German language

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German (Deutsch)
Spoken in: Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and 38 other countries.
Region: Western Europe
Total speakers: Native speakers: 95 million
Second language: 30 million
Ranking: 11
Genetic classification: Indo-European

  West Germanic
   Modern German

Official status
Official language of: European Union, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Belgium. Regional or local official language in: Denmark, Italy, and Poland. (Official language of Namibia until 1990).
Regulated by: None
Language codes
ISO 639-1 de
ISO 639-2 ger (B) / deu (T)
See also: LanguageList of languages

German (German: ), is a member of the western group of Germanic languages and is one of the world's major languages. It is the language with the most native speakers in the European Union.

Spoken by more than 120 million people in 38 countries of the world, German is—like English—a pluricentric language with three main centres of usage: Austria, Germany and Switzerland.


Geographic distribution

German is spoken primarily in Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, in two-thirds of Switzerland, in two-thirds of the South Tyrol province of Italy (in German, Südtirol), in the small East Cantons of Belgium, and in some border villages of the South Jutland County (Nordschleswig) of Denmark.

In Luxembourg (in German, Luxemburg), as well as in the French régions of Alsace (in German, Elsass) and parts of Lorraine (in German, Lothringen), the native populations speak several German dialects, and some people also master standard German (especially in Luxembourg), although in Alsace and Lorraine French has for the most part replaced the local German dialects in the last 40 years.

Some German speaking communities still survive in parts of Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and above all Russia, Kazakhstan and Poland, although massive relocations to Germany in the 1990s have depopulated most of these communities.

Outside of Europe, the largest German speaking communities are to be found in the USA (with the largest concentration of German speakers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Indiana; Amish, Hutterites and some Mennonites also speak dialects of German) and in Brazil (states of Rio Grande do Sul, where Riograndenser Hunsrückisch was developed, Santa Catarina, Paraná, and Espírito Santo), where millions of Germans migrated in the last 200 years; but the great majority of their descendants no longer speak German. Generally, German immigrant communities in the USA lose their mother tongue more quickly than those who move to South America, possibly due to the fact that for Germans English is easier to learn than Portuguese or Spanish.

Additionally, German speaking communities are to be found in the former German colony of Namibia, as well as in the other countries of German emigration such as Canada, Iceland, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, Venezuela (where Alemán Coloneiro developed), Thailand, and Australia.

German is the main language of about 100 million people in Europe (as of 2004), or 13.3% of all Europeans, being the most spoken language in Europe excluding Russia, above French (66.5 million speakers in Europe in 2004) and English (64.2 million speakers in Europe in 2004). German is the third most taught foreign language worldwide, also in the USA (after Spanish and French); it is the second most known foreign language in the EU (after English; see [1]) It is one of the official languages of the European Union.


As a consequence of the colonisation patterns the Völkerwanderung, the routes for trade and communication (chiefly the rivers), and of physical isolation (high mountains and deep forests) very different regional dialects developed. These dialects, sometimes mutually unintelligible, were used across the Holy Roman Empire.

As Germany was divided into many different states, the only force working for a unification or standardisation of German during a period of several hundred years was the general preference of writers trying to write in a way that could be understood in the largest possible area.

When Martin Luther translated the Bible (the New Testament in 1521 and the Old Testament in 1534) he based his translation mainly on this already developed language, which was the most widely understood language at this time. This language was based on Eastern Upper and Eastern Central German dialects and preserved much of the grammatical system of Middle High German (unlike the spoken German dialects in Central and Upper Germany that already at that time began to lose the genitive case and the preterit tense). In the beginning, copies of the Bible had a long list for each region, which translated words unknown in the region into the regional dialect. Roman Catholics rejected Luther's translation in the beginning and tried to create their own Catholic standard (Gemeines Deutsch) — which, however, only differed from 'Protestant German' in some minor details. It took until the middle of the 18th century to create a standard that was widely accepted, thus ending the period of Early New High German.

German used to be the language of commerce and government in the Habsburg Empire, which encompassed a large area of Central and Eastern Europe. Until the mid-19th century it was essentially the language of townspeople throughout most of the Empire. It indicated that the speaker was a merchant, an urbanite, not their nationality. Some cities, such as Prague (German: Prag) and Budapest (Buda, German: Ofen), were gradually Germanized in the years after their incorporation into the Habsburg domain. Others, such as Bratislava (German: Pressburg), were originally settled during the Habsburg period and were primarily German at that time. A few cities such as Milan (German: Mailand) remained primarily non-German. However, most cities were primarily German during this time, such as Prague, Budapest, Bratislava, Zagreb (German: Agram), and Ljubljana (German: Laibach), though they were surrounded by territory that spoke other languages.

Until about 1800, Standard German was almost only a written language. In this time, people in urban northern Germany, who spoke dialects very different from Standard German, learnt it almost like a foreign language and tried to pronounce it as close to the spelling as possible. Prescriptive pronunciation guides used to consider that northern German pronunciation to be the standard. However, the actual pronunciation of standard German varies from region to region.

Media and written works are almost all produced in standard German (often called Hochdeutsch in German), which is understood in all areas of German languages (except by pre-school children in areas which speak only dialect, for example Switzerland — but in this age of TV, even they now usually learn to understand Standard German before school age).

The first dictionary of the Brothers Grimm, the 16 parts of which were issued between 1852 and 1960, remains the most comprehensive guide to the words of the German language. In 1860, grammatical and orthographic rules first appeared in the Duden Handbook. In 1901, this was declared the standard definition of the German language. Official revisions of some of these rules were not issued until 1998, when the German spelling reform of 1996 was officially promulgated by governmental representatives of all German-speaking countries. Since the reform, German spelling has been in an eight-year transitional period where the reformed spelling is taught in most schools, while traditional and reformed spelling co-exist in the media. See German spelling reform of 1996 for an overview of the heated public debate concerning the reform.

During the 1870s, the German language successfully replaced Latin as the dominant language in all major European and North American universities, thanks to the prominence of German universities at the time. Most important research in the sciences for some decades afterward was published in German, and new universities preferred German instead of Greek or Latin mottoes (for example, Stanford University).

Classification and related languages

German by the High German consonant shift was divided into Upper German (blue) and Central German (green), and the Low German-Dutch continuum (yellow).  The main isoglosses, the Benrath and Speyer lines are marked in red.
German by the High German consonant shift was divided into Upper German (blue) and Central German (green), and the Low German-Dutch continuum (yellow). The main isoglosses, the Benrath and Speyer lines are marked in red.

German is a member of the western branch of the Germanic family of languages, which in turn is part of the Indo-European language family.

Neighboring languages

German forms together with Dutch, its closest relative, a coherent and well-defined language area that is separated from its neighbors by language borders. These neighbors are: in the north Frisian and Danish; in the east Polish, Sorbian, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian; in the south Slovenian, Italian, Friulian, Ladin, and Romansh; in the west French. Except for Frisian, none of these languages are West Germanic, and so they are clearly distinct from German and Dutch. While Frisian is closely related to German and Dutch, it is generally considered not to be mutually intelligible with them.

The situation is more complex with respect to the distinction between German and Dutch. Until recently, there has been a dialect continuum throughout the whole German-Dutch language area, with no language borders. In such a dialect continuum, dialects are always mutually intelligible with their neighbors, but dialects that are further apart from each other are often not. The German-Dutch continuum lent itself to a classification of dialects into Low German and High German based on their participation in the High German consonant shift; Dutch is part of the Low German group. However, because of the political separation between Germany and the Netherlands, Low German dialects in the Netherlands and Low German dialects in Germany have started to diverge during the 20th century. Additionally, both in northern Germany and in the Netherlands, many dialects are close to extinction and are being replaced by the German and Dutch standard languages. In this way, a language border between Dutch and German is currently forming.

While German is grammatically similar in many ways to Dutch, it is very different in speech. A speaker of one may require some practice to effectively understand a speaker of the other. Compare, for example:

De kleinste kameleon is volwassen 2 cm groot, de grootste kan wel 80 cm worden. (Dutch)
Das kleinste Chamäleon ist ausgewachsen 2 cm groß, das größte kann gut 80 cm werden. (Standard German)
S chliinschti Chamäleon isch uusgwachse 2 cm groß, s grööschti chan guet 80 cm werde. (Alemannic)
(English: "The smallest chameleon is fully grown 2 cm long, the longest can easily attain 80 cm.")

Dutch speakers are generally able to read German, and German speakers who can speak Low German or English are generally able to read Dutch, but have problems understanding the spoken language, although Germans who speak High German, or, even better, Low German, can cope with Dutch much better than people from Southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria who have grown up with the Alemannic dialects.

Official status

Standard German is the only official language in Germany, Liechtenstein, and Austria; it shares official status in Switzerland (with French, Italian and Romansh), and Luxembourg (with French and Luxembourgish). It is used as a local official language in German-speaking regions of Belgium, Italy, Denmark, and Poland. It is one of the 20 official languages of the European Union.

It is also a minority language in Canada, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Poland, Romania, Togo, Cameroon, the USA, Namibia, Brazil, Paraguay, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Ukraine, Croatia, Moldavia, Australia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

German was once the lingua franca of central, eastern and northern Europe. Increasing influence from the English language has affected German recently. However, German remains one of the most popular foreign languages taught world-wide, and is more popular than French as a foreign language in Europe. 8% of citizens of the EU-15 countries say they can converse in German, in addition to the 24% who speak German as a mother tongue.[2] This is assisted by the availability of German TV by cable or satellite, where series like Star Trek are shown dubbed into German.

German is also the second language of the Internet, more than 8% of the websites are in German (English 50%, French 6%, Japanese 5%, Spanish 3% and Portuguese 2%).


The term "German" is used for the dialects of Germany, Austria, German-speaking Switzerland (that is, outside the French-, Italian-, and Romansch-speaking areas) and some areas in the surrounding countries, as well as for several colonies and other ethnic concentrations founded by German-speaking people (for example in North America).

The variation among the German dialects is considerable. Only the neighbouring dialects are mutually understandable. Most dialects are not understandable for someone who knows standard German.

German and Dutch dialects are typically divided into Low German and High German. Whether Low German and High German are separate languages or not, is a matter of opinion; they do form, however, a dialect continuum where each dialect is closely related to its neighbor dialects, no matter whether they are Low or High German.

Low German dialects were not affected by the High German consonant shift. They consist of two subgroups, Low Franconian and Low Saxon. Low Franconian includes Dutch and Flemish, spoken in the Netherlands and Belgium; Low Saxon includes dialects spoken in the German Lowlands and in the eastern Netherlands. See above for a discussion of the distinction between German and Dutch.

High German dialects are divided into Central German and Upper German. Central German dialects include Ripuarian, Luxembourgish, Moselle Franconian, Rhine Franconian, Hessian, Thuringian, and Upper Saxon, and are spoken in the southeastern Netherlands, eastern Belgium, Luxembourg, parts of France, and in Germany approximately between the River Main and the southern edge of the Lowlands. Standard German is mostly based on Central German.

Upper German dialects include Alemannic (for instance Swiss German), Swabian, East Franconian, and Austro-Bavarian. They are spoken in parts of the Alsace, southern Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, and in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland and Italy.

The High German dialects spoken by Ashkenazi Jews (mostly in the former Soviet Union) have several unique features, and are usually considered as a separate language, Yiddish.

The dialects of German which are or were primarily spoken in colonies founded by German speaking people resemble the dialects of the regions the founders came from (for example Pennsylvania German resembles dialects of the Palatinate, or Hutterite German resembles dialects of Carinthia).

In the United States, the teaching of the German language to latter-age students has given rise to a pidgin variant which combines the German language with the grammar and spelling rules of the English language. It is often understandable by either party. The speakers of this language often refer to it as Amerikanisch or Amerikanischdeutsch, although it is known in English as American German.

Standard German

In German linguistics, only the traditional regional varieties are called dialects, not the different varieties of standard German.

Standard German has originated not as a traditional dialect of a specific region, but as a written language. However, there are places where the traditional regional dialects have been replaced by standard German (especially in major cities of Germany and Austria).

Standard German differs regionally, especially between German-speaking countries, especially in vocabulary, but also in some instances of pronunciation and even grammar. This variation must not be confused with the variation of local dialects. Even though the regional varieties of standard German are to a certain degree influenced by the local dialects, they are very distinct. German is thus considered a pluricentric language.

In most regions, the speakers use a continuum of mixtures from more dialectical varieties to more standard varieties according to situation.

In the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, mixtures of dialect and standard are very seldom used, and the use of standard German is almost entirely restricted to the written language. Therefore, this situation has been called a medial diglossia. Standard German is rarely spoken, for instance when speaking with people who do not understand the Swiss German dialects at all, and it is expected to be used in school.


Main article: German grammar

German is an inflected language.

Noun inflection

German nouns inflect into:

Although German is usually cited as an outstanding example of a highly inflected language, it should be noted that the degree of inflection is considerably less than in Old German, or in Icelandic today. The three genders have collapsed in the plural, which now behaves, grammatically, somewhat as a fourth gender. With four cases and three genders plus plural there are 16 distinct possible combinations of case and gender/number, but presently there are only six forms of the definite article used for the 16 possibilities. Inflection for case on the noun itself is required for masculine and neuter nouns in the genitive, in the singular, but not at all for feminines or plurals. On the other hand, the plural does have an inflection for the dative. In addition to these inflections there is an obsolete or poetic inflection for dative singular masculines and neuters, but this is even less expected in educated speech than "whom" would be in English.

In the German orthography, unlike any other orthography, nouns and most words with the syntactical function of nouns are capitalised.

Like most Germanic languages, German forms left-branching noun compounds, where the first noun modifies the category given by the second, for example: Hundehütte (eng. doghouse). Unlike English, where newer compounds or combinations of longer nouns are often written in open form with separating spaces, German (like the other German languages) always uses the closed form without spaces, for example: Baumhaus (eng. tree house). Like English, German allows arbitrarily long compounds, but these are rare. (See also English compounds.) The longest official German word is Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

Verb Inflection

Standard German verbs inflect into:

  • one of two conjugation classes, weak and strong (like English). There are about 200 irregular verbs.
  • three persons: 1st, 2nd, 3rd.
  • two numbers: singular and plural
  • three moods: Indicative, Subjunctive, Imperative
  • two genera verbi: active and passive; the passive being composed and dividable into static and dynamic.
  • 2 non-composed tenses (Present, Preterite) and 4 composed tenses (Perfect, Plusquamperfect, Future I, Future II)
  • no distinction between aspects (in English, perfect and progressive)

There are also many ways to expand the meaning of a base verb through several prefixes.

The word order is much more flexible than in English. The word order can be changed for subtle changes of a sentence's meaning.

Most German vocabulary is derived from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, although there are significant minorities of words derived from Latin, French, and most recently English.

Writing system

German is written using the Latin alphabet. In addition to the 26 standard letters, German has three vowels with Umlaut, namely ä, ö and ü, as well as a special symbol for "ss", which is used only after long vowels or diphthongs (and not used at all in Switzerland), the Eszett or Scharfes-Es (sharp "s") ß.

Until the early 20th century, German was mostly printed in blackletter typefaces (mostly in fraktur, but also in Schwabacher) and written in corresponding handwriting (for example Kurrent and Sütterlin). These variants of the Latin alphabet are very different from the serif or sans serif antiqua typefaces used today, and are difficult for the untrained to read. They were abolished by the Nazis (incorrectly claiming that these letters are Jewish) in 1941 but this has been retained for broader and easier usability.


Main article: German alphabet.


Main article: German phonology (pronunciation, historical sound changes).

Cognates with English

There are many German words that are cognate to English words. Most of them are easily identifiable and have almost the same meaning.

German Meaning of German word English cognate
best- best best
Bett bed bed
Bube boy boy
Finger finger finger
haben to have to have
Haus house house
Katze cat cat
lachen to laugh to laugh
Nacht night night
Pfeife pipe pipe, fife
Schiff ship ship
singen, sang, gesungen sing, sang, sung sing, sang, sung
schwimmen to swim swim
Tag day day
Wetter weather weather
Wille will (noun) will
Winter winter winter

When these cognates have slightly different consonants, this is often due to the High German consonant shift.

There are cognates whose meanings in either language have changed through the centuries. It is sometimes difficult for both English and German speakers to discern the relationship. On the other hand, once the definitions are made clear, then the logical relation becomes obvious.

German Meaning of German word English cognate Comment
drehen to turn to throw
ernten to harvest to earn
Gift poison gift
Hund dog hound
kaufen to buy cheap, chapman
Knabe boy knave
Knecht servant knight
Kopf head cup cf. French tête, from Latin testa 'brick'
nehmen take numb sensation has been "taken away"; cf. German benommen, 'dazed'
raten to guess/ to advise to read
ritzen to scratch to write
Schmerz pain smart
rächen to take revenge to wreak (havoc)
Tisch table dish
Wald forest weald
werden to become weird see wyrd
werfen throw to warp
Zeit time tide

There are many English loanwords in German, and a somewhat smaller number of German loan-words in English. Sometimes these also involve semantic changes, for example German Dogge, 'mastiff', from English dog, or German Handy, 'mobile phone'.

German and English also share many borrowings from other languages, especially from Latin, French and Greek, but also from many other languages. Most of these word have the same meaning, while a few have subtle differences in meaning. As many of these words have been borrowed by numerous languages, not only German and English, they are called internationalisms in German linguistics.

German Meaning of German word language of origin
Armee army French
Arrangement arrangement (in music) French
Chance opportunity French
Courage courage French
Chuzpe chutzpah Yiddish
Disposition disposition Latin
Feuilleton feuilleton French
Futur future tense Latin
Genre genre French
Mikroskop microscope Greek
Partei political party French
Position position Latin
positiv positive Latin
Psychologie psychology Greek
Religion religion Latin
Tabu taboo Tongan
Zigarre cigar Spanish

Examples of German

Translation Phrase IPA
German deutsch /ˈdoʏtʃ/
hello hallo /ˈhaloː/
good-bye auf Wiedersehen /aʊf ˈviːdərˌzeːn/
please bitte /ˈbɪtə/
thank you danke /ˈdaŋkə/
that one das /das/
how much? Wie viel? /ˌvi ˈfiːl/
yes ja /ˈjaː/
no nein /ˈnaɪn/
where's the toilet? Wo ist die Toilette? /ˈvoː ˈɪst diː to̯aˈlɛtə/
generic toast prosit
Do you speak English? Sprechen Sie Englisch? /ˈʃprɛçən ˈziː ˈɛŋlɪʃ/
I don't understand Ich verstehe nicht /ˈɪç fɛrˈʃteːə ˈnɪçt/
Excuse me Entschuldigung /ɛntˈʃʊldɪgʊŋ/
I don't know it Ich weiß es nicht /ˈɪç ˈvaɪs əs ˈnɪçt/

Names of the German language in other languages

Because of the turbulent history of both Germany and the German language, the names that other peoples have chosen to use to refer to it varies more than for most other languages.

In general, the names for the German language can be arranged in five groups according to their origin:

1. From the proto-Germanic word for "people", "folk": 2. From the name of the historical-geographical region Germany:

3. From the name of the Saxonian tribe:
4. From the Old Slavic word for "mute": 5. From the name of the Alemannian tribe: 6. To be assigned

Lao is unique in that both under the influence of English "German" (through Thai "yenman") and French (the colonial language) "Allemand", it chose a name in between: ພາສາເຢຍລະມັນ (phaxa yeylaman), which could be ranked both under category 2 and category 5.

Note: The Romanian language used to use in the past the Slavonic term "nemţeşte", but "germană" is now widely used. Hungarian "német" is also a Slavonic loan-word. The Arabic name for Austria, النمسا ("an-namsa"), is derived from the Slavonic term.

A possible explanation for the use of "mute" to refer to German (and also to Germans) in Slavic languages is that Germans were the first people Slavic tribes encountered, which whom they could not communicate. The corresponding experience for the Germans was with the Volcae, whose name they subsequently also applied to the Slavs, see etymology of Vlach.

Hebrew traditionally (nowadays this is not the case) used the term Ashkenaz to refer to Germany, or to certain parts of it, and the Ashkenazi Jews are those who originate from Germany and Eastern Europe and formerly spoke Yiddish as their native language, derived from Middle High German.

See also

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