exists in our brains. And this is exactly what makes language in general so fascinating. With language, we can not only describe what’s out there in the world already. We can communicate things that are not real yet or things that we wish were real in the past. And the German Konjunktiv is such an elegant way to do this. It is laden, so to speak, with the weight of our imagination. You feel it whenever you hear a Konjunktiv form. Not consciously, of course, because very few people are as nerdy about grammar as I am, and I don't expect my students to be either, but being nerdy helps me to teach them, to spark their imagination.

LG: So maybe some might think the Konjunktiv is unnecessary. We can get away with not using the Konjunktiv I, although it has its very important function of allowing the speaker to remain neutral when reporting what others say. This is extremely useful in contexts such as law – think of witness statements – or writing reports of what a patient says, as we heard earlier. And as for the Konjunktiv II, it opens up the possibility of talking about things that are not real. It allows us to express things beyond facts, things that we would like to do, or imagine doing, or wish we had done in the past. As Verena said before, words are not just words. We do things with words. And we can do more than just state facts.

VH: Because mood, as we saw in the beginning, is a grammatical feature which enables us as speakers to express our attitude, attitude toward what we are saying. And to me, as a sociolinguist, this – so the way we feel about what’s being said – is as important as the dictionary entries of the words we use to say it. And that's it. I rest my case.

[Theme music]

LG: Thank you so much to Verena Hofstätter for joining me for this episode. Verena is the person behind Das Lehrwerk, where she teaches German as a foreign language and supports students with academic papers and with their learning. And as I mentioned in the episode, she has a really great podcast about the German language, too. The podcast is in German and you can hear everything from the history of German, to sociolinguistics, to language biographies, and grammar topics like the subjunctive. The podcast is called Wissen schafft Sprache and I can really highly recommend it. If that doesn’t already make you curious, I recently had the pleasure of being a guest on her podcast, where I spoke about my own language journey, specifically with German. And in the episode I actually speak in German! So if you want to hear that, you can find all the info and links in the shownotes and the podcast website,

Verena is also on Instagram @daslehrwerk, and her website is

You can follow me on Instagram too @yotepodcast, that’s Y-O-T-E-podcast, Facebook @yellowoftheegg, and my email is Thanks so much for listening, see you in the next one. Machts es gut, servus aus Wien.

[Theme music]

VH: And a skill that we all should practice, not only in our grammar courses, but in real life as well. [laughs] I think I’m done! There weren’t any more words in my head!

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