German language

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German (in its own language: Deutsch) is a West Germanic language, the official language of Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein, one of several official languages in Switzerland and Belgium, and also spoken in Italy and Denmark. It is also used for various official purposes in Luxembourg alongside Luxembourgish, which was previously regarded as one of the many German dialects. Hochdeutsch, 'High German', is the standard version of German as taught in schools and used by the media, business, and government.

The German dialects are spoken throughout Germany, Austria and elsewhere. Over 100 million people count some variety of German as a native language[1], and it remains an important second language for millions more, from Americans interested in the language as a link to their forefathers, to business people, politicians and students who need to communicate with their customers, colleagues and peers. There is also a large corpus of writings in German, on literature, philosophy, psychology, mathematics, and other fields, that is of interest to a wide international audience.

Dialect and Standard Language

see main article: German dialects


The main dialect division is between southern dialects which participated in the Second or High German Consonant Shift (the High German dialects) and northern dialects (Low German dialects) which did not participate in this shift. Many Low German dialects have become heavily influenced by the standard language, which is based on High German.

Standard Language

Hochdeutsch ('High German') is the German dialect encountered by most second language learners, and by native speakers in school. It has considerable prestige because it is used in education, business, government, and literature.

It is the 'standard' variety of the language, but is not necessarily the speech of everyday conversation in such countries as Germany, where regional dialects differ considerably. In Switzerland, standard German is even less likely to be the preferred choice amongst native Swiss German speakers, and is largely confined to print, broadcasting and formal lectures. Because Hochdeutsch has an alternate specialised meaning amongst linguists (pertaining to a specific group of German dialects in one particular region), Standarddeutsch ('Standard German') may be used to refer to the German language of officialdom.


Work in Progress





Nominal Inflection

Standard German has three noun genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. The standard language also retains only a difference in number of singular and plural, though some dialects use forms of the plural pronouns that were originally dual forms. Gender assignment is lexicalised, largely inherited from Germanic, though some correspondence with biological gender is evident in nouns referring to humans and animals, e.g. der Mann 'the man' is masculine, die Frau 'the woman' is feminine. But many classes of nouns have a gender that is mechanically associated with noun-forming suffixes, e.g. das Mädchen 'the girl' is neuter because all nouns formed with the diminutive suffix -chen are automatically neuter in Modern Standard German.

Common noun suffixes with fixed gender:

  • feminine: -e, -heit, -keit, -ion, -ung
  • neuter: -chen, -lein

German retains a remnant of the old Germanic distinction between strong and weak nouns. The vast majority of nouns in German are or have become strong nouns, but some weak nouns remain. These nouns are inflected with an -(e)n in all oblique cases and the nominative plural, e.g. der Name:

singular plural
nominative der Name die Namen
genitive des Namen der Namen
dative dem Namen den Namen
accusative den Namen die Namen

There are also a few weak nouns that take the ending -ens in the genitive singular, e.g. des Herzens.

German has four substantive cases: nominative, genitive, dative and accusative, but German nouns only have a rudimentary system of case markings. Case is primarily marked in determiners (articles and pronouns) and to some extent also in adjectives.

The following table shows the forms of the definite and indefinite article for the three genders (plus plural) and the four cases.

masculine feminine neuter plural
nominative der - ein die - eine das - ein die - (keine)
genitive des - eines der - einer des - eines der - (keiner)
dative dem - einem der - einer dem - einem den - (keinen)
accusative den - einen die - eine das - ein die - (keine)

Verbal Inflection

German has two tenses proper: present tense (Präsens) and simple past/preterite (Präteritum or Imperfekt). Other tenses are formed with the help of auxiliary verbs: present perfect (Perfekt), past perfect (Plusquamperfekt), future (Futur).

In the past tense and the perfect German, like all other Germanic languages retains the division between strong and weak verbs. Thus, weak verbs form their preterite and perfect by adding a suffix with a dental (t or d), while strong verbs, instead of adding a suffix, change their stem vowel according to a number of set patterns. German retains verbs for all 7 classes of strong verbs, though the forms for the preterite singular and plural have coalesced.



Note: Copied from German dialects

Although English is a Germanic language, it now differs from the German dialects in its extremely large vocabulary expanded from many different languages such as French, Latin or Spanish. Translators trying to render German into English may find a dozen English synonyms of only subtle (if any) difference in meaning, as compared to a single word in German. This has made translating the works of e.g. Martin Heidegger or Sigmund Freud particularly difficult: any two translations may contain almost completely different terminology in English. Thus, scholars are encouraged to attempt to read such thinkers in the original German if at all possible. In fact, English nowadays sports a huge unabridged dictionary, but German does not have need for an unabridged dictionary of comparable size, due to its relatively smaller vocabulary and to its active word-building capacity.

Most vocabulary in German is in fact built up by compounding two or more of the core words together. The meaning of such words is generally obvious to children as they acquire language, and they do not need to look up words in a dictionary nearly as often as English-speaking children do. For example, in English we have the term "glove", but in German it is called Handschuh ("hand shoe"). If children already know the words Hand and Schuh, they don't have to be taught what Handschuh means the first time they hear it. Building on this, in English we have the term "glove compartment" in reference to cars. In German, that is Handschuhfach ("hand shoe box"), and in the context of a car it is immediately clear in meaning, whereas English speaking children must first learn the Latin-derived word "compartment" before "glove compartment" makes any sense.

Another example is the word "superficial" in English: many English speaking children must explicitly be told its meaning at first. But the German equivalent of "superficial" is oberflächlich ("over" and "flatly"), and its obvious meaning to Germans is "skimming (over) the surface".

In mathematics, English speakers must learn arcane terms like "apex", whereas German speakers encounter Spitze ("peak", the same word used for "mountaintop"). This reliance on building larger or broader concepts out of its core words has made German a more elegant language for learning of mathematics than English, as little latinized vocabulary need be learned when reading about mathematics in German.

Relative ease of learning German for native English speakers

Note: Copied from German dialects

German is considered by many to be one of the more accessible foreign languages for native speakers of English to learn. This is due not only to the similarities of core words in the two languages (due to their common Germanic roots), but also to German's reliance on compound words built from simple ones. To an English speaker, Spanish or another Romance language might seem easier initially because it has shorter words and a more familiar word order and sentence structure, but Spanish has a much larger "different" vocabulary which English speakers must learn. German, on the other hand, builds most of its extended words from its core words, so acquisition of sufficient German vocabulary by English speakers can occur much faster than for many other foreign languages. The comparative regularity of German spelling also makes learning the written language easier.

Studies show that more than one hundred of the (500 or so) core words of English and German are still close enough to be considered cognates, which are words that are so similar that they are very easy for English speakers to remember. Examples of cognates are hand (German Hand), and water (German wasser), which though pronounced differently, are still recognizably similar. Almost one hundred additional core words are false cognates (looking or sounding alike but with strikingly different meanings); false cognates also are easy to remember once a learner has made the embarrassing mistake of misusing what appears to be a cognate. False cognate examples include English gift (German Gift, meaning poison), and English mist (German mist, meaning manure).

Testimonials of American soldiers serving in Germany in World War II showed that American soldiers were able to pick up substantial amounts of German in only a few months without any formal training, just by hearing a lot of it spoken in real-world situations. This may well be a consequence of the close similarity of the core words of the two languages.

History of the German Language

Work in Progress

It is customary to describe the history of the German language in three or four main periods:

  1. the so-called "Old" period, which extends from the earliest beginnings of literacy and records (ca. AD 700) until ca. AD 1100. Reconstructions of German-specific developments before the onset of records are usually called Pre-Old High German or Pre-Old Low German.
  2. the "Middle" period, extending from ca. AD 1100 until ca. AD 1400.
  3. the "Early Modern" or "Early New" period, extending crom ca. AD 1400 until ca. 1750.
  4. the "Modern" period, from ca. 1750 until the present.

Because of the important dialect division between High and Low German (see German dialects), the history of German is further subdivided into sections for these dialects.

Old High German

see main article: Old High German

Old Saxon (Old Low German)

see main article: Old Saxon

Middle High German

see main article: Middle High German

Middle Low German

see main article: Middle Low German

Early New High German

Early Modern Low German

Modern High German

Modern Low German

see main article: Low German

Spelling reform of 1996

The Rechtschreibreform of July 1996 standardised the orthography (spelling) of the standard German language by the governments of Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland where German is an official language. (Luxembourg did not agree to this standardisation, but the autonomous province of Bozen-Südtirol in Italy and also the German speaking communes of Belgium did). [2][3] [4] However, these moves towards standardisation are still controversial and many respected institutions, journals and newspapers still preserve (or have returned to) pre-reform German spelling. Although German spelling was already far more regular than that of English, these codified differences in some ways mirror those between American and Commonwealth varieties of English.




  • Linda C. DeMeritt. 1994. German Grammar. New York, NY: HarperPerennial. ISBN 0064671593
  • Alfred Edward Hammer. 1996. Hammer's German Grammar and Usage. 3rd. ed. London: Arnold. ISBN 034061451X
  • William Rowlinson. 1993. German Grammar. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192116770

Phonology and Morphology

  • Charles V.J. Russ. 1978. Historical German phonology and morphology. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198157274
  • Richard Wiese. 1996. The phonology of German. Oxford: Clarendon Press/New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199613559

History of German

  • Werner Besch, Anne Betten, Oskar Reichmann and Stefan Sonderegger. 2000. Sprachgeschichte. Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung. 3 vols. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3110158825
  • John T. Waterman. 1976. A History of the German Language. With Special Reference to the Cultural and Social Forces that Shaped the Standard Literary Language. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press (reissued 1991). ISBN 0881335908


  1. The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2000. World Almanac Books (November 2000). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
  2. "Rechtschreibreform: German Spelling Reform and Prohibition". © 2007 About, Inc., A part of The New York Times Company. All rights reserved. (2007). Retrieved on 2007-05-12.
  3. "The German Language: The End of the Debate". © 2007 Goethe Institut (2007). Retrieved on 2007-05-12.
  4. "Zur Neuregelung der Deutschen Rechtschreibung ab 1. August 2006" Extra-Ausgabe Juli 2006. Institut für Deutsche Sprache, Mannheim (2006). Retrieved on 2007-05-12.