German Grammar -- The 1 letter joke

Dieter Krebs was one of my dearest comedians on TV when I grew up. Sadly, he passed away. The internet was really giving their condolences (“Oh no, Germany’s comedian died, will they ever get another one?” “Ve haff ozzer ways to make you laugh!”).

But anyway, I will now try to convey to an English speaking audience his (in my opinion) shortest and most succinct and most German sketch: Da graute der Morgen. Try the link, it is only 11 seconds long:

Link to youtube assuming if it is on youtube and not taken down it must be legal to link to it The dialog is: “Als ich aus dem Fenster sah, graute der Morgen.” “DEM Morgen.”

The wife in an upper middle class family waxes poetic and exclains: Als ich aus dem Fenster sah, graute der Morgen” “When I looked out of the window, I saw the dawn”. (You do not use the Präteritum in colloquial speech in German.)

In the German version, the second part is expressed as something like “the morning was dawning (lit. greying)”, because the morning light is, like, grey. In that sentence, “dawn” is the subject, and it is actively doing something.

Due to no fault of our own, “das Grau” in German means “the gray” or “the grey”, while “das Grauen” means “the terror” or “the horror”. This distinction is lost in the verb “grauen”, which can mean either. “ergrauen” means to turn gray, for example, and “mir graut vor der Prüfung” means you are afraid of the exam.

In usage, it is clear which meaning is intended, because if something turns gray, it is the subject of the senctence, while the terror has a non-personal subject (as the “it” in “it is raining”, only that in German, you can leave out the impersonal subject in this case). The person who is terrorised is given as the dative object, and the terroriser is given with the “vor” preposition. In English, the dative object is always expressed with a preposition, as in “I give the book to you” where in German, “the book” would be the accusative object, and “you” would be the dative object, without any preposition.

In general in languages, there is an interplay between using prepositions or cases. Finnish has lots of cases, for example. In Latin, the ablative case (which does not exist in German), conveys location, while the the accusative conveys direction. So “domo” is “in the house”, and “domum” means “to the house”. Therefore “romani ite domum!”

In the sketch, the morning was the subject, and the idiom clearly meant that the day was breaking. The fat husband, looking at his ugly wife, corrects her by changing the expression “der Morgen” to “dem Morgen”. Suddenly, the former subject becomes the dative object, and the verb can only take its other meaning. So the morning was now horrified at her looking out of the window! The sentence has no subject now, but remember that the impersonal subject in the second version is optional.

It is of course a standard joke that in middle aged marriages the wife becomes ugly and the husband becomes fat. What makes this joke so appealing to me is that only 1 single letter needed to be changed to totally transform the structure and the meaning of the sentence.