A Guide to German - 10 facts about the German language

Useful facts about the German language

Translation in German

Check the German-only version

1. Where is German spoken?

German is among the most widely spoken language in the European Union and is the official language in Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. It's also one of the official languages of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

There are other German-speaking communities scattered around Europe, such as in the Province of Bolzano-Bozen in Northern Italy and the Eastern part of Belgium, as well as communities in Eastern Europe, North and South America.

2. What you already know about German

At some point you might have enjoyed some
 Schadenfreude, pleasure in other people's misfortune, and maybe went to
 Kindergarten as a child. You may have come across the word
 Zeitgeist, meaning 'the spirit of the times', or felt a bit of
 Angst as a teenager. See, it's all German.

Not only are there lots of words of German origin in English, German welcomes English with open arms. New words are slotted into the grammatical system, albeit with a crowbar, if necessary! So, familiar words end up with strange endings, genders attached to them or even new meanings. There is even a word for them: Denglish, (the D is for Deutsch, German).

Want to know a little Denglish? Here goes!
 die Airconditioning - air conditioning
 babysitten - to babysit
 joggen - to go jogging or running
 das Handy - the mobile phone
 der Showmaster - the TV host

3. How hard is it to learn?

German is considered a difficult language to study by English learners, with its long and winding words, four noun case endings and three grammatical genders and the pronunciation gives every muscle in your mouth a good workout. On the other hand, as both English and German are related, you'll notice a number of similarities that may make it easier to learn. Also, the compound words are so much fun to learn and the grammar's considered to be quite logical. Just watch out for the exceptions to the rules.

German is a very descriptive language. Nouns, especially, often combine the object with the activity.
 der Staubsauger - the vacuum cleaner, consists of the noun Staub, dust and the verb saugen, to suck, ie. a dustsucker.
 das Fernsehen - the television, combines the words fern, far, and sehen, watching, lit. far-watching.

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

German words can become overwhelmingly long, but just see it as a challenge and read the word slowly out loud.
How many words can you spot in the following compound nouns? Due to the economic crisis, the German government passed the
 Wachstumsbeschleunigungsgesetz, growth acceleration act, and the  Abwrackprämie, scrappage scheme, or cash for clunkers scheme, to support the German car industry.

If that's not tongue twister enough for you, here's a really popular one:
 Fischers Fritze fischte frische Fische.
Fisherman Fritz fished fresh fish.
Even tricky in English!

5. Know any good German jokes?

Mastering the subtleties of irony is still work in progress, but, just like other countries, Germans like to make jokes about older people, blondes and politics and they have a special fondness for jokes about civil servants.

 Warum dürfen Pausen in Ämtern nie länger als 60 Minuten dauern?
Damit man die Beamten nicht jedes Mal neu anlernen muss.
Why are civil servants not allowed to take one hour breaks?
Because there's not enough time to train them again and again.

 Was ist das ideale Geschenk für's Beamtenbüro?
Ein Bewegungsmelder!
What is the ideal present for a civil servants' office?
A motion detector.

6. If I learn German, will it help me with any other languages?

The closest relative of German is Dutch and, believe it or not, English. German sits within the West Germanic arm of the Indo-European language family, together with English, Dutch and Flemish, Frisian, Yiddish, Afrikaans and Luxembourgish. There are certain similarities regarding grammar, syntax and vocabulary with Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic which, together with Faroese, are among the North Germanic languages. If you're keen on an East Germanic language, you can always give Gothic or Vandalic a go, although they became extinct a long time ago.

7. What not to say and do

 Wie geht's?How are you? Ask this question and expect a straight, honest answer with much more information about a person's actual frame of mind than you might have intended. Germans generally have no problem talking openly about their bodily functions, but if they wish you  Gute Fahrt it simply means Have a good trip.

There are many more of those so-called false friends, words which aren't what they seem in English. German  fast means almost and  After stands for rectum. The German  bald has nothing to do with a gentlemen's hairstyle, it means soon and  Mist is not the silver dawning of a new day, it simply means... rubbish.

8. Famous quotations

German is widely known as the language of the Dichter und Denker, writers and thinkers. One of the greatest is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). His drama Faust I (1808) is considered his greatest work and a national treasure, as well as the source of many quotations still present in everyday German.

The phrase  des Pudels Kern, lit. the core of the poodle, is often used for expressing a deeper meaning. Named after the character Gretchen in Faust,  die Gretchenfrage, lit. the Gretchen question, aims at your heart and soul, often triggering a confession or a difficult decision.

From a more recent source by another famous German writer, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), comes the ultimate insight into human nature:
 Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.
Food comes first, then morals.
Die Dreigroschenoper, The Threepenny Opera, 1928

9. First publication

The oldest existing book written in the German language is probably Abrogans, an 8th century manuscript dictionary of translations from Latin into Old High German. One copy has survived and is kept in the library of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

One of the oldest literary works is the Hildebrandslied, the song of Hildebrand, dating back to the 9th century. It's a heroic lay, telling the tragic encounter in a battle between a son, Hadubrand, and his unrecognised father, Hildebrand.

10. How to be polite and show respect

German is one of those languages that differentiate between a formal and informal you, especially when it comes to business. Always use the formal  Sie for people you've just met and only switch to the informal  du after being invited to do so.
Play it safe and address a person unknown to you with  Herr, Mr, or  Frau, Ms, followed by their surname. The German  Fräulein for an unmarried woman is totally out-of-date.

Germans strongly differentiate between work and play. A firm handshake is the traditional formal greeting. In a more informal setting, simply say  Hallo and possibly pursue with cheek-kissing, which is very much en vogue amongst women with their friends, whether male or female, but not so much between male friends, who prefer a firm pat on the shoulder.

Titles are still very important, so don't be surprised to find many people in Germany calling themselves Doktor. This title is more proof of academic credentials than of medical skills.

German key phrases

German key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The German alphabet

The German alphabet

All the sounds, from a to z, from ß to ü

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