In our new series this year, Language of the Month, we are looking at twelve of the world’s nearly 6000 fascinating languages, one each month. Join us on this trip around the globe and discover facts, trivia and insider information about some awesome languages!
Language family: Germanic (part of the Indo-European family)
Number of speakers: 90-95 million
Writing system: Latin
Official language in: Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein
HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
It probably won’t be a huge surprise, if I tell you that German is of the Germanic language family. Just like English, Dutch and Afrikaans, it belongs to the group of West Germanic languages. Modern standard German descended from Proto-German which might have been around as early as 2000 BC, although this would not have been anything like the German that is spoken today. The language went through huge changes throughout the years, both grammatically and in terms of vocabulary. The language was made up of many local dialects but by the 18th century a kind of standard written variety emerged which turned into standard German (or Hochdeutsch) in the 19th century. This was the time when the first comprehensive dictionary of the language was published by none other than the Brothers Grimm. (They were not only good with gory stories but had a flair for lexicography and philology, too!)
Although standard German is used in official settings and in the media, dialects and other varieties are still prevalent and they are not only spoken in Europe. Did you know that there is a large community of German speakers in Brazil, Canada, Argentina and the US? In the United States, there is a well-known language (some say it’s a dialect), Pennsylvania Dutch, which despite its name has nothing to do with Dutch, it has its origins in German.
My name is… Ich heiße…
Thank you Vielen Dank
WHAT OUR LINGUISTS SAY…
Although English and German are cousins, there are many differences between the two languages.
As Lisa, one of our German to English translators says “the first [big difference] is the way that German can ‘bolt’ lots of words together to make just one long one where in English you would need lots of little words like ‘of’ and ‘in the’ to make sense of it. Another big difference relates to word order.” Especially, the placement of the verb in a sentence which might be a bit confusing for non-native speakers.
Gerti, one of our German native speaker translators explains that “in past tense constructions the verb often comes at the end of the sentence – which means that the listener is kept in suspense about what actually happened. It also makes work hard for simultaneous interpreters who often have to make an educated guess before the speaker actually arrives at the verb at the end of the sentence.”
Native speaker Melanie, who is an Editorial Project Manager at First Edition, mentions some other funky grammar points that might make you scratch your head if you want to learn German: “German has four cases for nouns and adjectives (i.e. nominative, genitive, dative, accusative) – oh, and we mustn’t forget about the three genders (der, die, das for ‘the’): each noun has a different gender and there is no rule to go by, you just have to learn it!” Gerti lists some unexpected noun genders to prove the point: “the moon (der Mond) is masculine but the sun (die Sonne) is feminine and a girl (das Mädchen) is neuter.”
“German is a rather noun-heavy language” Gerti observes. “Where English would use a verb, the more idiomatic German equivalent is often a noun construction. This makes for more precision and less ambiguity but can also sound quite bureaucratic. The German ‘Beamtendeutsch’ (officialese) is something truly frightening.”
Both Lisa and Melanie agree with Gerti when she says that “to an outsider’s ear, German can sound somewhat hard and dry compared to, say, English and some of the Romance languages. This is due to a number of facts such as sharp or guttural consonant sounds such as ‘z’ and ‘ch’ and a less easy-flowing sentence melody.”
“I guess it also sounds quite monotonous” adds Melanie, “rather than melodic like French, for example.” (Although James, our resident native English Germanophile points out that German also has some of the most beautiful poetry, citing Goethe as just the tip of the iceberg).
Lisa talks about the various accents and dialects of the German language: “Just as there are lots of accents within the English language, German also has many different accents ranging from the South Tyrol, through Austria, over to Switzerland and all the way up to the Danish border and over towards Poland and the Czech Republic. The accent might sound quite lilting in some places and harsher in others. People often speak standard German or ‘Hochdeutsch’ in schools and the workplace (with their local accent), but they might speak their local dialect at home. These dialects can vary from village to village or valley to valley. Vocabulary, pronunciation and some points of grammar are different in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, however their spelling has been largely standardised and is required to be used in schools and offices.”
Reading about the fiendishly difficult grammar, Beamtendeutsch and the harsh sounds of the language might make you wonder why anyone would want to speak this language. But German is not as scary as it seems on first inspection, once you make friends with it, you realise that there is a lot of beauty the language has to offer. And there are some aspects that make it easier to learn than English! For example, German spelling is a piece of cake compared to English: “The most recent spelling reform was in 1996 with the aim of making spelling easier to learn,” explains Lisa. “For an English-speaker, German spelling is a walk in the park! What you see is what you say. They don’t have silent letters or combinations of letters that can be pronounced differently such as ‘cough’, ‘through’ and ‘bough’ [of a tree]!”
Another marvellous way German never ceases to amaze is its ability to form new words, just like Lisa mentioned. As Gerti says, partly because of this ability, “there is also a lot of lightness and playfulness in German. New words can be formed by combining two (or more!) nouns – for example, a ‘Haustürschlüsselverleger’ is someone who regularly mislays (verlegt) their front door (Haustür) key (Schlüssel). Also, many dialect expressions add a lot of humour to the language. One of my favourite Bavarian ones is ‘Gschaftlhuber’, which the English ‘busy-body’ doesn’t fully do justice to.”
Speaking of gluing several words together to make a mega-word… Lisa has a good example of that: “Lovers of long words need not despair as, allegedly, the record for the longest published word with 79 letters is Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft meaning the Association for Subordinate Officials of the Main Maintenance Building of the Danube Steam Shipping Electrical Services.”
Fun, isn’t it?
I am slightly surprised now that neither of our three linguists chose this word as their favourite one. Hm… Well, Gerti went for “Fernweh”: “The English dictionary gives ‘wanderlust’, ‘itchy feet’, ‘the travel bug’ as translations but none of these really comes close to that painful yearning (‘weh’) for far-away (‘fern’) places that ‘Fernweh’ expresses.”
Melanie’s choice is “gemütlich”, meaning cosy: “To me, it embraces that whole cosy, warm and content feeling of being somewhere you feel comfortable – this could be at home on the sofa/in bed or in a nice café.”
One of Lisa’s favourite words is ‘traumhaft’ meaning ‘dream-like/heavenly/divine’. Well, if you are after some heavenly German things, you could also quote her second favourite expression: “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake). “[It] is also music to my ears – especially if uttered in Vienna!”
Coffee and cake are always a good idea, so we completely agree with her on that one!
We hope you liked this little trip around the German language. If you have any questions about German or translations in general, or have a translation request, don’t hesitate to get in touch by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 01223 356 733.