"Was für ein Mann..."?

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
I'm currently trying to brush up on my very rusty German, as it is a requirement of my thesis program to consult secondary literature in at least one other language than English. (I have decided that my May and June will be devoted to German, and my July and August to French, since I plan to apply to Ph.D. programs in the Fall and I'd better know both.)

I'm currently on the chapter regarding prepositions, and have learned that für takes the accusative. One of the example sentences given under für was "Was für ein Mann ist der Briefträger?", which I found confusing, as "ein Mann" is in the nominative, not accusative.

A bit of Googling reveals some discussion of this, but it's mostly in German, and none of the people in question explain very thoroughly what's going on here. Apparently für is not being used as a preposition here, but in some other way -- but what way, and why is "ein Mann" in the nominative?

Tagging Bitmap and Etaoin Shrdlu.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Pro dolor!

:D
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
Or the fact I'm applying to Ph.D. programs, lol? :p
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
None of those. I'm just joking about the fact that in pro dolor, like in your für ein Mann, you've got something that looks like a preposition meaning "for" but isn't, and is followed by the nominative.
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
Ahhhhhhh. Somehow I never noticed that.
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
I suppose it was because I'd seen it spelt proh, and so assumed it was a different word than the preposition pro.
 

Etaoin Shrdlu

μεσσηγυδορποχέστης
I assumed it was a parallel with the German expression you asked about, as dolor is in the nominative after pro instead of the ablative you'd expect, if the word is supposed to be a preposition.

I have no idea what the explanation for the German is.

Edit: and I type too slowly.
 

Bitmap

Civis Illustris
I don't know if I can answer your question on a linguistic level.

für is a preposition that takes the accusative if it depends on some verb within the sentence (Ich gebe mich für dich auf = I give myself up for you) or if it governs some prepositional phrase (Speisen für die Armen = dishes for the poor).

However, in "was für" it's more or less a collocation that may as well be replaced with the German word "welch" (English 'which') ... so - I don't know how to put it in linguistically correct terminology, but - it doesn't exert any power of its own. The noun following "was für" usually has the case it would logically have in the sentence if the "was für" (= "welch" = "which") were left out:

nominative: Was für ein Mann ist das? = "Welch ein Mann ist das" = "Which man is that" = "What kind of man is that" = (as a statement without the question word) "Das ist ein Mann"
dative: In was für einer Welt wollen wir leben? = In welcher Welt wollen wir leben = "In what kind of world do we want to live" = (replacing 'was für' with a simple demonstrative pronoun: ) 'In dieser Welt wollen wir leben'
accusative: Was für Dinge hältst du für besonders wichtig = Welche Dinge hältst du für besonders wichtig = What kind of things do you consider to be particularly important (ugh, that English translation messes it up a bit, but if you understand some German, you'll know what I mean).
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
Interesting. I wonder how it originated. Anyway, that helps -- thanks!
 

Bitmap

Civis Illustris
Interesting. I wonder how it originated.

I can't provide any answer to that. A friend of mine even called the expression non-standard, but I think it actually is standard German.

Another interesting fact about it is that you can actually split it up. You could say "Was für ein Mann ist das denn?" ('What kind of man is that?'), but you could also say "Was ist das denn für ein Mann?" ... btw. note that 'denn' is a particle that is very hard to translate :p
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
Ah, yes, I remember "denn"... :crazy:

But why "das"? Isn't it weird to refer to a person that way?
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
C'est quoi ça pour un homme ?
 

Bitmap

Civis Illustris
But why "das"? Isn't it weird to refer to a person that way?

As I said, the whole construction seems to have no syntactic relation to the sentence. Think of it as "What kind of thing is XY":

Was ist das für eine Frau?
Was ist das für ein Mann?
Was ist das für ein Haus?

and even in the plural:

Was sind das für Frauen?
Was sind das für Männer?
Was sind das für Häuser?

I suppose it goes hand in hand with Pacifica's French example.
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
Keep that statement in mind the next time you rant about quantifying poetry :p

:doh:I'm not sure quite what you mean. Are you referring to our classical/medieval Latin poetry discussion, and saying that classical Latin poetry was more "logical" than medieval? I'm not sure that one metrical system or another is more "logical"; they're just different.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
I think Bitmap mixed you and me up, Callaina.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Oft have I said it makes no sense to me.
 
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