German language

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German (Deutsch) is a major world language, spoken by some 120 million people worldwide. The German vocabulary is closely related to English and Dutch, and all three use the Latin alphabet in writing. German is widely spoken in Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Switzerland[1] and is an official language of Belgium. Liechtenstein is the only state that has German as its only official language.

German Alphabet

The German alphabet consists of every letter in the English alphabet, with additional letters. German makes use of the letter ß, called the scharfes S ("sharp s"), which is a ligature of the letter "s" and "z" from cursive scripts. It is used for occurrences of the voiceless alveolar fricative, the sound of the "s" in the English word "sea", after long vowels and diphthongs, for which German otherwise uses "s" or "ss". This to avoid confusion with the voiced alveolar fricative, the sound of "z" in the English word "zoo", for which German always uses the letter "s". It is sometimes called "sz," however, if the letter is not available it has to be replaced by the letters "ss", and not by "sz". In Switzerland and Liechtenstein this letter is generally omitted in favor of "ss". The other additional letter are the three vowels ä, ö and ü, also known in English as Umlauts. If not present on a keyboard they customarily are substituted by ae, oe, and ue.


The modern German language is descended from the language known as Proto-Germanic, which is believed to have been spoken in central and northern Europe during the first millennium BC. Proto-Germanic was eventually divided into several different but similar languages, specifically East Germanic, West Germanic and North Germanic. Gothic is the only known East Germanic language, while North Germanic evolved into the modern Scandinavian languages.

Generally, the later development of the West Germanic language can be divided in two distinct lines of descent: Upper German, spoken in Central and Southern Germany, and Low German, spoken in Northern Germany. "Low" and "Upper" are geographic terms, referring to the lowlands of Northern Germany and the more mountainous areas of Southern Germany, respectively.

The term "High German" refers to the standardized version of German that derives mostly from Upper and Central German dialects. It evolved through Old High German (c. 200-1000 AD), Middle High German (c. 1000-1500 AD), Early New High German (c. 1500-1700) and finally to the present New High German, which is the standard modern German language. Low German went through a similar development, starting with Old Saxon and similar languages, through Middle Low German into the modern Low German, which is in linguistics often referred to a Low Saxon. It was the standard language of the Hanseatic league, but was superseded as standard language in North Germany when High German was accepted as official language in Prussia. Due to the influence of Prussia as political power, and later Hamburg as media center, a more Northern German pronunciation has been adopted as standard pronunciation in television and radio. It is said that the best High German is spoken in Hanover, while the traditional dialect of the Hanover area is a dialect of Low German.

German Dialects

Dialects of Low German or Low Saxon spoken in the North of Germany are Westphalian, Eastphalian, East-Frisian, North Low Saxon, Sleswickian, and Holastian, and Pommerian, Margravian. The Low Saxon dialects spoken in the east of the Netherlands are often included as East Dutch Low Saxon. One might encounter also Missingisch, a Low Saxon - High German pidgin. In modern times however standard New High German with a Northern accent has become the norm for spoken language in the North of Germany.

The dialects of German are classified as central and upper German. Central German dialects are Ripuarian, Central Franconian, Rhine Francoinian, Hessian, Thurinigian, Saxonian, and Berlinerish. Luxemburgish is often included as a Moselle Franconian dialect. Upper German dialects spoken in the South of the German speaking area, which includes Bavaria, Austria, Liechtenstein and northern areas of Italy, the northern part of Switzerland, and eastern parts of France are Bavarian, East and South Franconian, Swabian, Allemanic, and Alsatian.

Official Minority languages in Germany are Frisian, a west Germanic language, Sorbian, a Slavic language, and Danish.


German has a great deal of inflection compared to English, including three genders of nouns (plus the plural), and four cases. Adjectives are also given endings based on their gender and case. The plural forms of nouns follow complex patterns that are difficult for a non-native speaker to master. The system of auxiliary verbs for various tenses works similarly to English. Word order has some definite differences compared to English, but also has greater flexibility in several aspects.

Noun inflection

German nouns can have one of three genders: masculine, feminine, or neutral. The definite articles in the nominative case are as follows:

  • Der Hund (Nouns are always capitalized in German.) = The dog
  • Die Ente = The duck
  • Das Schwein = The pig

These three genders collapse into a single plural form, using the definite article die, as in

Die Schweine = The Pigs

Indefinite articles are represented by only two types in the nominative case, ein and eine:

  • Ein Hund = A dog
  • Eine Ente = A duck
  • Ein Schwein = A pig

As in English, there is no indefinite article for plural nouns.

The four cases

In German, four cases are used, known as the nominative, the accusative, the dative, and the genitive. Nominative is the case which is used in the subject of sentences, or to say A=B. Accusative indicates a direct object relationship, as in "I bought the book." The dative case shows an indirect object relationship, as in "I gave you the book." The genitive case has slowly fallen into disuse, but indicates possession; this usage is often replaced by the dative in most cases.

The definite and indefinite articles change according to the case:

Definite Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
Masculine der Hund den Hund dem Hund des Hundes*
Feminine die Ente die Ente der Ente der Ente
Neutral das Schwein das Schwein dem Schwein des Schweins*
Plural die Schweine die Schweine den Schweinen* der Schweine
Indefinite Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
Masculine ein Hund einen Hund einem Hund eines Hundes*
Feminine eine Ente eine Ente einer Ente einer Ente
Neutral ein Schwein ein Schwein einem Schwein eines Schweins*

*With the genitive case, masculine and neutral nouns take the "s" or "es" ending, while the plural form of masculine and neutral nouns take the "n" ending in dative.

Any other articles take endings by gender and case according to one of these two models. Other examples of article types include possessive (mein Hund = my dog) negative (kein Schwein = no pig), and "this one" (diese Ente = this duck).

Adjective declension

When adjectives appear modifying a noun, their ending must agree with both the case and gender of the noun. These endings follow separate rules from those of the definite and indefinite articles, making this extremely difficult for the non-native speaker.

The endings with a definite article always take either an "e" or "en" as ending:

Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
Masculine der schwarze Hund den schwarzen Hund dem schwarzen Hund des schwarzen Hundes
Feminine die gelbe Ente die gelbe Ente der gelben Ente der gelben Ente
Neutral das schlaue Schwein das schlaue Schwein dem schlauen Schwein des schlauen Schweins
Plural die schlauen Schweine die schlauen Schweine den schlauen Schweinen der schlauen Schweine

(schwarz = black, gelb = yellow, schlau = clever)

So-called "strong" declension occurs when there is no article, or when the determiner has no gender (as in "some" or "many"). In strong declension, the ending of the adjective takes on the ending of the definite article:

Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
Masculine schwarzer Hund schwarzen Hund schwarzem Hund schwarzen Hundes
Feminine gelbe Ente gelbe Ente gelber Ente gelber Ente
Neutral schlaues Schwein schlaues Schwein schlauem Schwein schlauen Schweins
Plural schlaue Schweine schlaue Schweine schlauen Schweinen schlauer Schweine

So-called "mixed declension" is used with indefinite articles and possessive articles. Both the article and the adjective take an ending, but the masculine and neutral forms change in the nominative case to carry the "lost" ending caused by the use of an indefinite determiner:

Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
Masculine mein schwarzer Hund meinen schwarzen Hund meinem schwarzen Hund meines schwarzen Hundes
Feminine meine gelbe Ente meine gelbe Ente meiner gelben Ente meiner gelben Ente
Neutral mein schlaues Schwein mein schlaues Schwein meinem schlauen Schwein meines schlauen Schweins
Plural meine schlauen Schweine meine schlauen Schweine meinen schlauen Schweinen meiner schlauen Schweine

Plural forms

In contrast to English's simple addition of "s" to make a noun plural, German plural forms use several different inflections depending on the word. They fall into seven types:

1. No change
der Zimmer (room) → die Zimmer
2. No ending, with Umlaut
der Apfel (apple) → die Äpfel
3. Add -e
das Ziel (goal) → die Ziele
4. Add -e, with Umlaut
der Tanz (dance) → die Tänze
5. Add -er, with Umlaut
das Glas (glass) → die Gläser
6. Add -n or -en
die Frau (woman) → die Frauen
7. Add -s
das Tabu (taboo) → die Tabus

There is no logical formula to determine which plural form a given noun will take, so the plural form must also be learned as one learns a new noun.

Auxiliary verbs

Just as in English, the German language uses helping verbs for most of its tenses. When this occurs, it is the helping verb which is conjugated. The perfect tense exists in German, which uses either the verb haben (to have) or sein (to be) together with a past participle. The future tense also uses a helping verb, werden, which is also used for the passive voice (i.e. The lawn is watered daily.). German also uses modal verbs just as in English:

können = to be able to
dürfen = to be allowed to
müssen = must
sollen = should

While German has two forms of the past tense which are constructed like the English past simple and perfect, they are used for different reasons. Generally speaking, the two types of past in German have the same meaning, but the simple past is used for writing and the perfect for speaking. The past participles for many irregular verbs follow similar vowel transformations as in English:

English: I sing. I sang. I have sung.
German: Ich singe. Ich sang. Ich habe gesungen.

Many of the most important verb forms in German have irregular verb forms, so it is necessary to learn all three forms when one learns a verb.

Word order

German word order in complex sentences is based on a so-called "bracket construction," with the most important parts being close to the beginning and at the end. In sentences with more than one verb, the remaining verb or verbs go at the very end:

Ich habe ihr das Buch in der Schule gegeben. (I gave her the book at school.)

In the example above, the verb haben is conjugated in the first person singular and placed just after the subject, and the past participle of geben (to give) is placed at the end of the sentence. The sentence also contains a direct object (das Buch = the book), an indirect object (ihr = her), and a place indicator (in der Schule = at school).

Word order other than this bracket construction is somewhat flexible. For example, the following sentences have the same meaning:

Das Buch habe ich ihr in der Schule gegeben.
In der Schule habe ich ihr das Buch gegeben.

This bracket construction is a defining characteristic of German word order. It is also used with modal verbs and with the future tense:

Ich kann ihn überhaupt nicht verstehen. (I can't understand him at all.)
Sie wird vielleicht morgen in die Oper gehen wollen. (She'll probably want to go to the opera tomorrow.)

Notice that however the constituent parts are arranged, the main verb always is placed in the second position, and the remaining verbs are placed at the end.

This structure also holds true for the so-called "separable verbs." An example of this is the verb abgeben, which means to "give up." When it is the only verb appearing in the sentence, the prefix "ab" is separated from the rest of the verb, which is conjugated and placed in the second position, and the prefix is placed at the end of the sentence:

Ich gebe jetzt ab. (I'm giving up now.)

German has many such verbs, which are always constructed from a definable preposition and a main verb. However, when using the past tense, future tense, or a modal verb, these separable verbs appear at the end of the sentence in the appropriate form:

Er wird irgendwann abgeben müssen. (He'll have to give up sometime.)


Martin Durrell, Katrin Kohl, Gudrun Loftus, Essential German Grammar, 2002.
Christian Stief and Christian Stang, Langenscheidt German Grammar in a Nutshell, 2002.


  1. Ethnologue:German