"Das sagt man nicht, weil das ist ja falsch"

The mystery of the many misplaced verbs in German weil clauses

April 04, 2016

If you speak German natively, you may have experienced a little shock reading the title sentence above. And the reason should be clear: The verb "ist" in the weil clause comes too early. Most people probably think they never make such errors. This may be so when writing German. But when speaking German, according to new research from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the University of Koblenz-Landau, there are systematic reasons for the misplacement of a verb like ist in a weil-clause.

Using computer technology, researchers Kempen and Harbusch inspected a large collection of spoken dialogues for all sentences ending with a causal clause (introduced not only by weil but also also by denn or da). They found that “incorrect” weil clauses become more frequent when there’s not enough planning time or capacity to end the complex two-clause sentence grammatically. That is, people then appear to encounter difficulty in planning the precise content for the upcoming weil clause, and in encoding this content in a grammatically correct form; or they have started planning for the weil clause too late.

Such planning difficulties raise the probability of miscoordination between sentence formulation on the one hand, and word selection on the other: the conjunction weil is chosen to open a causal clause, but the formulation system has decided, or is deciding, to terminate the sentence without adding such a clause. As a consequence, the remaining conceptual content—a cause, an argument—can only be communicated as a newly launched second sentence. However, new sentences have the verb in early position (like sagt in the main clause above), too early for a normal weil clause (which is subordinate and has the verb at the end).

Why don’t speakers insert denn instead of weil? After all, denn das ist ja falsch would be grammatically correct. The researchers speculate that weil is used in this space due to its high frequency in spoken German. This means it can be retrieved from the mental vocabulary more easily than denn or da, thereby suppressing these competitors.

And so the weil-with-main-clause scenario occurs when the sentence planning horizon is short, leading to miscoordination between the cognitive mechanisms for sentence formulation (one complex clause or two simple clauses, subordinate or main?) and word selection (weil, denn, or da?). In addition, the fact that sentence planning problems with causal clauses occur relatively frequently, means that, in the speaker’s language production system, weil-with-main-clause is an increasingly competitive scenario.


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