An Oktoberfest Grammar Lesson
It is Oktoberfest time in Munich, Germany. For two weeks each year, the Oktoberfest, also called “die Wiesn”, draws millions of visitors from all around the world. In 2018, a total of 6.3 million people drank about 2 million gallons of beer, ate about 510,000 rotisserie chickens and 60,000 pork sausages. The number of pretzels consumed is surprisingly difficult to find. What started as a royal wedding between Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildeburghausen on October 12th, 1810, turned into an international event generating an estimated $1.5 billion in Tourist Revenue. People from all over the world travel to Munich to sit in one of the many tents, ride the roller coasters, or just wander the fairgrounds filled with the smell of cotton candy, fried foods and beer.
On September 21st, promptly at 12.00 o’clock noon, the Mayor of Munich Dieter Reiter opened the 186th Wiesn with the traditional tapping of the first keg of the season, preceded by the celebratory march in traditional uniform (Tracht) and brass band to the Theresienwiese, the massive 4.5 million sq. ft. area where the Wiesn takes place every year. The ceremonial tapping of the keg is followed by the exclamation: “O’zapft is!”. Only then is the Oktoberfest season truly open.
But what does “O’zapft is” mean? The simple answer is: “It’s tapped!”. The complicated answer is of course a lot more fun.
German is a language that, in a typical sentence, follows a S-V-O word order, as is English. For example: He (the subject) drinks (verb) a beer (object). This sentence In German is: Er trinkt ein Bier. The verb (trinkt) is in second position, after the subject (Er), followed by the direct object, the beer. Is that always the case? No. Typically, when we formulate questions in German, the subject slips behind the verb. While in English, most questions are formed using the auxiliary verb “to do”, (Does he drink a beer?”), in a German question, the verb is now in position one, turning the word order into “V-S-O”. Trinkt (verb) er (he) ein Bier? (object) which literally means: Drinks he a beer? Is this the only time the word order changes? No.
For the purpose of emphasis, any part of a sentence, be it an object, an adverb of time or frequency or an adjective, can be moved to the beginning of the sentence. For example: “A beer, he drinks.”, putting the emphasis on “a beer!”. While in English, the verb remains behind the subject in this example, in German, something else happens: “Ein Bier trinkt er.” (literally, a beer drinks he.) Just like when formulating a question, we use an inverted word order, where the subject slips behind the verb. Any German sentence that starts with something other than the subject, will have inverted word order.
Ok, so what does this have to do with the Oktoberfest? Well, “O’zapft is!” is an abbreviated and contracted sentence in the inverted word order. Literally translated it would be “Tapped is!” “O’zapft” is a Bavarianized, contracted version of “angezapft”, which is the participle of “anzapfen” (to tap). It is a separable verb an-zapfen, which means the participle prefix of “ge-“, slips in between the prefix “an” and the base verb “zapft”. I tap, I tapped, I have tapped. Ich zapfe an. Ich zapfte an. Ich habe angezapft!
The completely spelled-out version of the sentence “O’zapft is” is: “Es ist angezapft!”, meaning “It is tapped.” However, Bavarians like to blend and merge letters and syllables together for efficiency sake, so “angezapft” became “o’zapft”. So, “Es ist “o’zapft”. But now, because we want to put emphasis on the fact that the keg is, in fact, tapped, we will put the participle in the beginning of the sentence, creating an inverted word order: “O’zapft ist es! (Tapped, it is!). And in the Bavarian spirit of merging letters and syllables, “ist” turned into “is”, and because everyone knows that “es” (it) refers to the keg, and we don’t like to waste time on unnecessary redundancies, it was left out as well. So, “O’zapft is!”
Now, did this help to give you a deeper insight into the intricacies of German beer culture? No. However, did it give you a better understanding of the complexity of German grammar? Maybe a little. If you wish to learn more out about either of those two, our language and cultural training may be perfect for you…