How similar or different are English and German?

by | Aug 4, 2017 | English, Regional Linguistic Differences

The relationship between English and German is an ancient one and both languages are closely related linguistic siblings.

As a native English speaker who has learnt German, I am always surprised that other native speakers consider German ‘difficult’ to learn.

While I found German relatively easy to learn in the beginning (due to the similarity in basic vocabulary), it is true that the intermediate and advanced levels were trickier than expected.

In this article, I’ll be delving into the main similarities and differences between English and German.

German and English belong to the West Germanic language family, a family that also includes Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Frisian amongst others.

German is spoken by about 95 million people worldwide, and is the official language of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.

Written German has been standardized from a myriad of related dialects into Hochdeutsch or ‘High German’, although there remain significant regional differences in the spoken language.

English is known as a lingua franca. The English language is a global powerhouse. It is the third most common native language in the world, behind only Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.

It is the most widely spoken second language in the world and an official language of the United Nations, the European Union, and many other international organizations and businesses.

English and German both belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Because they are so closely related, they share many features.

SIMILARITIES

1. English and German are Germanic languages

English and German are recently descended from Proto-Germanic, which was spoken for thousands of years as one language.

Geographically the proto-West Germanic language centered around present-day northern Germany and then spread to southwards as well as northwestwards and before going global with European colonization.

The Germanic tribes had been speaking their own version of English before the Normans invaded and conquered England. 

Norman and Latin words didn’t displace much vocabulary, or subtract anything but rather added to the existing Germanic language.

Today, 80 of the 100 most common words in English are Germanic in origin

These most basic, most frequently spoken words in English and German.

They are similar with some minor spelling and pronunciation differences. For example:

  • I have – Ich habe
  • It is long – Es ist lang
  • Where is that – Wo ist das

The Germanic language in the British isles was also influenced by the Celtic people already living there and the later raids by Vikings from Scandinavia. 

A lot of Latin, Celtic and Norse words have come into both English and German, creating a lot of cognates that are easy for us to understand, even though they were not existing in the Proto-Germanic language. For example:

  • Direct and Direkt come from the Latin Directus
  • Activ and Aktif come from Activo.

2. English and German use the same alphabet

While both languages use the Latin alphabet, there are a few additional letters in the German alphabet:

  • umlauted letters (ä, ö and ü)
  • Eszett or sharp S (ß)

DIFFERENCES

1. Phonology

The /th/ sound as in words like the in English and thing does not exist in German so many German speakers have problems reproducing such sounds correctly. 

Ever noticed that Germans struggle to pronounce the letter w correctly in English? The /w/ also does not exist in German so although German words beginning with this letter, it is pronounced like a /v/.

This explains the mispronunciation of English words we or wine as ve and vine.

2. Grammar

German has 4 cases: Nominative, Accusative, Dative and Genitive. In English, there is only nominative, accusative, and genitive for pronouns e.g. “I, me, my/mine”.

This is something that intimidates many native English speakers learning German but in reality this is not so complicated, especially when compared to Slavic languages (like Russian) which have many more cases.

German can sometimes have very long compound nouns and I mean really long! For example, Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, which means ‘automobile liability insurance’ has a whopping 36 letters!! 😱

Another characteristic of German is that the first letter in a noun is always capitalized; that’s why Handy, Schiff, and Buch are all written with a capital letter.

Another difference is that in English, the definite article is “the,” and the indefinite article is “a” or “an.” However, in German, the definite article can be der if the word is masculine, die if it’s feminine, das if it’s “neuter” or die if it’s “plural”. 

For example, Tisch (“table”) is masculine so it’s der Tisch. There is of course nothing particularly “masculine” about a table. 😂

Have you learnt German, English, both or any other combination of Germanic languages? Or perhaps you’ve learnt two or more languages from the same language family? If so, I’d love to hear your experiences. Write them in the comments section below this post or send me a message! I read all the comments that I receive. 🙂

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