Throw the cow over the fence some hay

First some biography: as I mentioned in the first part of my series on the German language, I spoke English as a child, with a smattering of German and Portuguese (father German, mother Portuguese-Indian). I went to English schools and when, in my late teens, I decided to live in Germany, I took part in a refresher course for children of Germans who had been displaced by the War. I learned German grammar in a very intense and thorough way, becoming completely bilingual in the process, married to a bilingual wife and bringing up two perfectly bilingual sons.

So unlike “normal” Germans I know the intricacies, the complexities of the language very well. I know the structures of conjugation and declination, the cases, the inflection of nouns, adjective and adverbs. And I am filled with awe when I see five-year-old children — like my own grandsons — master it all with great ease, and without a smidgen of grammatical instruction: how they know the genders of all nouns (in German even inanimate objects can be male or female), how they can inflect adjectives, change their forms according to the case of the noun they are describing. All without explicitly knowing the intricate rules that govern the grammar of our language (I have written about the complexity of uttering your first meaningful German sentence).

Let us turn our attention to the title sentence of this article. It is the well-known utterance of a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer, instructing a helper to throw some hay over the fence for the cow. The “Pennsylvania Dutch” are a cultural group that emigrated to the United Sates in the 17th and 18th centuries from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. “Deutsch,” originally “Deitsch” means “German”, and that is how they described themselves. They spoke a hybrid dialect, which they do to this day.

Why is the sentence so misleading in English?

English does not decline nouns, it does not use grammatical cases to help explain the way they are used. That is determined by word order and prepositional phrases, at least much more so than in most other languages. In English it is strictly subject, verb and object(s). The direct object normally comes after the verb, “throw some hay,” unless there is a dative (indirect) object, which then comes first: you say “throw the cow some hay.” And if you add an adverbial phrase, “over the fence,” it must come directly after the object it modifies, so you say something like “throw some hay over the fence for the cow.”

In German constructions like “throw the cow over the fence some hay” are possible because the dative case is clearly indicated by the article: “der Kuh”. It is like saying “throw for the cow, over the fence, some hay.” There is a lovely Pennsylvania Dutch goodbye song that goes:

Throw mama from the train a kiss, a kiss,
Wave mama from the train a goodbye,
Throw mama from the train a kiss a kiss,
And don’t cry, my baby, don’t cry.

The main reason for the intricacies of German grammar is word order, which is highly flexible. You can say “den hilflosen Jungen biss ein räudiger Hund,” which would correspond to “the helpless boy bit a mangy dog.” It works in German because “den Mann” is an accusative object, and “ein Hund” is nominative. So it is clear the dog did something to be boy. Since accusative and dative are (usually) clearly indicated by the articles attached to them, they can be used in any order. In English, where it is undifferentiated (“the boy”, “the dog”) it is the strict adherence to word order that defines the meaning of a sentence. No need to inflect articles and adjectives to tell people who is doing something to whom. “I gave the poor beggar a dollar” doesn’t allow for any variation of word order. In German you can say “the poor beggar I gave a dollar,” because the article, “dem armen Bettler” signals dative and that you did something to or for him.

There are languages that go much further. When I started studying philosophy at the university I had to do an extensive course in Latin. Part of it was to read Gaius Julius Caesar’s full Commentarii de bello Gallico (“Commentaries on the Gallic War”). It starts with the sentence:

  • Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

which (literally, word for word) translates to:

  • Gaul is all divided in three parts, of which one inhabit the Belgae , another the Aquitani, the third who in their own language Celts, in our Gauls are called.

The impression I got was that in Latin you could use words in any order, because conjugation and declination defined exactly what they meant. “Possible language understand order it word easy makes,” or something like that (instead of “Word order makes it easy to understand a language”), is common in Latin. Everything is handled by conjugation and inflections. In English we say “The boy sees the dog.” In Latin you can say puer canem videt (puer is boy, canis dog and videt see), or puer videt canem, or canem puer videt, or canem videt puer, or videt puer canem, or videt canem puer. The inflections determine what you mean.

My favourite example for the complexity of a simple three-word Latin sentence comes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The rebellious Brian is caught painting a slogan on the wall: “Romanes eunt domus,” but instead of arrest and punishment he gets a lesson from the guard in how to correctly write “Romans go home”, which was what he intended. It is truly hilarious, but also gives you great insight into the complexity of Latin grammar.

There are many examples of how word order, cases, tenses, endings, are used in classical Latin to be found in this PDF article. Here are a few examples of word order in German — you figure out what each sentence really means:

  • Den Mann biß ein Hund — the man bit a dog
  • Fußball spielen die Jungen jeden Tag— football play the boys every day
  • Den guten Rat befolgt mein Sohn — the good advice follows my son
  • Den Lehrer enttäuschte die Antwort—the teacher disappointed the answer

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The Friedel Chronicles

The Friedel Chronicles


Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.