German Simple Past Tense

Instructor: Samantha Green

Sam is from the UK but lives in the USA, she has taught college German and has both a bachelor's and master's degree in German Studies

What happens in the past stays in the past, but we still need to talk and write about it sometimes. In German they have one past tense for spoken language and one for the written language. This lesson intends to teach you about the written form; the simple past.

What is Simple Past?

If you wanted to tell someone that you walked your dog, you could say to them 'I walked my dog' or you could write it on a note and pass it to them, with the words 'I walked my dog'. The words are the same. But don't expect to do this Germany - for in their language the way you would write it is actually different than how you would say it!

The simple past is the tense we use in the German language when we're writing--as opposed to speaking--about events that happened in the past and have now been completed. So if you ever dreamed of writing a novel in German this is one form you'll need to master.

In German it is known as das Präteritum (pronounced: dahs PREH-teh-rih-tum). Say, for example, Alex wanted to tell his friend Max in a spoken conversation that he flew to Berlin last summer. It would look like this:

Spoken sentence:

  • Letzten Sommer bin ich nach Berlin geflogen. (Last summer I went to Berlin.)

However if he were writing to Max to give him the same information it would look like this:

Written sentence:

  • Letzten Sommer flog ich nach Berlin. (Last summer I went to Berlin.)

It is this written form you are learning today.

Regular Verbs

Luckily for you forming the simple past is not all that difficult and is much like forming verbs in the present tense. For regular verbs - or weak verbs as they are sometimes known - you have to use the stem of the verb and add a personal ending.

Those personal endings are -(e)te, -(e)test, -(e)ten, and -(e)tet.

It's much easier to understand with a verb example. Let's use a nice, easy one like the regular verb spielen (to play).

The stem of this verb is spiel.

Pronoun Verb Pronunciation English Translation
ich spielte ik sch-PIHEEL-tah I played
du spieltest duh sch-PIHEEL-tehst you (informal) played
er/sie/es spieltet ehr/zih/ehs sch-PIHEEL-teht he/she/it played
wir spielten vihr sch-PIHEEL-tehen we played
ihr spieltet ihr sch-PIHEELteht you all played
sie spielten zih sch-PIHEEL-tehe they played
Sie spielten zih sch-PIHEEL-tehe you (formal) played
  • Gestern spieltet er mit seiner kleinen Schwester. (He played with his little sister yesterday.)
  • Sie spielten Fußball alle zusammen. (They played soccer all together.)

Translation: They played soccer all together

Just to highlight the difference between the tenses here are the present tense and simple past tense forms next to one another:

Pronoun Present Tense Simple Past
ich spiele spielte
du spielst spieltest
er/sie/es spielt spieltet
wir spielen spielten
ihr spielt spieltet
sie spielen spielten
Sie spielen spielten

Irregular Verbs

For irregular verbs- or strong verbs - you add a personal ending, but their stem changes so you can't apply any pattern. Unfortunately there are no rules to which ones change or how, so you need to memorize their simple past forms.

For examples, here are the simple past forms of the verb gehen (to go).

The stem of this verb is geh.

Pronoun Verb Pronunciation English Translation
ich ging ik gihng I went
du gingst duh gihng-ST you went
er/sie/es ging ehr gihng he/she/it went
wir gingen vihr GIHNG-ehn we went
ihr gingt ihr GIH-ngt you went
sie gingen zih GIHNG-ehn they went
Sie gingen zih GIHNG-ehn you (formal) played
  • Wir gingen in den Laden um Lebensmittel zu kaufen. (We went to the store to buy groceries.)
  • Er ging ins Kino vorgestern (He went to the movies the day before yesterday.)

Translation: He went to the movies the day before yesterday
Movie theater

Just to really show you how random the irregular/strong verbs can be, here's another example using the verb fliegen (to fly).

The stem of this verb is flieg.

Pronoun Verb Pronunciation English Translation
ich flog ik flohg I flew
du flogst duh FLOH-gst you flew
er/sie/es flog ehr flohg he/she/it flew
wir flogen vihr FLOH-jehn we flew
ihr flogt ihr FLOH-gt you flew
sie flogen zih FLOH-jehn they flew
Sie flogen zih FLOH-jehn you (formal) flew
  • Letzte Woche flog ich nach Berlin. (I flew to Berlin last week).
  • Wir flogen mit einer neuen Fluglinie. (We flew with a new airline).

Translation: I flew to Berlin last week
Flog nach Berlin

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