Why is German more complex than Spanish?

I have written many times before on how German (as a Germanic language) is more closely related to English than any Latinate language (like French, Italian or Spanish), and is indeed fundamentally the same. In some ways, this makes it easier to learn.

However, much though professional linguists will dispute my claiming this so definitively, the fact is German is a harder language to learn than Spanish for the average English speaker. How and why?

Consider the Spanish phrase:

con el perro

Here, my core vocabulary as even a novice would tell me that “con” is a preposition meaning something like “with”, and “el” is an article, “the”, marking masculine singular in this case (as, like most Latinate languages, Spanish distinguishes between two genders, masculine and feminine). We may also know, or be able to work out from the context, that “perro” in most instances means “dog”.

The advantage with Spanish is we now know not only what the word “perro” means but also how to use it. Nearly all words ending in –o are masculine and the plural in Spanish is formed by -(e)s, so we not only know that “dog” is “perro” but also that “dogs” is “perros“. This is the same regardless of the use of the word (whether it is a subject, and object, comes after a preposition, or whatever).

If we turn to German, life suddenly becomes a lot more complex.

mit dem Hund

For similar reasons to the above, we can work out that this means “with the dog”. We know from this what it means, and in particular what the word “Hund” (cognate with English “hound”, to make things even easier) means. However, we have a problem – we still have no idea how to use the word!

Firstly, even the article “dem” tells us only that “Hund” is masculine or neuter (German nouns have three genders, unlike in any other major Western European language). Secondly, worse still, we have no idea what the plural form is – it could be “Hund“, “Hünd“, “Hunde” (which is fact it is), “Hünde“, “Hunder“, “Hünder“, “Hunden“, conceivably “Hünden” or maybe even “Hunds“. This may be before we have come to learn that the dative plural (German also has four cases, two of which in the modern spoken language may be used after prepositions) generally adds –n – so, notwithstanding the above, the plural form would actually be “Hunden” in this case (literally!)

The immediate difficulty with German, therefore, is that it is not as easy to “absorb” in a way which means you can then use it accurately. Spanish has a much clearer and simpler set of markers than German has, making it more instantly accessible to learners.

This is not to say that Spanish is straightforward. The average verb in Spanish has over 50 distinct forms (invariably approaching 40 in common use), compared to just four in English and six in German. The point is, however, that once the patterns and irregularities are learned, they are clear; whereas in German, particularly with nouns, there are simply fewer reliable patterns and things like gender or plural form just have to be learned individually (even if some can be reasonably guessed).

That is the “how”. What about the “why”?

The reason that German has been more conservative with nouns and less so with verbs than Latinate languages such as Spanish (and indeed more conservative than other Germanic languages generally) is not easy to determine.

Broadly, German is a more noun-based language, which may explain why it has retained its complexities predominantly around them (effectively retaining only partially predictable “noun classes”), while simplifying verbs.

Nevertheless, there is no clear reason why German is quite so conservative, even versus similar languages such as Dutch. It was not a deliberate ploy around the time of standardisation (as it was for Italian), nor has German been particularly isolated (like Icelandic).

That German is tougher to reproduce accurately than Spanish for English speakers despite its closer family links may simply by luck of the linguistic draw.

 

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4 thoughts on “Why is German more complex than Spanish?

  1. korhomme says:

    What do you mean by “learn”? We all learn our mother tongue by listening and repeating, but we have to be actively taught the alphabet so we can read, and then we must be taught how to write. Learning a foreign language is similar; we can learn by listening and speaking, reading is a bit harder, and writing still more difficult – specially so in German where any grammatical mistakes are obvious. Prepositions are difficult in German; some may take either the accusative or the dative, with subtly different meanings. So, what level of competence do we strive for?

    Incidentally, I’ve heard that it’s easy to learn Spanish if you’ve already learned Italian, but not the other way round. Is this really correct?

    • Spot on. Languages are often taught appallingly (notably in schools) because they are not taught as we naturally learn them.

      The level of competence is also an important issue (I’ve touched on before). Really the point here is that it is easier to become competent and accurate in Spanish faster than in German; although ultimately it may well be that something approaching native proficiency is no easier to attain.

      I would suggest that is correct about Spanish and Italian (same applies to Spanish and Portuguese), at least all other things being even. Italian and Portuguese are just a wee bit more complex in certain ways (Italian in effect has more classes of verbs and also a few more complications with articles, for example; Portuguese is awkward because it was standardised in the middle of a sound shift leading to some irregularities), thus if you learn them first you can easily switch to Spanish, whereas if you learn Spanish first (as, unfortunately, I did!) you are faced with motivation-sapping complications! May well be worth a blog post on its own, that…

  2. […] sensible question raised after last week’s post was: what does “learning” a language […]

  3. […] have Portuguese and Italian, and is thus a useful conduit to them. Thirdly, it is also relatively simple to use after just a little learning. Best of all is our exposure to it – it is quite common for […]

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