The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






German language

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, the major part of Switzerland, Luxembourg, the South Tyrol (in German, Südtirol) region of Italy, the East Cantons of Belgium, parts of Romania, Poland, Alsace (in German, Elsass) and parts of the Lorraine (in German, Lothringen) region of France. Additionally, several former colonial possessions of these countries, such as Namibia, have sizable German-speaking populations, and there are German-speaking minorities in several eastern European countries, including Russia, Hungary and Slovenia, and in North America (particularly Canada and the United States) as well as in Iceland. Some South American areas, such as Argentina, Chile, Perú, and the Brazilian states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná, and Espírito Santo, also have German-speaking minorities.

The Amish, Hutterites and some Mennonites also speak a dialect of German. Approximately 120 million people, or a quarter of all Europeans, speak German. German is the third most popular foreign language taught worldwide, and the second most popular in Europe (after English) and the fourth in the USA (after Spanish and French). It is one of the official languages of the European Union.



The dialects subject to the second Germanic sound shift (High German dialects as opposed to Low German dialects) during medieval times are regarded as part of the modern German language.

As a consequence of the colonization patterns, the Völkerwanderung, 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 when writers would try 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-nineteenth 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, 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 (German: Prag), Budapest, Bratislava (German: Pressburg), 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 - 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 Chamäleon ist ausgewachsen 2 cm groß, das größte 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 they find the spoken language very amusing.

Official status

German is the only official language in Germany, Liechtenstein, and Austria; it shares official status in Belgium (with French and Dutch), Italy (with Italian and French), Switzerland (with French, Italian and Romansh), Luxembourg (with French and Luxembourgish), and Denmark (with Danish). 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, 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 satelite. 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).

In the German language 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 the cities and in northern Germany). However, the use of Standard German itself also differs regionally, especially between German-speaking countries. E.g. the pronunciation and vocabulary at public occasions used in Austria is quite different from the one used in Germany, but also from any dialect. 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, however, the speakers do not use mixtures of dialect and standard, and the use of standard German is restricted to very rare situations (e.g. speaking with people who do not understand the Swiss German dialects at all, or, theoretically, in school). Writings in dialect are rare, and even for writing short notes standard German is used.

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, 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 Middle German 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).


Main article: German grammar

German is an inflected language. In contrast to Latin, the inflection 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) or Sommerzeit (eng. summertime). 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 Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

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 ä, ö and ü, as well as a special symbol for "ss", which is only used after long vowels or diphthongs (and not used at all in Switzerland): ß.

Until 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 Sütterlin). 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 in 1941 and this has been retained since for broader and easier usability.


Main article: German alphabet.


Main article: German pronunciation.


There are many German words that are cognate to English words, although 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
werfen throw to warp
Kind child kind
raten to guess to read
ritzen to scratch to write
Schmerz pain smart
rächen to take revenge to wreak (havoc)
Gift poison gift

See also

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:

Note: The Romanian language used to use in the past the Slavonic term "nemţeşte", but "germană" is now widely used. Hungarian "német" is also a Slavonic loan-word. The Arabic name for Austria, "an-namsa" (النمسا), is derived from the Slavonic term.

External links

Phrase and word translations


  • George O. Curme , A Grammar of the German Language (1904, 1922) - the most complete and authoritative work in English

Last updated: 10-24-2005 14:04:52
The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy