‘If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast,’ said Clovis, ‘he deserved all he got.’
– Saki. “Tobermory”
The German language has a reputation for being difficult, complicated and harsh sounding. It’s a rather unfair critique, I think. Like swimming in the Irish Sea, it’s actually ‘fine once you’re in’, as they say. Once you dip your toe, you’ll discover that German can delight, inspire and challenge. Here are a few unusual facts about this logical and quirky language.
An article from Patrick, a Berlin based copywriter and writer.
1. The Three Genders
One of the first things that strikes a German language student is gender. All German nouns have been assigned a gender: masculine, feminine or neuter.
The gender of each noun, however, is not like in English a natural gender – where a boy and girl are examples of masculine and feminine nouns. In German, the gender is purely grammatical and has little to do with biology.
Gender markers are used to identify genders. This is where the famous definite articles Der, Die & Das come into play. English has just one gender marker for all nouns, the modest The – for more mental fun, Der, Die & Das are also declined depending on the case of the noun, but that’s for another day.
Learning gendered nouns and using them correctly can be one of the most difficult aspects of learning German, but you get a wonderful feeling when it finally all falls into place.
2. Keep your Caps on
German is the king of capitalisation. Every person, place and thing is capitalised. This also includes words which are not proper nouns but adjectives or adverbs which function as nouns, called Gerunds.
For example: rauchen (to smoke) – das Rauchen (smoking), arbeiten (to work) – das Arbeiten (working)
In general, German capitalisation rules are easy to learn. In fact, they are far less complicated than their English counterparts.
3. Compound nouns
German language loves joining nouns together to make new (and even longer) words. While this is not uncommon in other languages, German is perhaps most famous for it. Mark Twain famously poked fun at this in his essay, The Awful German Language.
Many years ago, when I started learning German, I remember the thrill when I suddenly understood that Bahnhof (train station) was derived from Bahn (railway track) + Hof (place / yard). It seemed to epitomise the logical tidy aspect of the language that I loved. It made vocabulary-building almost fun.
Soon they seem to pop up all over the place in their often comic reincarnations:
Your garden slug is eine Nacktschnecke (Naked-snail). If you need to hoover, get out your Staubsauger (Dust-sucker) and if it’s cold make sure you have your Handschuhe (Hand-shoes) with you.
Of course it doesn’t stop there. Once we get into the world of regulations, insurance and laws, the compound nouns really start to go wild.
Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung (Motor vehicle liability insurance).
Don’t let this frighten you. According to the authoritative Duden dictionary, with 36 letters, this is actually one of the longest words in the German language. It can only get easier from here.
4. From Compounds to Concepts
This flexibility of combining words has enabled German to express complex and abstract concepts in single words. And because they are so convenient, some have been gratefully adopted by other languages too.
There’s the well known Schadenfreude (Hurt-joy): taking pleasure in another person’s misfortune. Fremdscham (Foreign-shame): the embarrassment you feel on someone else’s behalf. Then there’s Weltschmerz (World-pain): a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness. Weltanschauung (World-perception), a term created by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, which denotes a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and humanity’s relation to it. Serious stuff.
They can also be wonderfully poetic. If you have the travel bug, you might have a case of Fernweh (literally Far-woe or pain) or, similarly, Wanderlust (Travel-desire).
Another interesting diversion are the compound words used to describe a man who is, let’s say, a bit of a ‘wimp’. Firstly, he’s called a Weichei (Soft-egg). Fantasy then takes flight and we get such things as:
Schattenparker (Shade-parker), Süßfrühstücker (Sweet-Breakfaster), Frauenversteher (Woman-Understander), Warmduscher (someone who only takes warm showers), Wochenendrasierer (Weekend-shaver; a man who also shaves on the weekend) …
Self-Ironic or not? Could the sheer amount of these compounds suggest that German men have issues with their own masculinity? Or they simply like thinking them up. Let’s just schattenpark it for now.
5. The letter ß – Eszett
As with the English language, the German alphabet has the standard 26 letters. It also boasts an additional character known as the Eszett or scharfes S (sharp S) as well as umlauted forms of three vowels. The Eszett is pronounced like the “s” in “see”. The ß is unique to the German language.
6. No silent letters
Dylan Moran once said that the German language sounds like ‘a typewriter eating tinfoil being kicked down the stairs’.
It may sound harsh to some ears, but German pronunciation is actually quite easy. German words are pronounced as they are written and without much variation. Unlike English, silent letters are all but non-existent in German. So you can pronounce every letter as you read it.
7. Verbs to the back please
To a language student, German can seem to move backwards, particularly regarding verb placement.
German is a subject-verb-object (SVO) language, just like English, but there are many examples where you have to put the verb at the end of the sentence, such as when using compound or modal verbs. To English-speakers, this can sound archaic when translated.
Ich werde meine Mutter bald besuchen
Literally: I will my mother soon visit
With less of an Anglo-Saxon slant: I will visit my mother soon
8. Ahead of its time
Germans count time until the next hour rather than the previous one. So if a German friend makes an appointment with you for halb vier (half four), they mean half an hour until 4:00pm, so 3.30pm. Be careful not to show up an hour later …
9. Most widely spoken native language in the EU
You’ll get surprisingly far in the world with your German. From the USA to Namibia, there are over 130 million people worldwide who speak German as their native language.
It is an official language in four countries in the EU: Germany, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg, and it’s also the most widely spoken native language in the EU. German is also an official language in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
And if you’re feeling alone as a German language student, take solace in the fact that German is the third most taught foreign language in the English-speaking world.
10. German and English are close relatives
It’s estimated that more than a third of English words are derived from German. After the collapse of Roman power in the fifth century CE, a number of west Germanic tribes migrated to the island: the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. The resulting language was Old English (or Anglo-Saxon).
With such similar linguistic origins, an English-speaker learning German can look forward to discovering a host of familiar looking words to welcome them home.