German and English: Language Similarities & Differences

Similarities between German and English

If English is your native language and you plan to learn German, you will quickly realize just how intertwined these two languages are. Both languages share a common proto-Germanic ancestor, and you will benefit from this historical connection.

In the early Middle Ages, a group called the Anglo-Saxons migrated from continental Europe to Britain. The Anglo-Saxons were not simply immigrants from Germany, but formed from a mixture of German tribes and the native British population at the time.

Despite the Norman invasion of England in 1066, about a quarter of modern English still traces back to its Germanic, Anglo-Saxon roots.

While the grammar of English and German has had about 1500 years to develop in their own cultural settings, many of the words in both languages trace back to the same old stems.

Vocabulary Similarities between German and English

This means that the more common a word is in everyday use, the more likely it is to be spelled and pronounced similarly in both languages.

Many simple sentences in both languages show that modern German and English speakers still think very similarly:

English German
I have a problem here. Ich habe ein Problem hier.
I’m eating an apple. Ich esse einen Apfel.
I have many friends. Ich habe viele Freunde.
That is not fair! Das ist nicht fair!

You'll also notice that there are strong similarities in how some verbs change tense:

English German
Drink, drank, drunk Trinken, trank, getrunken
Eat, ate, eaten Essen, aß, gegessen

As you can see, there are many shared cognates (similar words) between English and German. We call them true friends. These words often not only sound very similar (friends/Freunde) or exactly the same (fair/fair), but they also mean the same thing.

Here are some of these true friends:

English German
original Original
quiz Quiz
radio Radio

For most related words, there are slight differences in spelling - for some people, noting these differences helps with memorizing vocabulary. Here are some examples:

English German
object Objekt
banana Banane
hair Haar

German Loanwords in English

Because of their historical connection, you are likely to use German loan words in English and vice versa.

The original German spelling for pretzels is Bretzel, and refers to the original southern German version, which is much larger than the one sold in supermarkets today.

The suffix -sack in Knapsack refers to any large bag that you can carry on your back (like a rucksack, which is also of German origin).

Numbers in German vs. English

If German or English is your native language and you've studied French before, you'll probably have groaned at the rather unusual French numbering system:

English Eighty (80).
German Achtzig (80).
French Quatre-vingts (4x20).

Fortunately, German and English have the same basic numbering system.

English German
Thirteen Dreizehn
(Zehn=ten, teen in this context)
Fourteen Vierzehn
Fifteen Fünfzehn
Sixteen Sechszehn
Seventeen Siebzehn

You just have to learn one difference. After twenty, the German numbering reverses its order, i.e. in German, Twenty-one is not translated as Zwanzigundeins, but as Einundzwanzig. This will seem strange to you at first, but you will soon get used to it:

English German
Twenty-one Einundzwanzig
Twenty-two Zweiundzwanzig
Twenty-three Dreiundzwanzig
Twenty-four Vierundzwanzig
Twenty-five Fünfundzwanzig

Differences between German and English

German-English Vocabulary “False Friends”

English and German share many cognates, but you also have to keep in mind that there are many false friends, i.e. words that look similar or exactly the same, but don't mean the same thing.

A well-known example is the German word Gift, which at first glance looks like the English word gift, meaning a present of some kind. They are even pronounced the same way.

But gift actually means poison in German! The actual German translation of the English word gift is Geschenk.

Here is another example. The word chance exists in both German and English and comes from the same Latin word, but means something different in both languages. In German it refers to an opportunity (Es ist deine Chance! = This is your opportunity!), while in English it generally refers to a coincidence, such as a chance encounter.

There are also words that are spelled slightly differently but have a completely different meaning.

In English, mist refers to a cloud of small water droplets, while in German, it refers to manure or nonsense. A gym(nasium) is actually a high school in German, and not a place where one lifts weights. A handy man is someone who is skillful with using tools, but in German, it just refers to a mobile phone.

German has Gendered Nouns - English doesn’t

In English, there are no gendered nouns, while for those who want to learn German, they represent an additional learning hurdle.

English German
The man Der Mann (masculine noun)
The woman Die Frau (feminine noun)
The child Das Kind (neuter noun)

In German you have to memorize the gender of each noun (you'll save time if you memorize the appropriate gender for each noun you learn). This is a feature of many Indo-European languages such as French and Spanish.

Interestingly, German genders often contradict the conventions of other related languages.

For example, if you've studied French and Spanish, you'll be surprised to find that the German gender of "moon" and "sun" is exactly the opposite of what you've learned so far:

English The moon The sun
French La lune (feminine) Le soleil (masculine)
Spanish La luna (feminine) El sol (masculine)
German Der Mond (masculine) Die Sonne (feminine)

German has some longer words than English

Have you ever wondered why some German words are so long?

In German, it is possible to merge nouns together (compound nouns), and theoretically there are no limits to this. And yes, those limits have been tested before: Some German words have made it into the Guinness Book of Records!

Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft

This is actually a real German word, consisting of 79 letters and meaning "association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services". And yes, this word has been used in the real world before.

But don't let that scare you. Most German words you use in real life are just a little bit longer than their English counterparts.

Note:

Germany is still associated with philosophy and many people are interested in the language because of famous German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Reading English translations of German books of philosophy, such as Immanuel Kant's Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (Critique of Practical Reason), will make your life easier precisely because compound nouns (which were/are beloved by German philosophers) have to be broken down into more manageable, small words in their English translations.

The German Umlaut

Thankfully, you don't have to learn a new alphabet when you learn German. However, if you ever buy a German keyboard in a German hardware store like Saturn or Media Markt, you will quickly notice that there are additional letters to the right of the familiar Latin letters:

Ö Ä Ü

This is a feature of Germanic languages as a whole, and so you will find the same additional letters in Scandinavian languages as well. Umlaute are modified vowels, and learners of German often have problems with the correct pronunciation of words that contain them.

English German
Austria Österreich
Change Änderung
Ubermensch Übermensch

Native English speakers tend to pronounce these German words as if the special vowels were ordinary vowels. Übermensch sounds quite different from Ubermensch.

These sounds are unique to the Germanic languages. So you'll make the fastest progress if you imitate native German speakers when they pronounce these words, because their tongue and mouth movements are different when they use these modified vowels.

Nouns and punctuation

If you are learning German, it will be easy for you to remember that all nouns in the language are capitalized without exception.

English German
The ship left the harbour. Das Schiff hat den Hafen verlassen.

German punctuation is also much stricter, and a native German speaker has to fight the urge to put commas where there are none in English.

English German
She said she would go outside. Sie sagte, sie würde nach draußen gehen.

Word Order in German vs. English

Grammar in both languages can often change in subtle ways. Mistakes in grammar, along with accent, are the main indicators by which native speakers can easily recognize non-native speakers.

The direct translation of "Could you speak with me right now?" would be "Könntest du sprechen mit mir jetzt?", but the correct translation is "Könntest du mit mir jetzt sprechen?". Likewise, "I will visit you" is not translated as "Ich werde besuchen dich", but as "Ich werde dich besuchen".

"Then I have withdrawn money" sounds wrong, but it corresponds to the way Germans express themselves when they relate past events, since they use the present perfect tense for such situations. "Then I withdrew money" therefore means "Dann habe ich Geld abgehoben" in German.

The stereotypical German accent

Although English and German have similar stress and intonation patterns, there are some important differences you should know.

For the final part of this article, I will show you how you can turn yourself into a Hollywood villain with a stereotypical German accent in three easy steps! You'll notice the differences between the two languages along the way.

First Step

Germans cannot pronounce the th sound. In fact, the th sound of the English language is particularly difficult for German speakers to imitate because it is missing in the German language. This can lead to unintentionally funny situations:

English English with a German accent
I am thinking right now! Audio Example

Second Step

Germans replace soft consonants at the end of words with their "harder" consonant brothers.

Thus, g/d/b becomes k/t/p.

By consistently replacing these consonants, you not only learn an important feature of the German language, but also get closer to sounding like Hans Gruber and his goons in Die Hard or the former Nazi Dr. Strangelove in the movie of the same name.

English English with a German accent
Don’t be paranoid, I have not dropped dead yet! Audio Example

Germans also often have a hard time with the letters w and v in English.

Vot am I talking about? Well, it is often claimed that this problem exists because there is supposedly no voiced w sound in German, as in weep and war. But the real confusion stems from the fact that in German, words beginning with a v are not pronounced consistently:

Vater (father) Vase (Vase)
Pronounced as: Audio Example Pronounced as: Audio Example

Therefore, Germans are often unsure how to pronounce words that begin with a v. In addition, words that begin with a w, such as was, are often pronounced as if the w were an f, as in father.

English English with a German accent
The volume was very loud. Audio Example

Third Step

Germans pronounce the letter r as if they were gargling without water (try it!). It is a fricative sound that almost borders on the rolling r sound found in other Indo-European languages such as Spanish.

English English with a German accent
Don’t be paranoid, I have not dropped dead yet! Audio Example
Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something new about both languages. While many people consider German to be generally more difficult to learn than English, you have learned that they are practically sister languages and have a lot in common, which will make you feel that you already know part of the language you are learning.

But the devil is in the details. In the long run, it will be worth paying special attention to the subtle differences in spelling, pronunciation, and grammar. If you do that, you'll be much closer to becoming fluent in the language of your choice.

Editor's note: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.