"Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache." Translation
— German saying
A West Germanic language, German is the language of Germany
as well as parts of Belgium
. It is specifically the chief representative of the High German branch of the family (the minor one being Yiddish
); this is as opposed to Dutch, which is Low Franconian or Low German (depending on whom one asks), and English, which is Anglo-Frisian with a lot of French admixture. In the European Union, German is the most spoken mother tongue and the second most used language after English. See also German Literature
The language isn't quite so bad. The basic word order is Subject-Verb-Object. It is a common misconception that the verb always goes at the end, though the verb does get punted to the end in a lot of the special constructions. The grammar has differences from English (such as the inclusion of cases and endings, as well as strict word order), but it's not going to put anyone in an early grave like Japanese
, or Russian
. Even a beginner could be reasonably expected to be watching and understanding untranslated converstational and written German within one year.
Unlike most of the other modern Germanic languages, German comparatively still uses more inflection, which also allows a freer syntax. German retains four of the original eight Indo-European cases: nominative, genitive, dative and accusative. Compared to English, this usually results in less Ambiguous Syntax
and more narrowly definable meaning.
German has three different grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, with appropriate forms of (definite&indefinite) articles and pronouns etc. (der, die, das / ein, eine) to go with them. Grammatical gender does usually not
conform to biological sex. So there are objects which are gendered male or female, and beings which have a grammatical gender not conforming to their biological sex. E.g. "der Tisch" ('the table') is male, while "das Mädchen" ('the girl') is a neuter. Which Mark Twain
found very strange if not disturbing.
This is actually a regular thing, because Mädchen is the diminutive of "die Magd" (literally "maid", meaning "maidservant"). It has the ending -chen and regularly all diminutives are of neuter gender (hence "das Mädchen"). "Mädel" with the diminutive ending -el is a synonym for Mädchen and also of neuter grammatical gender. Nowadays the meaning of "Magd" is restricted to the worker, while "Mädchen" and "Mädel" are general terms for girl.
Different words for the same thing can have different gender ("das Auto" and "der Wagen").
Noun in German is capitalised. Since Danish abolished the Practice in 1948, German is the only
Language in the World that still has this Rule.
German, like most other non-English languages, distingushes several versions of the 2nd person ("you") according to number and formality (English indeed used to have it itself
and still does in the southern US
- "Du" (2nd Person Singular), "Ihr" (2nd Person Plural) - the informal forms. "Du" is directly cognate to (i.e. from the same root as) "thou," which (people seem to forget) was the informal in Early Modern English.
- "Sie" (3rd Person Plural "they") - the polite form, both for adressing one person or a group. Cognate to "she."
In the past, there were even more forms of address:
- "Ihr" (2nd Person Plural) - a very polite form directed at one person of higher rank, especially ruling monarchs. In fiction, this is used liberally to indicate historical settings. It is also popular as the most common form of addressing others in the translations of fantasy setting, as "Sie" typically is associated with a more modern, often businesslike attitude, making it seem out of place in Medieval European Fantasy.
- "Er" (3rd Person Singular male) / "Sie" (3rd Person Singular female) - for talking with people of lower ranks. Typical example: The Imperial Prussian officer asking some guy "Hat Er gedient?" ("Did he serve?" - in the army, that is.) The officer from Woyzeck also does this to the protagonist. Note: This form of speech is extremely condescending and should not be used in modern times. It is equivalent to saying "I'm not even talking to you, I'm talking about you and I happen to know that you can hear me."
- Confusingly, it can show up in the northeastern states of Germany as a (polite and formal) version of the formal "Sie".
The rules for the conjugation of verbs change the word according to the person, like in English an S has to be added in the third person singular (he sings):
- ich (I) singe
- du (you) singst
- er/sie/es (he/she/it) singt
- wir (we) singen
- ihr (you all) singt
- sie (they) singen
- Sie (formal you) singen
However, many verbs do not conform to this general rule.
Other than English, formal German lacks the progressive forms for verbs. Imagine that you had to say "I wait now" instead of "I'm waiting". In more colloquial language, you can say "Ich bin am Warten" (lit. "I'm at the waiting"), but making this distinction between progressive and simple tense is never required.
Another feature is that a multiple-word predicate can be scattered, putting the first half early and the second part at the end of the sentence. Many of those who learned German as a foreign language can be recognized when talking German because (for example) they don't put the verb at the end of the sentence when the rule says so. And interpreters sometimes get in trouble when translating into a language that asks for the verb to be deployed way earlier (which is mostly the case), because they have to wait for the sentence to be finished before starting to talk.
As remarked on the Headscratchers
for the French Language
, in English the possessive adjective follows the possessor, while in French it's the possessee
instead. In German? Both
apply - the possessor for the word, the possessee for the ending. Like this:
his son - son fils (à lui) - sein Sohn
her son - son fils (à elle) - ihr Sohn
his daughter - sa fille (à lui) - seine
her daughter - sa fille (à elle) - ihre
Writing & Pronunciation:
German generally uses (and needs) a lot more punctuation than English
; a side effect is that Germans sometimes use excessive-seeming punctuation when writing foreign languages.
(Standard) German spelling vs pronunciation is in general more consistent that in English, and is generally of the What You See Is What You Get
variety. (People have been lobbying for an English spelling reform for over a century for a reason; on the other hand, German got a recent 'reform' that was unneeded, totally redundant, and didn't really change anything except confuse people and muddle things up.) German vowels all have their own 'clean'/'Latin' value, and letters and letter combinations have a consistent pronunciation instead of the nowadays seemingly random pronunciation of English which is often a matter of learning it by heart beforehand. Note that the pronunciation of consonants and vowels is also dependent on their position in a morpheme. Very few letters always have the same pronunciation. Always consider the morpheme as a whole. (For example: "ch" has two pronunciations, depending on the antecedent consonant or vowel and the morpheme as a whole ("ch" is a voiceless palatal fricative (in standard german!) in the diminutive suffix "chen", if it is an initial sound (unless it is pronounced as "K"), in an ablaut ("-ig") and after e
, and a voiceless velar fricative after a
); "s" can be voiced and unvoiced; and so on. See consonants
German has four special characters, ä, ö, ü and ß (a ligature of ss or sz). The last one was subject to a German spelling reform in 1996, appearing less often in words nowadays, but not everyone has adopted the new spelling method. It is only used when not categorised anyway. Despite this, the ß is far from extinct. In fact recently a capitalized version has been introduced (none had existed because it was never used at the beginning of a word, but the increasingly frequent practice of writing in ALL CAPS led to a perceived need for a capitalized form of the ligature). Because of the restrictions of some keyboards and character encodings, these special letters are rendered ae, oe, ue and ss or sz if the correct characters aren't available. Note, however, that this is a lossy transformation: "zuende"note
and "zünde" have different pronunciations and meanings, as do "Masse" and "Maße".
All vowels exist in a long and a short version. If a vowel is duplicated, or there's an H behind it (or the special case of IE), it is (very likely) long. If there's more than one consonant behind it (except for the aforementioned H), is it probably a short one.
- A: The short version sounds similar as the English U in "butler", but more open. The long version sounds as in "bar".
- E: Short version - as in "ten". Long version - as in "play" (American pronunciation). Like in English, if the E isn't stressed, it becomes nearly invisible, like the E in "the door".
- I: The short version is pronounced like an English I in "is". The long version sounds more like EE, as in "eel".
- O: The long version is relatively similar to the English O, as in "holes". Except that you don't pronounce it the English way. The short version is just like the O in American English dog, at least for most speakers.
- U: Long version: As the English OO in "tool". Short version: Also like OO, but as in "good".
- Ä: The short one, like the short E above. The long one, more like A in "bare".
- Ö: Most similar to the U in "burn". Strictly speaking, like the French œil or feu. Except that the short German Ö is shorter and the long one, well, longer.
- Ü: Doesn't seem to exist in English. Pronounced like the French U in "fumer". The usual directions for English speakers is to pronounce the English long e ("ee" as in "eel") with the lips rounded like pronouncing U (the "oo" in "oops").
- AU: Pronounced like "Ow!", which coincidentally is the German meaning of "Au!"
- EI / AI: Pronounced like in "guy". It's Heil, not Hiel.
- EU / ÄU: Pronounced like "Oy". For example in the word "Fräulein" (which many Germans rather pronounced like "Frollein", when it was still widely used). It's Schadenfreude, not -fruede, or "Teufel", not Tuefel.
- IE: Pronounced like a long German I, see above. It's Krieg, Siegfried, not Kreig, Seigfreid.
- AE / OE / UE: These are substitutions for Ä, Ö and Ü if the writer isn't able to type umlauts.
- C: Either pronounced like 'K' or 'Z' (the German Z, not the English one). Unless it's in a consonant group like CH, CK or SCH, or from a loan word that kept its native pronunciation.
- CH: Exists in two flavors:
- The ach-Laut: after the vowels A, O, U and the combination AU (not when they have the umlaut sign). It's pronounced like Scottish loch or the J in Spanish (think of Mejico). Yes, doesn't exist in English, apparently.
- The ich-Laut: After all other vowels (and combinations). It's pronounced like the "hy" sound at the beginning of "human". It is often rendered as "sh", as in Kennedy's "Ish bin ein Bearleener", but that doesn't seem right). And at the beginning of words CH may be pronounced like "sh" or "k".
- CHS: Mostly pronounced like X, except for some dialects which pronounce it like a combination of CH and S.
- CK: For practical purposes, just like a double K. Before the reform of German orthography, rules said that you had to syllabify words with CK like "Zucker" (sugar) Zuk-ker (now, it's Zu-cker).
- DSCH: Like the English J in "jungle". Only used in loan words anyway.
- GN: Usually pronounced like two single letters as in “Wagner” (a name). In loan words (e. g. from French) often pronounced like “nj” (the German J) as in Kampagne (campaign).
- J: Most often pronounced like the English Y as in "you". Riding the fence between vowels and consonants.
- NG: Same as in English, in this combination the N is pronounced with the back part of the tongue touching the palatine as in “Ring” (ring).
- PF: Like "p" followed by "f", though many northern dialects slur it so that it sounds more like "F". Or "P", it depends on the dialect.
- QU: Rarely pronounced like “KU”, more like “KW” as in “Quark” (curd).
- R: On the start of a syllable, it is always softly rolled, or pronounced like a French "r." (not ‘gurgled’ as in English). At the end of a word hardly spoken. On the end of a syllable, it's barely pronounced.
- S: At the beginning of words, always pronounced like an English Z. At the end of words, always pronounced like S. In the middle of words, both are possible.
- SCH: The common consonant grouping "sch" in German is generally identical to the English "sh" (for example, "wash" and its German equivalent, "Waschen".
- SP: At the beginning of a word or word part pronounced like the English "shp", except for some loanwords and cases where the P is the beginning of another root in a compound word, such as Arbeitsplatz (Arbeit, "work" + Platz, "place). In the middle or at the end of a word always pronounced “sp” as in “Wespe” (wasp).
- ST: At the beginning of a word or word part pronounced like the English "sht", with exceptions similar to the above. In all other cases pronounced “st” such as in “Ast” (branch), with exceptions in some dialects.
- SZ / ß: As said, a ligature of ss or sz. The difference? If 'ss', vowels before are short. If 'sz', vowels before are long. Since the orthography reforms, the former is always written as 'ss', eliminating a bit of confusion.
- TH: simply a (anspirated) 't' sound, so for example 'Apotheker' (pharmacist) ends up sounding rather like "Apo-taker". (In fact, quite a number of such words have completely lost the 'h' in their official spelling over time — the word 'Tür' (door) was still spelled with Th as late as the early 20th century.) And it's used in the word Thron (throne), on which the Kaiser insisted when German orthography was standardized the first time.
- TSCH: Pronounced like English "ch" as in "church".
- V: The letter "V" in German is both ambiguous and technically redundant, being pronounced either "F" (e.g. Vogel) or "W" (e.g. Vase). A German W, of course.
- W: The most visible, or rather audible element of German to English speakers is the fact that Germans pronounce the letter "W" as English "V". Applying this pronunciation to English has been cliché for ages, as in that immortal phrase "ve have vays of making you talk". (In German, it's "Wir haben Mittel/Wege, dich/Sie zum Reden zu bringen"). In fact, many German speakers know about this difference and overcompensate when speaking English by pronouncing "V" as "W" ("voice" becomes "woice").
- X: Always pronounced like a combination of K and S.
- Y: Almost only used in foreign words, making it one of the Xtreme Kool Letterz in Germany. Pronounced either like Ü, J or sometimes I (the German versions).
- The reason why "Bavaria" is spelled Bayern in German is a certain Bavarian king's love for Ancient Greece. It was originally spelled Baiern, and that spelling, together with the adjective Bairisch, is sometimes used in relation to the region of Old Bavaria, as opposed to the Free State of Bavaria as a whole.
- Z: Pronounced like "ts" as in "cats". Sometimes also used in the combination TZ, which must look terribly redundant to English speakers, but is relevant to pronunciation. Also note that on German keyboards, Z is where the Y is and vice versa.
German uses compound words, which are written without spaces or either hyphenated, for example Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service), the German intelligence service. The last word in the compound is the main subject described by the earlier words. You can go to
infinite lengths in this regard. The longest word in regular German use is Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften
(insurance companies which provide legal protection). The longest German word published is Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft
(Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services — a pre-WW 2
part of a shipping company, which still exists today, but in shorter form). That's 79 letters and under the spelling reform, with three "f"s in "Schifffahrt", it became 80.
Naturally, these words are frequently contracted and some of the most notorious German things are known by their contractions:
- Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei — secret state police)
- Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit — Ministry for State Security and earlier Staatssicherheitsdienst- State Security Service)
- Vopos (Volkspolizei- People's Police)
- And of course, Nazi (Nationalsozialist — national socialist, duh)
Foreign language issues:
Germans are excellent English speakers but less skilled people often make the same mistakes.
- In some environments, the German word that Germans use for "that" sounds like "what". So "what" is the word what Germans use.
- Germans absolutely love the word "genau" (absolutely/exactly). Whereas in English one might say "correct", "yeah", or "right", a German would say "genau".
- Germans also often get confused about simple tenses vs the continuous forms, and past vs present perfect. The former distinction doesn't exist; the latter does (preterite vs present perfect), but it's less clear-cut than in English and the preterite has died out in half the dialects, anyway.
- German speakers, when faced with a two-word term that is rendered as a compound word in German, will often hyphenate the phrase in English (software-version, root-folder, E-mail etc.) or even smash it together instead of writing it as two separate words. When such words were adopted into German, they kept the hyphens.
Let's not forget all the false cognates and false friends
, of which the English and the German languages have so many,note
some of the most important ones being:
- "bekommen" which is very similar to "to become" but actually means "to get/receive" or "to come by".
- This is a common mistake both for English speakers with poor German and for German speakers with poor English.
- "aktuell" which is close to "actually", but actually means "currently" or "up to date".
- "gift": While it had the same origin and in ancient times the same meaning, the word "gift" came to be used as an euphemism for 'poison' in the Middle Ages, which is nowadays the word's only meaning; the only exception is its survival in the term "Mitgift" ('dowry'). This can result in amusing contexts, e.g. "gift shops".
- "mist": Both English "mist" and German "Mist" come from the same origin: the steam rising off of a fresh pile of dung. The English meaning latched to the steam bit and was extended to mean all steam-like stuff, regardless of source; the German was attached to the dung bit and was extended to mean all feces, regardless of freshness. This has led to the occasional bit of Bite The Wax Tadpole. And is the reason why "Irish Mist" was renamed "Irish Moos" (=moss) in Germany.
- "wollen" changes to resemble "will" when conjugated in the present singular, but actually means "to want (to)." The word "werden" means either "will" or "become," although "wollen" is a cognate of the English noun "will."
A considerable number of German words have entered English, for example:
- Kindergarten (children's garden). In contrast to most other examples, this one has greatly receded in German itself, replaced by either "Krippe" or "Kindertagesstätte" (which is, of course, abbreviated to "Kita" - see above).
- Zeitgeist (spirit of the times)
- Blitz (lightning, or also metaphorically 'speed-' when used in compounds). This is mostly used in discussing by Brits when discussing The Home Front — especially the Nazi attempt to bomb the UK into submission. Those Wacky Nazis used Blitzkrieg (speed war) as a strategy during the Second World War and there are other examples, but the term was not used officially by the Wehrmacht.
- Volkswagen (brand name "people's car")
- Angst (though in German, this word rather means ordinary "fear")
- Ersatz- (Actually meaning "replacement" or "substitute" rather than "fake." While—for instance—calling the President of the Weimar Republic the Ersatzkaiser seems insulting to Americans, it was just an honest assessment in the minds of Germans.)
- Gedankenexperiment (thought experiment)
- Rucksack (Literally meaning "backpack". Hilariously, for marketing purposes the English word "bodybag" has sometimes been spotted in advertisements for the product. May also come from the Dutch word for backpack: rugzak. How the word appeared in English is unclear.)
- Stein ("stone"; "stoneware mug")
- Dachshund ("Badger dog", as it's a hunting dog), commonly called Dackel for short
- Eigen- (meaning "of one's own", as in eigenvalue, eigenvector and eigenspace.)
- Schnaps, although it should be noted that the German word Schnaps refers to strong alcoholica in general (whisky, gin, etc.) and the group of fruit Brandies specially. Likör, on the other hand, refers to spirits with less than 18% ethanol contents (that's 36 proof in the other system) and a lot of sugar (what Americans call schnapps).
- Ear Worm is actually a calquenote of the German Ohrwurm.
These are just some of the ones that have retained their spelling. Of those which didn't, three have to be mentioned: Übermensch
(Danke schön, Nietzsche
(Danke schön, Wagner
There also a number of phrases associated with Those Wacky Nazis
— see that entry. Once upon a time, this was considered the Black Speech
Some German words that didn't enter English (yet) but should: Backpfeifengesicht
, Kummerspeck, Neidbau
Languages influencing German
On the other hand, Gratuitous English
has bled into German through its use in the media, with the usual adaption of names and terms, but also with correct and incorrect use
of English and pseudo-English
used as names and in marketing, etc. Another fact is the spreading of English 'spellings' which, for German, are simply incorrect, or sometimes wouldn't even be correct for English.
The German word for a mobile phone is "Handy," which Stephen Fry seems to find utterly hilarious
. This is just one of many words passed from English into German with an entirely different meaning to the original - take, for example, 'Partnerlook' (when two people, not necessarily partners in the couple sense, dress the same way), or 'der Smoking' (a dinner jacket). Wonderful mish-mash words such as 'ausflippen' (to flip out) also exist, taken directly from the English but conjugated according to German verb rules. Hence 'downloaden' (to download, surprisingly enough) becoming 'ich downloade, du downloadest, er hat es gedownloadet' and so on. This phenomenon is known as Denglis(c)h. (With thanks to The Other Wiki
Most jarring among the grammatical influences is the "idiot's apostrophe", which is used all over the place. In German, the apostrophe is only used to signify an omission of letters. Its least offensive misuse is to separate the genitive-S from a noun, which was correct in German over a hundred years ago but is no longer used. However, apostrophes appear in every conceivable and some inconceivable place, resulting in apostrophed plural's and apo'strophe's in the middle of word's
. These mistakes are, however, also made by native English speakers (who, having been brought up in a language that - unlike German - uses apostrophes on a regular basis, really ought to know better).
Another new development is that compound words, which in German should be either written without spaces or with hyphens (Armbanduhr, Frage-und-Antwort-Spiel), are now increasingly written as separate words. This sets the whole delicate construction that is a grammatical German sentence spinning on its axis, because the newly created separate parts of what used to be one word now ought to be declined. Generally, things are just simpler if you write everything together in the good-old-traditional-way.
German has fewer loan words (especially from Latin and French) than English, since obviously the Norman influence was missing. Might also have to do with the fact that at several times during history, some Germans thought that the German Language was flooded with too many foreign words and invented German replacements. (The Nazis also did this, but it wasn't their idea.) Some of the more stupid ones like "Gesichtserker" for "nose" never made it (if it wasn't a Stealth Parody
in the first place), but look at this list for some examples which did:
- pneumonia - Lungenentzündung
- duodenum - Zwölffingerdarm
- author - Schriftsteller (although "Autor" also is used)
- passion - Leidenschaft
- An interesting case is "realisieren", which is a perfectly fine German verb originally corresponding to English's "to realize" strictly in its "to make real" aspect but has in recent years started to also see use in the latter's sense of "to become aware". Since the one is something one actively works to accomplish and the other something that kind of just happens to a person, older native speakers can find the anglicism somewhat counterintuitive and jarring.
- Often used in context of Those Wacky Nazis, or as Gratuitous German. The latter is often used for Nazi-styled or evil characters, and often in Japanese Anime, where it can also appear with neutral or good characters.
- Everything Sounds Sexier in French: As a rule of thumb: the opposite. German is commonly stereotyped as harsh and/or scary. Probably influenced the fact that the 'German' non-Germans are most likely to hear are Second World War soundbites of Adolf Hitler hamming it up, movie characters trying to sound evil or creepy, or metal bands trying to cash in on the image by doing all of the above. On the other hand, there is a certain tradition among intellectuals that Everything Sounds Smarter In German: because of the massive influence of German philosophy in the 19th and early 20th centuries (particularly Friedrich Nietzsche, and his myriad disciples, such as Wacky Nazi Martin Heidegger) using German words like Weltanschauung is a fairly common practice in academia. Also physicists use more than a handful of German words, due to the large number of notable German and German-speaking scientists, like Albert Einstein or Werner Heisenberg, and the contributions they made to physics. This association is much less common today than the "menacing" stereotype, though it can still be observed. note .
- Xtreme Kool Letterz work the opposite in German. "Zirkus" is the modern spelling. However, many if not most circuses go with the old-timey spelling and call themselves "Circus [something]". Generally, ditching Z's and K's for C's, I's for Y's and sprinkling silent H's after consonants ("Rathhaus" instead of "Rathaus") makes something look old-fashioned, or Kool (in a Gothick way).