German: [verb]-en vs. [verb]-et

'Tis the season to think about Christmas carols. Here’s one:

Herbei, O ihr Gläubigen, fröhlich triumphierend,
O kommet, O kommet nach Bethlehem!
Sehet das Kindlein uns zum Heil geboren!
O laßet uns anbeten, O laßet uns anbeten,
O laßet uns anbeten den König!

Why ‘kommet’ and ‘laßet’, instead of ‘kommen’ and ‘laßen’? Now that I look at it, what about ‘sehet’?

It’s been too many decades for me to remember an explanation.

It’s the imperative of the second person plural. It calls upon the faithful to come to Bethlehem.

(In present-day Standard German, that second person plural imperative would take -t as an ending, not -et: Kommt, laßt (or, since the 1990s spelling reform which replaced ß with ss in many instances, lasst). The form with -et instead of -t would be considered old-fashioned or poetic.)

Until someone who knows better comes along, IIRC it’s 2nd person plural subjunctive present. The first form, which according to random hits on google “is used chiefly for reporting indirect speech and old fashioned commands.”

Nope, no indirect speech here, but an imperative. As for the subjunctive (which I learnt as “conjunctive I”, to differentiate it from “conjunctive II”, which is functionally equivalent to the conditional in English): Most Germans themselves don’t get that right, either out of ignorance or, even if they know it in theory, because reported speech with the correct conjunctive I is not in use in colloquial everyday spoken German; it would simply be replaced with the indicative.


What is meant by that statement about old-fashioned commands in the subjunctive (aka conjunctive I) is that you can use to express what in the opinuion of whoever says it should be done, much like the infinitive is used in English: “The government decided that a road be built”. The conjunctive I can be used analogous to the “be” in that English sentence, and similarly to that use in English it would be considered old-fashioned, or at least very, very formal, in present German.

But that is not what is going on in the Christmas carol posted by the OP. In that carol, kommet and laßet are used as imperatives, which is a grammatical form distinct from the subjunctive/conjunctive I.

nieder minden

An example for the above named subjunctive is the German translation of Gen 1,3:

Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! Und es ward Licht.

As noted by Schnitte, kommet and laßet in the German Protestant version of Adeste Fideles are imperative forms (archaic/poetic forms of kommt and lasst). They were already archaic at the time of writing in 1823, and I suspect they were used to 1. evoke a hieratic/archaic mood and of cause 2. for metric reasons (because they have one syllable more than their common forms)

Reported #9.

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Nava and I had a similar little “argument” a few years ago. In Spanish, as well, it’s descriptively ”accurate” (or at least helpful for language learners) to consider the imperative and subjunctive forms as “different,” but for someone more interested in historical evolution, longer time depths, and big-picture connections to other languages past and present, it’s more helpful to call them the “same.”

IIRC, she ended up contacting some acquaintance at the Academia Real, who basically confirmed all of the above.


The imperative (non-polite) form is not the same as the subjunctive, though. So it might be more accurate to say that when speaking politely, you use the subjunctive instead of the imperative.

In Japanese, the imperative form sounds quite rude and abrupt. The imperative form of the verb “to move” is “doke”. But that sounds like you are saying “Move!” In practice you’re more likely to hear other grammatical forms such as “doite (kudasai)” or “dokimashou” or “doki nasai” depending on the level of politeness.