German language

German (Deutsch)
Spoken in: Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and 38 other countries.
Region: Europe
Total speakers: 120 million
Ranking: 9
Genetic classification: Indo-European
  West Germanic
   Old High German
   Middle High German
   Modern German
Official status
Official language of: European Union, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Regional or local official language in: Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and Poland.
Regulated by: None
Language codes
ISO 639-1de
ISO 639-2ger (B)/deu (T)
See also: LanguageList of languages

German (called Deutsch in German; in German the term germanisch is equivalent to English Germanic), 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. It is spoken primarily in Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, in two-thirds of Switzerland, in two-thirds of the South Tyrol province of Italy (in German, Sdtirol), 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 rgions 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 the French language 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 dialect of German) and in Brazil (states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paran, and Esprito Santo), where millions of Germans migrated in the last 200 years, but the great majority of descendants don't speak it. 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, Thailand, and Australia.

German is the main language of 96.75 million people in Europe (as of 2004), or 13.3% of all Europeans, being the second most spoken language in Europe, behind Russian (somewhere around 150 million speakers in Europe), and 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 in the EU (after English and French) and in the USA (after Spanish and French). It is one of the official languages of the European Union.

Standard German did not develop out of one regional dialect but was artificially created by poets, philosophers and scholars. In the 16th century Martin Luther translated the ‘The Holy Bible’ into a German as devoid as possible of regional features by consciously merging dialects. He wanted as many people as possible to understand the text. The 18th century with Goethe and Schiller at their zenith brought about a further standardization of German. With more than 120 million people speaking German in 38 countries of the world, it is hardly surprising that the actual usage of German language varies. Like English, German is a pluricentric language with three main centres of usage: Austria, Germany and Switzerland.



As a consequence of the colonization patterns the Vlkerwanderung, 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 standardization 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. 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). 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, e.g. 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 orthographical 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 mottos (e.g., Stanford University.)

Classification and related languages

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

German is grammatically similar in many ways to Dutch, but 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 Chamleon ist ausgewachsen 2 cm gro, das grte kann gut 80 cm werden. (German)

(Which translates as "The smallest chameleon is fully grown 2 cm long, the longest can easily attain 80 cm.")

In some places, German and Dutch are spoken almost interchangeably. Dutch speakers are generally able to read German, and German speakers who can speak English are generally able to read Dutch, even if some may find the spoken language amusing, due to a widespread opinion in Germany that after all "Dutch is just a German dialect".

Official status

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, 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 worldwide, and is more popular than French as a foreign language in Europe. 38% of all European citizens say they can converse in German (native speakers not counted). In Poland, or Hungary for example, one is more likely to find someone who speaks decent German than English. This is because one can easily receive German TV by cable or satellite. Many people learn German by watching series like Star Trek dubbed to 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 % and Spanish 3 %).


The term "German" is used for the dialects of Germany, Austria, German-speaking Switzerland (i.e., 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 (e.g. 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.

The dialects of Germany are typically divided into Low German and High German.

The Low German dialects, or Low Saxon as they are sometimes known more precisely, were not affected by the High German consonant shift. Therefore, they are more closely related to Lower Franconian languages like Dutch than to the High German dialects. Some German dialects are in fact Low Franconian dialects like the native dialect of Cleves. Some linguists, however, do not consider Low German and Low Franconian German dialects to be a part of the German language proper.

The High German dialects are divided into Central and Upper German; Standard German is based on Middle German, while the Austro-Bavarian and the Alemannic-Swabian dialects are Upper German.

The High German dialects spoken by Germanic communities in the former Soviet Union and Ashkenazi Jews have several unique features, and are usually considered the 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 (e.g. Pennsylvania German resembles dialects of the Palatinate, or Hutterite German resembles dialects of Carinthia).

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 seldomly 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 should be used in school.


Main article: German grammar

German is an inflected language. In contrast to Latin, the inflection sometimes (ie. sein to bin, and spielen to spiele) affects not only the word ending but also its stem, making declension and conjugation slightly more difficult.

Noun inflection

German nouns inflect into:

In the German orthography, unlike any other orthography, all nouns and most words that take the syntactical function of nouns are capitalized.

Like most Germanic languages, German forms left-branching noun compounds, where the first noun modifies the category given by the second, e.g. Hundehaus (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, e.g., 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 Rindfleischetikettierungsberwachungsaufgabenbertragungsgesetz.

Verb Inflection

  • 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, Conditional, 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 a lot of 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 , and , as well as a special symbol for "ss", which is only used after long vowels or diphthongs (and not used at all in Switzerland), the Eszett (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 (e.g. Kurrent and Stterlin). 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 and this has been retained since for broader and easier usability.


Main article: German alphabet.


Main article: German pronunciation.

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
haben to have to have
Katze cat cat
Nacht night night
Pfeife pipe pipe
singen, sang, gesungen sing, sang, sung sing, sang, sung
Tag day day
Wetter weather weather
Wille will 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.

German Meaning of German word English cognate
drehen to turn to throw
Gift poison gift
Hund dog hound
Knecht servant knight
nehmen take numb
raten to guess/ to advise to read
ritzen to scratch to write
Schmerz pain smart
rchen to take revenge to wreak (havoc)
werfen throw to warp

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
Chutzpe 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

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 Germanic people: 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 "nmet" is also a Slavonic loan-word. The Arabic name for Austria, "an-namsa" (النمسا), is derived from the Slavonic term.

See also

External links

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Phrase and word translations


af:Duits als:Deutsche Sprache ang:odisc sprǽc az:German_qrupu cs:Němčina ca:Alemany da:Tysk sprog de:Deutsche Sprache el:Γερμανική γλώσσα eo:Germana lingvo es:Idioma alemn et:Saksa keel fi:Saksan kieli fr:Allemand ga:Gearminis he:גרמנ&;#1497;ת hu:Német_nyelv is:ska it:Lingua tedesca ja:ドイツ語 ko:독일어 kw:Almaynek la:Lingua Germanica moderna (theotisca) lb:Ditsch ms:Bahasa Jerman nds:Dtsch nl:Duits no:Tysk sprk pl:Język niemiecki pt:Lngua alem ro:Limba germană ru:Немецкий язык simple:German language sl:Nemščina sv:Tyska th:ภาษาเยอรมัน vi:Tiếng Đức tr:Almanca tt:Alman tele zh-cn:德语 zh-tw:德語


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