German Language Basics

German Language BasicsThe German language has a slightly different structure than the Romance languages, like Spanish and French. It can, however, be similar to English, which has features borrowed from both Romance and Germanic languages. It also has some similar vocabulary, and uses the same alphabet. While the amount of structure and rules in German can seem complicated to learn, once those rules are mastered they can generally be applied consistently enough to make following them relatively simple. This beginning German course is a good place to get started if you’d like to learn. There are a few basic principles that you can use to build on.

Although there are different dialects of German, people who speak different dialects can generally understand each other fairly well. There is also a standardized High German, or Hochdeutsch, used for mass media throughout the German-speaking world, which is generally the form taught as a foreign language. Yiddish is the one German-related dialect not written with the Latin alphabet.

Nineteenth and twentieth century immigration waves have spread descendants of German speakers to many countries, including throughout the US. Although these communities have typically assimilated and no longer use the German language among one another, the culture and language are well known around the world.

Greetings and Pleasantries

A major difference between German and English is that German, like many languages, has two forms of the word “you”: a formal one, Sie, that you would use in order to show respect, and a less formal one, du, that you would use with friends, family, and generally with children up to around their late teens. In writing, Sie is always capitalized.

In most German-speaking areas, people use “Guten tag”, or “Good day”, to say hello. You can also adapt this to times of day:

  • Good morning – Guten morgen
  • Good evening – Guten abend
  • Good night – Gute nacht (like in English, this is used at the end of the day)

In some places, particularly southern Germany, you can also use “Gruss Gott”, or “God greet you”. On the phone, on the other hand, people will answer with “Hallo”. To say goodbye, you can typically use “auf wiedersehen”—in English, “Until we meet again”.

This online course on German for travelers will help you learn additional basic phrases.

Verbs

One notable difference between German and English is that in German, the second half of a compound verb always goes at the end of the sentence. This occurs in some imperfect forms of the past and future tenses. For example, “I have read the book” becomes “I have the book read” (“Ich habe das Buch gelesen”).

This is also true for longer sentences with subordinate clauses in between: “I will go to the movies with Joe and Mary next week” becomes “I will to the movies with Joe and Mary next week go”. In verbs with a prefix, such as “mitgehen” (“to go with”), the prefix is separated and moved to the end (“ich gehe mit”, or “I go with”). Auxiliary verbs will typically be moved to the end, with the main verb being the part to be conjugated.

Verbs in German, like in many languages, are conjugated according to the subject:

  • I have:  ich habe
  • you have: du hast/Sie haben
  • he/she has: er/sie hat
  • we have: Wir haben
  • you (plural) have: ihr habt
  • they have: sie haben

Sentence Structure 

Along with the rules mentioned above, it’s standard for the main verb to be the second word in the sentence; however, beyond these rules about verb placement, sentence structure tends to be a bit more flexible than English.

In English, meaning is indicated with word order as well as prepositions, while German, like many other languages, declines nouns into different cases to indicate subject and objects, as well as the relationships of different nouns to each other and to the verb.

A standard sentence construction will go subject-verb-accusative object. If there is a dative object—the additional object to or for who something is done—this goes before the accusative object. For example, “We are planning a trip for our parents” can be translated as “Wir bereiten unseren Eltern einen Ausflug”, or “We are planning for our parents a trip”. Notice that in this case, “unser”, or “our”, has been declined to the dative “unseren” instead of using the preposition “for”. If you’re a little confused about the ideas we’re discussing here, this online course in English sentence diagramming will help you understand some of the grammar principles being discussed.

That said, word order can be shifted for emphasis without changing meaning. Typically, the first word or phrase will be the one considered most important, whether an object or an indication of time (“On Monday I will start work”). If the subject isn’t the first word, it will typically come immediately after the first verb.

For questions that don’t use interrogatory pronouns such as “was”, meaning “what”, the normal word order is inverted, with the verb going first. English questions would typically start with an auxiliary verb here. For example, “Are you coming?” would be “Kommst du?”

Compound Words

In German, both verbs and nouns are often modified with prefixes and suffixes, or by combining two independent words. For example, the verb “mitgehen” used in the example above uses the prefix “mit”, meaning “with, and the verb “gehen”, or “to go”.

Nouns are typically compounded instead of being kept as distinct words within a phrase. For example, a doghouse or dog kennel would be a “Hundehutte”. Since there are no real restrictions on these constructions, they can become arbitrarily long, although extreme examples are not commonly used and can be scoffed at even by native speakers.

Pronunciation

Although the alphabet is not significantly different from that used in English, a number of pronunciations differ. The most notable instance of this is the letter w, which is primarily pronounced as a v. The letter v, of the other hand, corresponds to a hard f sound in English.

The main phoneme that occurs in German but not English is a ch sound, as in “ich” (the pronoun I). This is pronounced similarly to an h formed at the back of the throat, although non-native speakers should be careful not to exaggerate the sound too much.

One of the differences from English in spelling which also affects pronunciation, is that certain vowels sometimes have pairs of dot, or umlauts, over them, which changes the sound. Another important thing to remember about written German is that generally all nouns are capitalized, not just proper nouns like in English.

Loan Words

A number of German words have found their way into English, such as kitsch and rucksack (although rucksack is less commonly used in American English). Many German terms from philosophy and psychology in particular have also been imported along with the concepts they describe, some of which have developed Anglicized pronunciations. Angst, gestalt, and schadenfreude are commonly used examples. In a lot of these cases, words have been borrowed because the ideas they describe are too difficult to express as cleanly using English words.

Similarly, German has borrowed a number of English words, many of them related to US-developed modern technology, such as “das Computer”.

Understanding these basic principles will help you get started if you want to study German. Of course, before you go much further, you might want to make sure you have a firm grasp on English grammar by taking this online course.