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Beatles to Bowie: How pop stars can help you master German grammar

Jörg Luyken
Jörg Luyken - [email protected] • 10 Jan, 2023 Updated Tue 10 Jan 2023 17:07 CEST
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Photo by Fedor on Unsplash

If you are struggling to cement some simple German words in your head, listening to some very familiar songs sung in German by iconic pop stars might help.

The Beatles - tricky datives

The Fab Four famously cut their teeth in Germany's Hamburg district, where they would play for hours on end in the Reeperbahn district’s seedy nightclubs.

Less well known is that they recorded German versions of two of their biggest hits.

"Komm gib mir deine Hand" and "Sie liebt dich" are two Beatles tracks that only true aficionados still know.

The boys from Liverpool already had a few words of German from their Hamburg days, but their impeccable grammar in these songs is more likely the result of learning the words off by heart.

“In deinen Armen bin ich glücklich und froh, das war noch nie bei einer Anderen einmal so,” they sing on the German version of "I want to hold your hand" - that’s some careful use of the dative case! Prepositions including bei are followed by the dative as this guide explains.

On "Sie liebt dich" ("She loves you"), the band sing that:

Du glaubst sie liebt nur mich?/ Gestern hab' ich sie gesehen/ Sie denkt ja nur an dich/ Und du solltest zu ihr gehen”.

This is another useful text for learning when to use an accusative (dich/mich) and when to use the dative (ihr following the preposition zu).

By the way, if you want to hear the real standard of the Beatles' German, take a listen to "Geh raus", a jam that Paul McCartney sang to the tune of Get Back. Probably best not to get any grammar tips here though!

The Supremes - giving orders

Diana Ross’ girl group also got in on the 1960s trend for cutting records in German in the hope of breaking the market in the German-speaking world.

In 1964 they recorded German versions of the hits “Where did our love go?” and “Moonlight and Kisses”.

On "Baby, baby, wo ist unsere liebe", the Motown group sing: “Geh nicht fort, oh baby bleib bei mir!”

Good use of imperatives there! Geh (go!) and bleib (stay!) are both simple imperatives (order verbs) to get your head around. For a full explanation of the German imperative, see here.

On the lonesome "Moonlight and Kisses", the girls mourn the fact that “Einsamkeit ist mein Begleiter, seitdem du gesagt hast, goodbye.”

David Bowie - irregular verbs

Berlin’s most famous guest musician performed a German version of his most iconic song, "Heroes", for the soundtrack of the cult film Die Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo.

Bowie wrote and recorded the track at Hansa studios near the Berlin Wall during his stay in the city in the late 1970s. The lyrics, just as in the English version, reference the political events of the time of recording in 1977.

Die Mauer Im Rücken war kalt/ Schüsse reissen die Luft/ Doch wir küssen/ Als ob nichts geschieht/ Und die Scham fiel auf ihre Seite/ Oh, wir können sie schlagen/ Für alle Zeiten!” Bowie sings, describing a love affair under the Berlin Wall.

By coincidence, Bowie uses two common irregular verbs that are useful to learn. Geschehen (to happen) turns to geschieht in the third person singular and becomes geschah in the simple past. Fallen becomes fällt in the third person singular and fiel in the simple past.

David Bowie shared a flat with rock star Iggy Pop during his time in Berlin. Legend has it that Pop wrote the song "The Passenger" after being inspired by a journey on the Berlin S-Bahn, but as far as we know, he never took to singing in the local tongue.

Joan Baez - past tenses

1960s protest singer Joan Baez did a cover version of one of the most famous anti-war songs of all: "Where have all the Flowers Gone" by Pete Seeger.

But she gave her version a twist. Instead of covering the Seeger original, she learned the German words to a version that was sung by Marlene Dietrich: "Sag mir wo die Blumen sind".

Lamenting the destruction of war, Baez asks where the flowers, the young girls and the soldiers have all gone since war broke out. Then she asks where the graves are: "Sag mir wo die Gräber sind/ Wo sind sie geblieben?/ Sag mir wo die Gräber sind/ Was ist geschehen?"

Not only a powerful message but also an opportunity to learn two important verbs that take sein in the past tenses! Learning when to use sein instead of haben to create a past tense is one of the most important skills on the road to German fluency. Bleiben (stay) and geschehen (happen) are two very common verbs that take sein.

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Jörg Luyken 2023/01/10 17:07

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