Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 5


MASTER: Studii de limba engleza si literature anglo-americane


English and German Tense: A Comparison

German is spoken by about 95 million people worldwide, and is the official

language of Germany, Austria and parts of Switzerland. English and German both belong
to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Because they are so
closely related, they share many features. Furthermore, the English language is pervasive
in German media and popular culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Germans
learn English quickly and easily. However, there are a number of aspects of German that
commonly interfere with the correct production of English. These are listed below.
The German alphabet contains the same 26 letters as the English alphabet, plus
the umlauted letters: , , , and the (scharfes S or double-s). German ESL students
may have interference problems in class when the teacher spells out words. For example,
beginners commonly write i or a when the teacher says e or r.
The sounds of English and German are similar, as are stress and intonation
patterns. However, the /th/ sound as in words like the, and thing does not exist in
German, and many speakers have problems producing such words correctly. German
words beginning with a /w/ are pronounced with a /v/. This explains the mispronunciation
of English words we or wine as ve and vine.
There is a significant lack of correspondence between the tenses used in English
to convey a particular meaning and those used in German. For example, German does not
have a continuous tense form, so it is common to hear sentences such as I can't come
now; I eat my dinner; or conversely He is riding his bike to school every day.

Another example of the lack of correspondence is the use of the present simple in
German where English uses the future with will. This leads to mistakes such as: I tell him
when I see him.
A further common problem for Germans is choosing the correct tense to talk
about the past. Typically spoken German uses the present perfect to talk about past
events: Dann habe ich ein Bier getrunken. The same tense is used in English produces the
incorrect: Then I have drunk a beer.
German is an inflected language. This means that most of the parts of speech
change according their function in the sentence. This causes many more difficulties for
English native-speakers learning German than for Germans learning English, which is
largely uninflected.
German has three features of word order than do not exist in English: Firstly, the
main verb must be the second element in the independent clause. This often requires an
inversion of subject and verb. For example: Manchmal komme ich mit dem Bus in die
Schule. (Sometimes I come to school by bus.) Secondly, the past participle must always
be the last element in the independent clause. Example: Ich habe ihn night gesehen. (I
have not seen him.). Thirdly, the main verb must be the last element in the dependent
clause. For example: Sie fragte mich, ob ich den Film schon gesehen htte. (She asked
me if I had already seen the film.)
German and English share many cognates: Winter/winter, Haus/house,
trinken/drink, etc. Many cognates, however, do not have the same meaning (i.e. they are
false friends). For example, the German word also means so in English, not also; aktuell
means current not actual.
German has stricter punctuation rules than English. This can result in the
unnecessary punctuation of sentences such as: He said, that he was tired.
Nouns in German are capitalized, which often leads to students writing English
nouns with capital letters.

Tense in English
Apparently, there is no standardised view about how many tenses English has
because the question of whether formal or semantic criteria are relevant for the definition
of tense is still unsolved. Furthermore, the discussion of the status of a future tense in
English is not finished yet. Structuralists only accept two tenses: past and non-past. This
view is based on the fact that English has a two-term morphological contrast in the
inflection of verbs, e.g. he play-s vs. he play-ed, and thus there are only two tenses,
whereas other time constructions are simply combinatorial constructions. The future is
considered a combination of present tense and the modal verbs will/shall, the perfect
(present perfect, past perfect) is a combination of have and one of the two tenses.
Moreover, there are two aspectual categories, namely, the progressive and the perfect,
that combine freely with each other and both tenses.
The view that English has three tenses is found in Klein (1994). He states that
these tenses are expressed by the inflectional morphology of the finite verb, by stem
change or by a periphrastic construction (in the future). His definition of tenses is as
follows :
Present tense: TU incl TT
Past tense: TU after TT
Future tense: TU before TT
Furthermore, some argue that there are six tenses in the English system: present,
past, present perfect, past perfect (pluperfect), future and future perfect. This view held
by e.g. Comrie and most traditional grammar books, is based on the model of Latin
grammar and allows one aspectual category, the progressive.
Eventually, few linguists, such as Declerck, postulate as many as eight tenses for
English, adding conditional tense and conditional perfect to the six tenses found in
traditional grammars. Matthews (1994) distinguishes between past vs. non-past, perfect
vs. non-perfect and progressive vs. non-progressive.

Tense in German
The German tense system has been the subject of numerous studies for centuries.
Already in 1572 the grammarian linger wrote about the plupluperfects (Perfekt II).
However, regarding the question of tenses in German we find a similar picture like in
English. There is no generally accepted analysis and figures range from one to nine
tenses. To begin with, traditional grammars, such as the Duden, give six tenses: Prsens,
Prteritum, Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt, Futur I and Futur II. These are often divided into
absolute (direct) and relative (indirect) tenses. Prsens, Prteritum and Futur I
demonstrate Verlauf, that is, the course or passage of an action, whereas Perfekt,
Plusquamperfekt and Futur II relate to completion (Vollzug).
Klein (1994) argues that Plusquamperfekt and Futur II combine a tense meaning
with an aspectual meaning and therefore are not to be labelled tense. (cf. 129) In contrast
to this, Thieroff (1994) sees eight tense forms in German, adding Perfekt II and
Plusquamperfekt II to the traditional ones.
Prsens: singt
Prteritum: sang
Perfekt: hat gesungen
Plusquamperfekt: hatte gesungen
Perfekt II: hat gesungen gehabt
Plusquamperfekt II: hatte gesungen gehabt
Futur I: wird singen
Futur II: wird gesungen haben
Furthermore, there is another rather unjustified analysis defining nine tenses for
German. It is based on the assumption that time in general is divided into simultaneity,
anteriority and posteriority. Each of these periods provide present, past and future tenses.
Another analysis, such as Vater`s, permit four tenses: Prsens, Prteritum, Perfekt and
Plusquamperfekt. A rather plausible idea is given by structuralists who would argue that
there are two tenses in German: Prsens and Prteritum. For linguists such as Engel and
Bartsch werden + infinitive is modal, haben + past participle is aspectual and Futur II is a
combination of mood and aspect. Radical linguists, such as Mugler, accept only one tense

form, the Prteritum, considering all other forms aspects or combinations of aspects.
According to him, the Prsens is unmarked in regard to tense and aspect, a merkmallose
Verbform. Obviously, much ink has been spilled upon this topic and reasons leading to
no consensus are the same as in English.

Melanie Bobik, English and German Tense-Aspect Systems: A Comparison,
Deutsch, 2003