German and English belong to the same language family: they are Germanic languages. They evolved from a common ancestor language which was spoken over two thousand years ago (approximately between 750 BCE and 100 BCE). Although this ancestor language is now extinct, linguists have reconstructed it and named it the Proto-Germanic language.
German and English share many cognates which are words which originate from a common etymological ancestor.
Some of the spelling differences between these similar vocabulary words can be explained by a linguistic phenomenon called the high German consonant shift. Between the 3rd and the 8th century, some pronunciation changes occurred in the German language but not in other Germanic languages such as English and Dutch.
The three main high German consonant shifts are the following:
German and English are Germanic languages so they do not evolve from Latin like the Romance languages (Spanish, French, etc) did.
Despite this, both German and English contain quite a few words of Latin origin. But the difference is that English contains a larger proportion of Latin-derived vocabulary words than German does.
There are several historical reasons for this. The most significant one is the Norman conquest of England which took place in 1066 and caused Old Norman (which is a dialect of French) to become the language of the Anglo-Norman government in England. For several centuries this French dialect became widely used in the royal court as well as in the church and the justice system of England.
During this period, many French vocabulary words (which came from Latin) displaced the corresponding English words which were of Germanic origin. Because this phenomenon did not occur in German, it led to a divergence between English and German vocabulary.
In German, the main clause of a declarative sentence follows a specific word order known as V2 word order. This means that the finite verb - the verb that agrees with the subject in person and number - is always placed in the second position in the clause.
English sentences are generally constructed according to the SVO (subject-verb-object) pattern. For example, in the sentence “She never makes grammar mistakes”, the subject comes first, followed by the verb and then the object. In contrast, the corresponding German sentence “Grammatikfehler macht sie nie” uses the V2 (verb-second) pattern where the finite verb “macht” occupies the second position in the sentence. It is preceded by the object “Grammatikfehler” and followed by the subject “sie”.
Another example: the English sentence “He always reads novels” can be translated to German as “Er liest immer Romane”. Notice in this German sentence how the adverb has been moved (compared to the English sentence), so that the verb is in 2nd position.
In English, the word order in a subordinate clause generally follows the same pattern as in an independent clause. This is not the case in German: in subordinate clauses, the verb is positioned at the end of the clause.
For example, consider the sentence “Ich gehe ins Kino, weil ich einen Film sehen möchte” (I'm going to the cinema because I want to watch a movie). Here, the main clause follows the V2 word order pattern with the finite verb “gehe” in the second position. However, the subordinate clause “weil ich einen Film sehen möchte” (because I want to watch a movie) has the finite verb “möchte” at the end.
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.
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:
|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:
|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:
For most related words, there are slight differences in spelling - for some people, noting these differences helps with memorizing vocabulary. Here are some examples:
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).
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:
Fortunately, German and English have the same basic numbering system.
(Zehn=ten, teen in this context)
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 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.
In English, there are no gendered nouns, while for those who want to learn German, they represent an additional learning hurdle.
|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)|
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you are learning German, it will be easy for you to remember that all nouns in the language are capitalized without exception.
|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.
|She said she would go outside.||Sie sagte, sie würde nach draußen gehen.|
To learn some more German vocabulary, have a look at this list of the 1000 most common German words.