Survival Guides

The German language from an English point of view.

The German language belongs to the group of Indoeuropean languages. It is, despite belonging to the same big language family than English or Spanish, quite different from these two. Especially some parts of German grammar are quite different to what a English native speaker is used to.


Let us have a look at some examples: there is not only the problem of the complete arbitrariness of the distribution of the three articles (feminine, masculine or neutral, “der die das”), but also the huge differences in syntax, which means roughly the ordering of the elements of a linguistic structure such as a sentence.

In German, many times the verb will stand at the very end of a sentence. Literally translating the German phrase “… weil ich müde bin” into English, you would not say something like “… because I am tired”, but rather “… but I tired am”. This can be quite confusing at the start of your German studies.

Also, and most beautifully already mentioned by the great Mark Twain in his humoristic 1880 essay “The awful German language”, it can be quite tiresome to fully grasp the meaning of not only long German compound words such as “Gebrauchsanleitung” or “Gesetzestextänderungsvorschlag”, what surprises most is the word order in a past tense of the German language, called Partizip Perfekt. There, you would have to put the participle of the verb that conveys the central meaning at the end of the whole sentence. This means, concretely, that an English sentence like “I have seen Paul yesterday at the Market after I stood up and put my shoes on” would translate literally into “I have Paul yesterday at the Market after I stood up and put my shoes on seen”. In German: “Ich habe Paul gestern auf dem Markt, nachdem ich aufgestanden war und meine Schuhe angezogen habe, gesehen”.

The verb ‘seen’ (‘gesehen’ in German) is at the very end of the whole sentence. The “scary” part is that in fact, these types of sentences do exist especially in written official language and especially they are unnecessarily complicated.

Recalling a bit of the history of the German language, we find it surprising to note that German did not have one normative Grammar for many centuries. It was rather a fuzzy cluster of dialects that somehow identified themselves as being all German. The word ‘Deutsch’ has its roots in the term ‘diutisc’, meaning originally something similar to “being part of the people”. Over the centuries, it evolved into ‘Deutsch’.

With the Christian Reformation process initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, and his translation from the Bible into German, a huge milestone for the process of regulation the German language was achieved. From then on, it has been a slow process of grammar reforms and more widespread use of German by German intellectuals like Immanuel Kant, for instance, what gave the German language a platform as a “real language” equal to any other language, and not just a bunch of unregulated dialects dominated by Latin or French.

The German philosopher Leibniz still published in French, Kant and Hegel already published and wrote in German. From the 19th century on, especially when the Prussian empire arose and aggressive German nationalism started, the German language was fully normalized and taught in schools.

Nowadays, besides the syntax we just saw, the pronunciation of German is of course also very different from English. Especially the German vowels ‘ä’, ‘ö’ and ‘ü’ are different.

“Viel Spaß beim Deutsch lernen!”. Have fun learning German!

Special thanks to Dr. Thomas Meier for his help to write this article.