Can I answer questions with broken grammar

He asks and he asks - Umlaut in verbs and regional variants

The following article can be found in a discussion about German spelling in an internet forum:

"I'm not a German (nor an Austrian, Swiss) but if, as a foreigner, I write better German than most Germans themselves, then one wonders ..."

Another forum user replies promptly:

"as you mean ... I just think that there is no 'ask' in German."

A third adds:

"Hm, 'then you ask yourself' [...] I would have phrased exactly the same or even better in this case would have been 'then you ask yourself'. But I would like to doubt whether that was grammatically wrong."

Who is right now? Is the shape asks grammatically correct in German?

What does the corpus research say?

A search in the archive of the written language of the IDS provides clear results:

asks135,425 documents
asks298 documents

(Table 1: Research from November 03, 2009)

The variant asks makes 99.8% of all conjugated forms of the verb ask in the 3rd pers. Sg. Ind. From while asks is used in just 0.2% of all texts. Looking at the evidence for asks more precisely, it is noticeable that many of these are used in newspaper articles from Austria (179 documents), and less frequently also from Switzerland (49 documents), or are related to the reproduction of spoken language.

Newspaper covers from Northern Germany:

"As stupid as you ask no one." Jochen, the milker from the Oderbruch, makes no secret of how much the man behind the camera can get on his nerves.
[Berliner Zeitung, 02/14/2002, section: Feuilleton; For the last time Jochen (p. 14)]

But the LKA does not even ask for such specific information. Rather, the immigration officers should report who they think is capable of "committing politically motivated crimes".
[the daily newspaper, 02/16/1991, p.4; Foreign officials as auxiliary snoopers?]

Newspaper covers from southern Germany:

"Shouldn't we be close to the citizens?" Asks the citizen service officer, who cannot even provide his citizens with a toilet.
[Mannheimer Morgen, November 21, 2000, department: Umlandseite (s); Is the area being sold by "Möbel Unger"?]

The poet has introduced a tutor and has put his questions in italics - he leaves the questions in the poem, which itself is supposed to become the subject he is asking about. But is this connection successful?
[Frankfurter Allgemeine, May 19, 2003]

Newspaper covers from Austria and Switzerland:

If you ask Elmar Altvater about the consequences of globalization, it quickly becomes clear that the renowned German political scientist belongs to the second group.
[Salzburger Nachrichten, October 30, 1997, section: Health / Environment / Science; "Globalization destroys nature"]

With a view to the government crisis that has just broken out, one wonders why Councilor Pedrazzini first leaked his ominous letter to the media by fax, and only a day later to the members of the authorities.
[St. Galler Tagblatt, January 9th, 1998, section: TB-AKT (abbr.); Main thing - to attract attention]

Why are there two different forms at all?

To do this, one must first of all generally use the conjugation of ask consider. Verbs are divided into two groups in German: weak verbs and strong verbs. While the weak verbs are conjugated regularly, the strong verbs in some forms show a change in the stem vowel, the so-called ablaut. If you want to know more about this change in the individual forms, you can read on in the systematic grammar. With strong verbs with the stem vowel a, o or ouch occurs in the 2nd and 3rd pers. Sg. Ind. Present tense of the umlaut. The scheme is as follows:

Number / genderfallto runbumpwear
1st person Sg.I fallI walki bumpI'm wearing
2nd person fallyou runyou come acrossyou wear
3rd person Sg.he fallshe runsHe bumpshe wears

Exceptions: create, create - no change of the stem vowel

The umlaut does not appear in any weak verb, not even in verbs with the stem vowel a, o or ouch. So it's not called * you buy and * he buys, rather you buy and he buys or * you hold and * he grabs, rather you grasp and detected. The two variants of the 3rd pers. Sg. Present tense of ask, he asks or. he asks, are therefore forms that were formed after the weak or after the strong conjugation.

How did that happen?

We have to go back a few centuries in the history of the German language: There is a weak verb in Old High German frâgêm and in Middle High German there is only one weak verb vrâgen (see Grimm’s dictionary). Up to the 17th century only weakly inflected forms are documented. The Grimm’s dictionary shows the first strong forms of the verb for the 18th century ask with umlauted present tense. Most of the older dictionaries (e.g. Adelung, Campe, Sanders) now list the strong conjugation in the present tense alongside the weak one, but take the view that the strong forms come from the Low German vernacular and attribute this to a hypercorrection. In relation to the 19th century, almost all reference works mention the strong forms in the present tense, but the weak form is always given preference. It was not until the 20th century that the strong form was on the decline again and was identified as a scenic or incorrect variant. (cf. Theobald 1992, pp. 227-230)

A search in the historical archive HIST of the IDS supports this:

asksproportion ofasksproportion of
Archive HIST 1700-175077 100% 0 0%
Archive HIST 1750-1800577 88,4% 76 11,6%
Archive HIST 1800-18501128 85,9% 184 14,1%
Archive HIST 1850-1900955 93,1% 72 6,9%
Archive HIST 1900-1950413 97,6% 10 2,4%

(Table 2: Research from November 3rd, 2009)

While ask is still only weakly conjugated in the sources from the time before 1750, the strong conjugation increases significantly from 1750 and reaches its peak between 1800 and 1850 with 14.1% of all forms of ask in the 3rd pers. Sg. Ind. It only disappears 100 years later asks slowly.

The first evidence for asks The HIST archive can be found in Kant's 1757:

How can I start with that? Augustine said: I know what the time is, but if someone asks me, I don't know.
[Kant: Pre-critical writings II 1757-1777, in: Kant's collected writings. First division: Works. Vol. II. - Berlin, 1969 (p. 283)]

Schiller and Stifter also use it asks:

"Who are you?" asks the judge in a rather brutal tone.
[Schiller, Friedrich: The criminal of lost honor, First printing: 1786 - Berlin: DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH, 2000, p. 13-35 (p. 33)]

"The rogue knows that, that's why he asks me about it, and doesn't fear the stranger who is with me." Indeed, the little animal stayed quietly in its nest and was not deterred by our speech or our eyes.
[Donor, Adalbert: The late summer, Originated: between 1847 and 1857 - Berlin: DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH, 2000, p. 3-860 (p. 163)]

In two pieces of evidence, the connection with the reproduction of spoken language is striking: Kant lets Augustine speak in the first piece of evidence, and Stifter's quote is a conversation between two people.

In Goethe's Grimm’s dictionary, both variants exist in one and the same text:

Then the son came across
Stumbled upon stars
And asks (so) what to order.
The father asks him where he is embroidering?
[Goethe: The Eternal Jew. In the S. Poetic works, Volume 8, 1999.]

When searching for the unauthorized form asks In the HIST archive it was noticed that many authors both asks as well as asks use, including Goethe, Schiller, Eichendorff, Fontane, Droste-Hülshoff or Thomas Mann. A closer examination of the evidence for asks and asks seems to confirm the theory of the grammarians from the 18th century, who assume that the strong forms come from the Low German vernacular. For this purpose, the documents were differentiated according to their affiliation to the Upper German, Central German and Low German language areas, based on the place of printing of a newspaper or the place of birth of a writer. The following distribution resulted:

Language areaEvidence for asksEvidence for asksShare of asks
Upper German13371516%
Middle German8145815%
North German9934822%

(Table 3: Regional distribution, research from November 3rd, 2009)

A small survey of 33 students from different faculties at the University of Heidelberg gives an impression of the fact that even today the most different variants of asks are in use regionally (see Table 4). The question of the extent to which the form asks or another variant ofasks is known and in use, often results in answers like "I already have he asks said, but that's actually wrong. "Only two respondents claim, only the non-umlauted form asks to use.

Region or dialect
(literally after self-assessment)
peopleused variant of asks
(own spelling)
Alemannic / Badisch6frogt, asks
Swabian4frogt, asks
Hessian3asks, frights, falsifies
Franconian5ask / froagt, ask / froacht
Saarlouis1frot / frät
Low German2fraat / froot, freight / fröcht
no dialect specification2-

(Table 4: survey results)

The large number of regional variants suggests that asks can still be a shape that is constructed to approximate standard language. Speakers of German who believe they are not using a dialect typically do not use this form. For more precise statements and interpretations, however, further investigations would have to be made here.


Strong verbs that have a stem vowel capable of umlaut (a, o orouch) have this vowel in the 2nd and 3rd pers. Sg. Indicative around. From the verb wear will consequently you wear andhe wears. The umlaut does not appear in weak verbs.

The verb ask is weakly inflected in the standard language and therefore the corresponding form is ask in the 3rd pers. Sg. Indicative asks. However, there are regionally diverse variants such asasks or frogtthat are still widely used in the spoken language. These are considered colloquial by many and are therefore noticeable.