How to learn languages – German

German is the most published language in the world after English – and thus a near requirement for anyone studying anything from linguistics to great philosophers. It is also the most spoken native language in Europe, and is economically global. Only Chinese and English speakers collectively export more to the rest of the world than German speakers.

german

Regional dialects remain comparatively strong in German-speaking Europe. Peculiarly, the German of Berlin as traditionally spoken is arguably as close to Standard Dutch as modern Standard German.

German is, however, both seemingly alien (not being derived from Latin) and harsh (with its consonants, hard sounds, and glottal stops). It is also perceived to be considerably more complex than other languages.

How true are the stereotypes?

Phonology

German is, unquestionably, a harsh language. It is markedly consonantal and exhibits harsh sounds, notably /x/ (usually written [ch]).

However, the phonology is relatively straightforward and accessible for speakers of most other Western languages. The vowels are relatively simple, the diphthongs uncomplicated, and most consonants straightforward. Stress is generally on the first syllable of the word (or the first syllable after any prefix). The challenge for many speakers is simply the length of words, and knowing where to place stress within them.

German is noted also for strong fairly aspirated pronunciation of consonants, the placement of glottal stops before initial vowels, and the devoicing of any final consonants in the modern language (so, for example, Tod is pronounced identically to tot).

The standard language is based on dialects which generally underwent a second consonantal sound shift in the late first millennium. This notably moved [t] to <(t)s> and [p] to <(p)f>, thus English ‘water’ (Dutch water) and ‘ten’ (Dutch tien) become German Wasser and zehn; English ‘pepper’ (Dutch peper) becomes German Pfeffer.

Standard

The standardisation of German was complex, but the outcome in terms of the written language was pleasingly regular. There remains no specific spoken standard – German newsreaders happily betray their general geographical origins.

Given the lack of unity across German-speaking lands until the late 19th century, dialect variation was a constant feature throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern era. Generally these were split into “Low” (northern) and “High” (southern) dialects. Luther’s Bible translation formed the basis for what, over a period, became Standard Written German, and it veers towards “High”. Over time, this predominantly southern form took over from Low German in the north, meaning that dialect variation there is now much less marked than in the south. Thus, even though they are geographically distant from the basis for the written standards, northern dialects (particularly those around Hanover) are often regarded as the nearest to a standard spoken form.

German displays umlauts on low vowels to mark fronting (<ä>, <ö>, <ü>), usually where a high vowel once followed (or still follows) a subsequent consonant (England ‘England’; Englände‘Englishman’); the distinction may be a grammatical marker (Mutter ‘mother’; Mütter ‘mothers’).

German is also noted for the scharfes S, the <ß> character originally representing [sz] but now seen as a specific letter in its own right (except in Switzerland).

German also marks all nouns with an initial capital letter, a practice which was once widespread in other Germanic languages but which is now exclusive to German.

Markedly, German is strict about separating clauses with commas: ich sehe, dass er da ist ‘I see that he is here’.

Austria and Switzerland have their own standard languages (and “Swiss German” is a separate story even from those). Although orthographical standards are agreed across all three countries and the standard versions are mutually intelligible, these can exhibit some grammatical differences (a tendency in Austria and Switzerland towards forming the past with the auxiliary verb rather than an ending; some differentiation in genders particularly in new words to do with technology; minor differences in prefixes particularly in Switzerland) and significant differences in vocabulary (most obviously around food – words for everything from ‘horseradish’ to ‘carrot’ are different).

German underwent a minor but controversial spelling reform in the late 1990s, aimed at regularising certain points of orthography.

Vocabulary

German vocabulary is hugely of Germanic origin, thus close to older languages such as Old High German, Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Gothic. It is thought that up to 30% of Germanic vocabulary is not ultimately Indo-European.

Key numbers:

  • 1 eins, 2 zwei (zwo), 3 drei, 4 vier, 5 fünf, 6 sechs, 7 sieben, 8 acht, 9 neun, 10 zehn;
  • 11 elf, 12 zwölf, 16 sechzehn, 17 siebzehn, 20 zwanzig, 24 vierundzwanzig; 
  • 100 hundert, 1000 tausend;
  • 456789 vierhundertsechsundfünfzigtausendsiebenhundertneunundachtzig.

Allowing for the Second Consonantal Sound shift noted above, this means that core German vocabulary is close to English and Dutch:

  • hier ‘here’; das ‘that’; uns ‘us’; haben ‘(to) have’; Apfel ‘apple’; vergeben ‘forgive’.

Key personal pronouns (1st, 2nd, 3rd person; nominative, accusative, dative):

  • singular ich, mich, mir; du, dich, dir; er/sie/es, ihn/sie/ihn, ihm/ihr/ihm;
  • plural wir, uns; ihr, euch; sie, sie, ihnen.

The polite ‘you’ form is the third person plural in all instances (at least in the modern language), capitalised in writing (Sie, Sie, Ihnen).

German has a well known tendency to group nouns (and sometimes adjectives) together as a single word:

  • Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung ‘speed limit’, Überwachungsverein ‘oversight authority’, kostenpflichtig ‘at own cost’.

Grammar

By the standards of Western languages, the German noun is remarkably conservative and thus extraordinarily complex. It, or its supporting words, is marked for singular or plural (there are no fewer than seven common ways of doing this), three genders and four cases. Masculine plural tends to be marked -e or not at all with or without umlaut (Wagen-Wagen ‘car-cars’; Apfel-Äpfel ‘apple-apples’; Tag-Tage ‘day-days’; Floh-Flöhe ‘flea-fleas’); feminine in –(e)n (Frau-Frauen ‘woman-women’; Zeitung-Zeitungen ‘newspaper-newspapers’); neuter in –er with or without umlaut (Haus-Häuser ‘house-houses’; Felder-Felder ‘field-fields’). Even with these complex generalisations, exceptions abound and in many cases dialectal variations are allowed (for example the alternative plural Wägen is allowable in the South). There is also a set of ‘weak’ masculine nouns (and effectively one neuter) which mark all cases except the nominative (subject) singular in -(e)n, occasionally with other exceptional modifications (Held ‘hero’; Helden ‘hero [object]; to hero; of hero; heroes’); all other masculine and neuter nouns mark their singular genitive in –(e)s – this has merged with the dative for feminine nouns and is in the process of doing so with all nouns in spoken German. The singular masculine and neuter dative ending –e is in the process of being lost even in the written language, restricted almost exclusively to set phrases (auf dem Lande ‘in the countryside’).

Verb endings in present tense (1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • lache, lachst, lacht; lachen, lacht, lachen.

Infinitive is lachen; past participle gelacht; rare gerund lachend.

Verbs are marked for present or past; they may also be marked for subjunctive or conditional (which are often, but not always, the same form), although generally these forms are restricted to very common verbs (sein ‘to be’, haben ‘to have’ and auxiliaries) in all but the most formal language. Most verbs mark the past by adding a dental suffix: ich lache ‘I laugh’; ich lachte ‘I laughed’; with the exception of third person singular, endings are retained for both (du lachst ‘you laugh’, du lachtest ‘you laughed’; sie lachen ‘they laugh’, sie lachten ‘they laughed’; but er lacht ‘he laughs’, er lachte ‘he laughed’). As in English, irregular verbs are typically (but not always) “strong”, i.e. they form the past by changing the root vowel – ich singe ‘I sing’, ich sang ‘I sang‘ (some also exhibit changes in the second and third person singular: ich sehe ‘I see’, du siehst ‘you see’). Many speakers even avoid the past form for all but the most common verbs, particularly in the south, preferring auxiliaries (usually haben or, typically to mark motion, sein) plus past participle: du hast gelacht ‘you (have) laughed’, du bist gefahren ‘you have travelled’; the passive is similarly formed with the auxiliary werden ‘to become’, which is possible even with the neuter dummy subject es: es wird gelacht ‘there is laughing [it is laughed]’. Other meanings – future, conditional, potential, obligation and so on – are expressed through auxiliaries plus the infinitive, with changes to word order: ich muss ihm vergeben ‘I must forgive him’ (note also that some verbs, such as vergeben, take an object in the dative rather than the accusative case).

At least in the formal written language, all German main verbs must have a subject (unlike most Latin-based languages).

Prepositions may merge with articles, particularly in the masculine/neuter: in + dem = im; in + das = ins; zu + der = zur etc. They govern the accusative or dative case (or either, depending on motion towards), or very exceptionally in formal German the genitive: ich gehe ins Kino ‘I go into the cinema’; ich bin im Kino ‘I am in the cinema’; wegen des Wetters [modern spoken wegen dem Wetter] ‘because of the weather’.

Key prepositions:

  • in ‘in(to)’; zu ‘to(wards)’; an ‘at, to’; mit ‘with’; durch ‘through’; gegen ‘against’.

Only masculine singular nouns mark a distinction between subject (nominative) and object (accusative). Weak nouns mark both the article/determiner/adjective and the noun itself – subject der gute Herr versus object den guten Herrn ‘the good gentleman’; strong nouns do not mark the noun itself – subject der gute Mann versus object den guten Mann ‘the good man’. Adjectives also have two sets of endings depending essentially in whether the case is already apparent: ein guter Mann, der gute Mann. Adjectives do not agree with nouns predicatively: der Mann ist gut ‘the man is good’. Modern German generally marks only one level of gradation: dieser Mann ‘this/that man’. Adverbs are unmarked, as in most other Germanic languages: sie hat es klar gehört ‘she heard it clearly’.

Word order is strict and complex. German is fundamentally an SOV and V2 language. In interrogative clauses the main verb goes first and in main clauses it specifically goes second: ich habe gehört, dass sie darüber lachen konnten ‘I heard that they were able to laugh about it [I have heard, that they about it to laugh were able]’; hast du gesehen, ob er da war ‘Did you see if he was there?’ This “verb-second” rule applies regardless of what comes first, even if it is another clause: Gestern hast du darüber gelacht ‘Yesterday you laughed about it [Yesterday have you about it laughed]’; Als du ihm vergeben hast, habt ihr darüber gelacht ‘When you forgave him, you laughed about it’. There are also strict rules about the order of other phrases, including the positioning (towards the end of the clause) of the negative particles nicht: Gestern habe ich gehört, dass wir darüber nicht lachen konnten ‘Yesterday I heard that we were not able to laugh about it’.

Character

German is a generally noun-based language. Phrases are based on nouns: Bei schlechtem Wetter, bleiben wir zuhause ‘If the weather is bad [By bad weather], we will stay at home’.

German can also show a preference for a degree of precision deemed irrelevant by other languages. For example, linguistic concepts such as Dachsprache or philosophical concepts such as Dasein cannot be adequately translated, and are often carried over exactly as they are into other languages. German is known even for modern terms, notably almost always nouns, which have no adequate translation: Schadenfreude, Weltmüdigkeit, Gemütlichkeit and many others.

What next

Nearest to German is Dutch…

Vater unser im Himmel, geheiligt werde dein Name; dein Reich komme; dein Wille geschehe; wie im Himmel so auf Erden. Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute. Und vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern; und führe uns nicht in Versuchung, sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.

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8 thoughts on “How to learn languages – German

  1. korhomme says:

    A ‘harsh’ language? In Switzerland, a native French speaker told me that they thought that German was ‘barked’.

    As for spelling; there was a simplification at the start of the 20th century, based as is usual in German on Düden, the dictionary people. A silent ‘h’ was removed from many words; ‘Thal’ became ‘Tal’, ‘Rath’ became ‘Rat’, as in Rathaus; etc [usw].

    • Yes indeed – the Neanderthals were killed off twice in Germany 🙂

      I should perhaps have added that German has also changed markedly post-War, with a greater tendency towards borrowing and rephrasing. I don’t know how you find it, but I find anything I read from the Inter-War years has something peculiar (from a modern point of view) in almost every sentence.

      • korhomme says:

        I’m afraid that my German has gone into a decline through disuse over the years. I doubt if I’d see the differences you describe.

      • A bit like my Spanish. With languages, it’s use it or lose it unfortunately!

      • korhomme says:

        Well,yes and no.

        I think learning a language is a bit like learning to ride a bike. The skill to balance on two wheels isn’t something that you loose, though the ability may well weaken with time. But if you then try to ride a bike, you won’t fall off.

        Language, I think, is similar. It may become rusty through non-use, but given the right environment the facility returns.

        But…unless the general cerebral functions are maintained, then I’d agree, they are lost with age. This is almost certainly a problem that I have, not you, young man! 😉

  2. I’ll return to the “young man” point next month…!

  3. You caught me off-guard by “Wagen-Wagen/Wägen”. The read reminds me of Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language”.

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