Media Monday: ZDF Interview with Obama

Media Monday is a feature I post every two weeks where I discuss an interesting word or phrase (or sentence or paragraph) from what I’ve been reading or watching.

So it’s still Tadoku time, even though I’ve slowed down somewhat, and I was looking for some information for an essay the other day when I ended up on the tagesschau website and read an article about the interview a ZDF journalist (Kleber) had with President Obama.

The article is about the fall out after it was revealed that the NSA had tapped Chancellor Merkel’s phone; but though the subject was quite interesting to me, what stood out most of all was this sentence:

Die Regierung in Washington gibt auch keine Auskunft darüber, ob weitere deutsche Spitzenpolitiker abgehört wurden oder abgehört werden.

Whilst in and of itself, that’s a pretty interesting sentence, what I like about it is the way the passive voice has been used. I quite like the passive, probably because I use it in essays all the time; so let’s do a quick run down on how to use it, shall we?

Essentially, there is the passive voice and the active voice. The active voice tends to place emphasis on the person doing the action, whereas the passive voice places emphasis on the thing being done and means that the person (subject) can often be omitted.

For example:

Active: The dog bites the boy.

Passive: The boy is bitten (by the dog).

In English, we use a form of ‘to be’ with a past participle (the boy was bitten, the boy will be bitten…), whereas in German, they use a form of werden with the past participle.

So, in German:

Active: Der Hund beißt den Jungen.

Passive: Der Junge wird (von dem Hund) gebissen.

In the sentence from the article, then, the passive is used in the second clause, where it says: ob weitere deutsche Spitzenpolitiker abgehört wurden oder abgehört werden. The word abhören means ‘to eavesdrop’, so that clears that up. So then, what’s the difference between werden and wurden?

The answer, simply, is tense. When using the passive, werden is used in the present tense and wurden in the imperfect past tense. (And all the other forms match up, e.g. ich wurde, du wurdest, er/sie/es wurde, wir wurden, ihr wurdet, sie wurden…)

This second half of the sentence then means, ‘whether further German top-level politicians were being eavesdropped on, or are being eavesdropped on.’

Put it altogether and we have: The government in Washington also gives no information as to whether further top-level German politicians were being tapped, or are being tapped.

Quite an interesting sentence from both a general and linguistic view, then ;).

Words
die Auskunft – information, disclosure
die Spitzenpolitiker
– top-level politicians
abhören – to eavesdrop, to listen, to wiretap sb.

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