Introduction to the German Language
German is spoken by 100 million people worldwide and is the most widely-spoken native language in the European Union. With Germany’s economy booming, many people are learning German to improve their employment opportunities, German is still a leading language of art, science, history, philosophy, and literature.
German is, obviously a Germanic language—just like English, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and all of the Scandinavian languages. As a result, there are many similarities between English and German, although not all of them are obvious on the surface. German arose from Indo-European and is divided into several families. It was the language of commerce and government in the Habsburg Empire, which included much of Central and Eastern Europe. One of the first written examples of German as a separate language is the Oaths of Strasbourg of 842.
German is spoken as a first language in Germany, Austria, parts of Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein. Other German-speaking communities can be found in many countries of Europe and Eastern Europe. There are many dialects of German throughout the world and often only neighboring varieties are mutually intelligible. The main branches are High German, spoken in the Southern regions, and Low German, spoken in the Northern regions, with numerous varieties of each.
The culture of Germany can be summarized with one word: orderly. There are rules for everything, and life and business are often planned out in minute detail. This gives people a sense of security and of knowing what is expected of them. This is also true in Switzerland and to some extent in Austria, although this last country also prizes Gemütlichkeit (comfort). One thing is certain—in all German-speaking countries, if your train leaves at 1:15, don’t get to the station at 1:15 and ten seconds… your train will have left. Punctuality is a highly-prized trait!
Similarities Between German and English
As mentioned, there are similarities between English and German. Most of our core words come from Germanic, whereas many professional or scholarly words were taken from French. Sheep comes from the German Schaf, mutton from the French mouton. Our verbs go, come, love, hate, eat, drink, sleep, run, sit, stand, and other basic English terms all come from German words: gehen, kommen, lieben, hassen, essen, trinken, schlafen, rennen, sitzen, and stehen. If a verb is irregular in English (see, saw, seen), it was most likely irregular in German, and many irregular nouns (goose/geese) come from German (Gans/Gänse).
Challenges for an English Speaker Learning German
- German grammar is very complex, to the extent that even Germans have many reference books available to help them through the labyrinth. German word order is different, and verbs often come at the end of a sentence or clause.
- German pronunciation is not easy. The hard “ch” sound in machen and the soft “ch” sound in ich are uncommon in English words, although they do appear in unusual places in our language. The umlauted vowels ü, ä, and ö have sounds that English speakers are not accustomed to.
- All German nouns have gender—masculine, feminine, and neuter. There are some rules and some patterns, but for the most part every noun has to be learned with its gender by repetition.
People wonder how long it will take them to learn German. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, because everyone is different. As a rule of thumb, you should plan on a year to 18 months of intensive study for basic conversations, and two to three years for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. On the other hand, once you have mastered German and can pick up and read Goethe in the original tongue, you might wonder why you waited so long to begin!
Examples of Words in German
Useful German Sentences
Hello. Guten Tag.
What is your name? Wie heißen Sie?
My name is … Ich heiße…
Good morning. Guten Morgen.
Goodbye. Auf Wiedersehen.
Where is the toilet? Wo ist die Toilette?
I don’t understand. Ich verstehe nicht.
Today, 18% of the world’s books are published in German. It is the language of Goethe, Nietzsche, Bertolt Brecht, and Günter Grass. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Freud, Einstein, Heisenberg, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger all spoke German. Many of the most important works of literature, philosophy, art, music, theology, psychology, medicine, and science are written in German and continue to be produced in German. For business or pleasure, for work or tourism, knowledge of German will create many opportunities that would otherwise be out of your reach; the effort will certainly be worth the prize.