When you ask language learners what the most difficult part of learning German is, many of them will agree: It is understanding and using the grammatical cases. German has four: the nominative, the genitive, the dative and the accusative (German spelling: der Nominativ, der Genitiv, der Dativ, der Akkusativ). When trying to learn how to use German cases, you can of course look up a quick chart. But in order to really understand them, it helps to break it all down to the very basics and examine all the parts. And then, when putting it all together again, we will (hopefully) have a better understanding of how it all works together. It is important to note that the saying “exceptions prove the rule” was coined for a reason, so here, too, an advanced German learner, or instructor will quickly be able to tell you: “Well, that’s not always the case!” But that’s OK. For now, here is an easy guide to understanding German cases.
The first question a learner might have is: What is a case? Or why are there cases? A case demonstrates the relationship of one entity (noun or pronoun) to another entity in a sentence. For example: The child (one entity) feeds the dog (another entity). Another example would be I (one entity) see you (another entity). Each entity in a sentence will be in a specific case, depending on what relationship it has with the other entity. And, when an entity is a noun (it is either that, or a person), then we have to remember the other really annoying thing about the German language: Genders.
Learning the genders of your nouns is absolutely fundamental for understanding how to use the cases correctly, and as most somewhat advanced learners will know, the gender lies in the “accompanying word”, or, the article. The dog, a dog, my dog, his dog, this dog, no dog, etc… The spelling of the “accompany-er” will change slightly depending on the gender of the noun it is accompanying, and, you guessed it, what case the noun is. Remember, think of a noun in a sentence as an entity, or being, and when trying to identify what case it should be in, examine the following: Is an entity responsible for doing something? Is it a direct or indirect recipient of the actions of another entity? Or does one entity belong to another entity.
To make this easier to understand, think of each case as a little universe bubble. A what? A universe bubble? What is this, Star Trek?
1. The German Nominative Case
The nominative “universe bubble” is like a single-cell organism. Now, multiple single-sell organisms can be next to each other, but as long as they don’t interact with each other, they remain just that: single-cell. For example: "This is a book". Picture a little universe bubble, and the only thing that exists within it is a book. Or a piece of cake. A bottle. A toy. A flower. Any noun can live in a single-cell universe, and if it does, it is in the Nominative case in German. Two single-cell organisms can be in the same sentence: This is a book, and this is a toy.
Das ist der Kuchen (the cake, masculine), die Blume (the flower, feminine), das Buch (the book, neutral), or, Das ist ein Kuchen, eine Blume, ein Buch, and so on.
2. The German Accusative Case
Picture a book, or a flower, or a cake in a single-cell bubble, just floating through space, being happy and content by itself. Suddenly, a man appears, and does something to this book, or flower, or cake: He reads it. Or he writes it. Or he throws it, eats it, bakes it, picks it, sees it, etc. The single-cell bubble is no more. We now have a bubble with two entities in it, interacting with each other. One entity is doing something to the other entity. The entity that is executing the action is the subject of the sentence, and will remain in the nominative, but the entity that is the direct recipient of the action (the book that is being read, written, thrown, etc) thus becomes the direct object of the sentence. The direct object is in the Accusative. This is where you will see your first spelling changes: The good news: The accusative only changes the spelling of the article of a masculine noun! Feminine and neutral articles will stay the same.
Der Mann liest das/ein Buch. (The man reads the/a book. The book is in the accusative, but the spelling hasn’t changed!).
Der Mann riecht die/eine Blume. (The man smells the/a flower. The flower, you guessed it, is in the accusative, but the spelling hasn’t changed!). But now: Der Mann backt den/einen Kuchen. (The man bakes the/a cake. The cake is in the accusative, and because cake is a masculine noun, the spelling of the article changes: der becomes den, ein becomes einen.)
3. The German Dative Case
Now picture yet another entity entering this bubble. Suddenly there are three! The man (subject), takes the cake (direct object) and gives it to someone, say, a child. So, imagine the sentence: The man gives the cake to the child. The man (subject) executes an action. The cake remains the direct object, or recipient of this action (it is being taken and given to someone). The child, in this example, is also a recipient, or an object, but an indirect one. The indirect object is in the Dative. This is where the article case chart will begin to play tricks on your mind:
Der Mann gibt dem/einem Jungen den/einen Kuchen. (The man gives the/a boy a cake. “der/ein” changes to “dem/einem“. The cake is still in the accusative, so “der/ein” stays “den/einen”).
Der Mann gibt der/einer Frau den/einen Kuchen. (The man gives the/a woman the/a cake. “die/eine” changes to “der/einer” in the dative.)
Der Mann gibt dem/einem Kind den/einen Kuchen. (The man gives the/a child the/a cake. “Das/ein” changes to “dem/einem” in the dative.)
4. The German Genitive Case
As discussed, cases demonstrate the relationship of one noun or pronoun to another. For the genitive bubble, however, it doesn’t actually matter how many other entities are inside it. What matters here is that one of them belongs to another. The owner entity, who is in possession of the other entity is in the genitive. An easy way to think about the genitive is the “of” case. This is the car of my sister. My sister is the owner of the car, so she is going to be in the Genitive (not the car itself!). This is the roof of the house. The roof belongs to the house, and the house is the “owner” of the roof, so it is going to be in the Genitive. The other entity in this sentence is…. well, that depends: This is the friend (nominative) of my child (genitiv). But: I (subject, nominative) give a book (direct object, accusative) to the friend (indirect object, dativ) of my child (“owner”, genitive). Confused yet? Now try it in German. Look at the bubble bellow. Many “entities” are inside it. But there is a cake, and it belongs to the woman. So who is in the genitive? Correct, the woman:
Das ist der Kuchen der/einer Frau. (in the genitive, die/eine changes to der/einer).
Das ist der Kuchen des/eines Mannes (der/ein changes to “des/eines +(e)s”.
Das ist der Kuchen des/eines Kindes (das/ein changes to “des/eines + (e)s”.
But the cake itself could be in a number of cases, for example: I eat the cake of the woman: Ich (nominative) esse den Kuchen (accusative) der Frau. Or how about this one: I give the child the cake of the woman. Ich (nominative) gebe dem Kind (indirect object, dative) den Kuchen (accusative) of the woman (genitive).
See? German cases are not so difficult. And remember, practice makes perfect, and learning a new language is good for your brain, too!