German Konjunktiv I

Overview

If you plan to improve your German by reading news articles, this is an important form to learn. The special subjunctive appears most frequently in restatements of what someone else has claimed.

By using the special subjunctive, for example, a newspaper can assert its own neutrality concerning the validity of a claim. English does not provide an exact translation. "He said that he was an honest person" is a kind of modified subjunctive that provides some distance, but it cannot be sustained over longer passages. Instead, English must rely on words like "allegedly" and frequent repetitions of "he said...."

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In German, there is another subjunctive form besides that used to express wishes and pose hypotheticals: the special subjunctive (der Konjunktiv I). This form is used to mark indirectly reported speech and can also to express doubt as to the accuracy of indirectly reported speech.

So what is indirectly reported speech? This is when a person is repeating or reporting something that another person has said. In German, as opposed to English, the form of the main verb actually changes to reflect this fact. Whenever quotation marks are used, directly reported i.e. quoted speech is being repeated, but there are none with indirectly reported speech.

Directly reported speech:  John said, “I am going to be late.”
Indirectly reported speech:  John said that he is going to be late.

In German, removing the quotation marks will have the same effect as in English: the veracity of what is being reported (John is going to be late) is not in question. However, the use of the special subjunctive form of the main verb will make it clear that the person reporting what was said is not claiming that it is absolutely true, and, in some cases, is calling it into question.

Directly reported speech:  John sagte, “Ich werde mich verspäten.”
Indirectly reported speech:  John sagte, er werde sich verspäten.

In the second example above, the expected conjugated form of “werden” for “er” is “wird.” However, in the special subjunctive, it changes to “werde” in order to make clear that the speaker (the person reporting what John said) is not vouching for what John said; rather, s/he is an intermediary (messenger, if you will).

Some conjugations of verbs in the special subjunctive are identical to their indicative (that is, non-subjunctive) forms, so, in those cases, it is necessary to use the general subjunctive (Konjunktiv II) forms instead. For example, consider the following forms of “haben” in Konjunktiv I:

habenPersonal Pronoun (singular)Conjugated FormPersonal Pronoun (plural)Conjugated Form
1stpersonichhabewirhaben
2ndpersoninformalduhabestihrhabet
2ndperson formalSiehabenSiehaben
3rdpersoner/sie/eshabesiehaben

Note that the “Sie,” “wir,” and “sie” (plural) forms look identical to the present tense (indicative) form of “haben.” Because of the potential for ambiguity, the general subjunctive forms are instead used, as seen in the chart below:

habenPersonal Pronoun (singular)ConjugationsPersonal Pronoun (plural)Conjugations
1stpersonichhättewirhätten
2ndpersoninformalduhabestihrhabet
2ndperson formalSiehättenSiehätten
3rdpersoner/sie/eshabesiehätten

Keep in mind that when reporting what someone else has said, the most common forms used are third person singular and plural (e.g. he said, she said, they said), as, by definition, it is something being reported indirectly. However, first and second person forms to occur.

The special subjunctive form of verbs is derived from the infinitive form, and consists of adding an “e” before the “st” for “du,” adding an “e” and deleting the “t” for “er/sie/es” form, and adding an “e” before the “t” in the “ihr” form. For verbs whose stems end in “d” or “t,” the special subjunctive form (e.g. finden > ihr findet) is replaced with the general subjunctive (ihr fändet).

There is one exception to the rule, and that is the verb “sein.” Here is a table with the forms of “sein” in the special subjunctive:

seinPersonal Pronoun (singular)ConjugationsPersonal Pronoun (plural)Conjugations
1stpersonichseiwirseien
2ndpersoninformaldusei(e)stihrseiet
2ndperson formalSieseienSieseien
3rdpersoner/sie/esseisieseien

This form of “sein” may look familiar, as it is very similar to the command form (imperative).

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

Writing:
I can write simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. I can write personal letters describing experiences and impressions.
Spoken Production:
I can connect phrases in a simple way in order to describe experiences and events, my dreams, hopes and ambitions. I can briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans. I can narrate a story or relate the plot of a book or film and describe my reactions.
Spoken Interaction:
I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).
Reading:
I can understand texts that consist mainly of high frequency everyday or job-related language. I can understand the description of events, feelings and wishes in personal letters.
Listening:
I can understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. I can understand the main point of many radio or TV programs on current affairs or topics of personal or professional interest when the delivery is relatively slow and clear.