german language

Meet the German Language: History, Culture, Linguistics and FAQ for Language Learners

What comes to mind when I say “German language”?

Is it castles, Biergärten (beer gardens) and pretzels?

Or is it intimidating grammar rules and hard-to-pronounce words?

All relevant—but these are just surface-level details about the German language.

The German language has a complex and fascinating history that has shaped the European continent into what it is today and continues to be a major force in the modern world.

Let’s delve deeper into this magnificent language.

Contents

What Is German?

Let’s take a crash course in the German language! If you’re interested in one day learning German, knowing about the German language will help contextualize your future learning.

A short history of the language

Around the 6th century AD, Old High German developed in the highlands of modern day southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

This was the earliest form of German evolved from a single parent language called Proto-Germanic (which dates back to the beginnings of the Indo-European language family).

Old High German would evolve into Middle High German around the turn of the first millennium and then, by the 17th century, into the earliest form of Hochdeutsch (Standard High German) we know today.

Notable characteristics of German

Alphabet

German uses the Latin alphabet: the same used in English, French and Polish. There are a few symbols that English doesn’t have, however, such as the German letter ß (pronounced as an “s” sound) and the little dots on certain vowels called umlauts on the ä, ü and ö.

Phonetics

German has been stereotyped for being a harsh-sounding language

This is likely because German uses consonant sounds at a relatively high frequency—unlike many Romance languages such as Italian and Spanish that use more frequent vowel sounds.

This leads to German sounding less melodic than other languages in Europe.

German has some sounds that don’t exist in English. For example, the German ch sound as in the words ich (I) and hoch (high) feature two sounds that most English speakers don’t use.

Grammar

German has some pretty interesting grammatical features, such as noun inflections that cause articles to change depending on their role in a sentence (subject, object, etc.)

German also has three noun genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), so altogether, there are quite a few ways to say “the.”

Vocabulary

German also has a reputation for complex word-building, leading to very long words.

The language has the ability to continue to combine or add elements to a single word, modifying and adding complexity to the original meaning.

This sometimes gives us words that are quite a mouthful, such as Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (companies that provide legal protection).

These words have also been given their own tongue-in-cheek, if a little gross, compound name of their very own—Bandwurmwörter (tapeworm words). 

Similarities between German and English (and other languages)

Because of its parent language, Proto-Germanic, German has a lot in common with its brother and sister languages. English and German are both West Germanic languages, making them pretty close linguistically.

Like English, German verb conjugation is rather straightforward. There are many irregular verbs (compare “play” and “played” to “think” and “thought” in English), but these are easy to memorize. There aren’t nearly as many verb conjugations in German as there are in Romance languages like French or Spanish.

There are also substantial similarities between German and English words. In fact, according to Ethnologue, English and German have a lexical similarity of 60%.

This means that 60% of English words will be familiar to English speakers, and they offer a sort of “cheat” to learning new German vocabulary.

German also shares a lot of linguistic similarities with other members of the Germanic language family. Languages like Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and even Icelandic are similar because they share a common ancestor. Speakers of these languages will also find German quite familiar.

Varieties of German

As I mentioned earlier, German is a language with its own dialects. While these dialects are often able to be understood by all speakers, they can be tricky for learners.

German Standard German

This is the official written and spoken language of Germany used by the government, official institutions, the media and the education system.

Learners of the German language are mostly likely learning German Standard German (unless they are specifically taking a course in another variety), and it is mostly like what you’d find in foreign language textbooks.

Despite this, there are a number of dialects and varieties of German within Germany that learners are likely to encounter that can be very different from the German Standard German.

Plattdeutsch (Low German)

This is the variety of German spoken in the north of Germany by approximately 2.5 million speakers. This includes the cities of Münster, Brandenburg, Hamburg and Hannover. While German Standard German can be understood in these places, Plattdeutsch is the language of everyday life.

Plattdeutsch speakers can also be found in the Netherlands. This variety can be known in English as Low German or Low Saxon.

Central German

Central German is a collection of dialects spoken in the middle of the country. These include the major cities of Frankfurt, Cologne, Berlin and Dresden. Luxembourgish (one of the official languages of neighboring Luxembourg) is also considered a variety of Central German.

Alemannic, Swabian & Bavarian

These dialects are spoken south of the Central German dialects.

Alemmanic is spoken cities such as Stuttgart, and it serves as the basis for the Swiss Standard German variety of the language. Swabian is a variety of Alemannic which is spoken Braden-Württemberg.

Bavarian serves as the basis for Austrian Standard German. It is also spoken in the region of Bavaria in Germany, most notably the city of Munich.

Pennsylvania Dutch

Pennsylvania Dutch is actually a dialect of the German language that was brought to parts of the United States in the 1800s.

These immigrants didn’t just bring their language, however: they also brought their culture. Pennsylvania Dutch remains a large part of the Amish and Mennonite way of life.

Swiss Standard German

Swiss Standard German is the dialect of German used in Switzerland. Like German Standard German, it is used by the government, official institutions, the media and the education system in the country.

There are many differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary between Swiss Standard German and German Standard German.

The differences in pronunciation and vocabulary can be so great that even Germans need subtitles to understand the Swiss dialect of their own language at times!  

Austrian Standard German

Austrian Standard German is the dialect of German used in Austria, including by the government, official institutions, the media and the education system.

While Austrian Standard German is officially almost the same as German Standard German, in practice it also has its own particularities in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

Yiddish

While officially a distinct language, Yiddish is sometimes considered a dialect of German due to its high level of lexical similarity with German. It was originally spoken by Jewish populations in Central and Eastern Europe, and has since spread to all corners of the world.

Yiddish retains much of the vocabulary and grammar structures from German, but contains many borrowed words from Hebrew and other languages. Speakers report some mutual intelligibility between the spoken languages, but with German speakers at a disadvantage due to some unfamiliar words and phrases.

However, Yiddish and German are not mutually intelligible as written languages, since Yiddish uses a modified Hebrew alphabet which would be unreadable to most German speakers.

German Culture

Languages don’t exist on their own, and neither does German! German is the sum of the people who speak it and their own idiosyncrasies and commonalities.

German humor

A survey from 2011 found that Germany was rated the least funny nation on Earth. But that might just be because non-Germans don’t understand German humor.

German humor is steeped in political satire and social taboo. This can pose a problem if the listener or viewer doesn’t understand the political and social culture in Germany.

If you learn more about German political and social culture, you may find that Germans aren’t so humorless after all.

German gestures and body language

German speakers have their own gestures and body language for conveying the unspoken aspects of the German language.

For example, if you want to wish someone luck, instead of crossing your fingers, simply press your thumb into the palm of your other hand and squeeze: drück die Daumen (press the thumb).  

But you know that O shape you make with your index finger and thumb? You should know that’s considered rude by some German speakers.

 


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German etiquette

Being polite is important in any language. You don’t want to sour a relationship by inadvertently being rude.

Here are some German etiquette pointers:

  • Use the pronoun Sie (you) and the Sie forms of the verb when talking to someone you don’t know or whenever the occasion calls for formality.
  • Make sure to dress nicely for formal events, be punctual and make sure not to walk into someone’s house without removing your shoes at the door.
  • There is special etiquette for work and business. Make sure to shake hands with business associates, even if there are multiple ones in a single meeting or if you’ve met them before. Skipping someone is considered rude.
  • You must stick to plans when they are made. Adjusting them or ignoring them entirely will get you talked about at the water cooler, and not in a nice way.
  • Did I mention being punctual? That is important for the business world too.

German food

Not surprisingly, German food is as varied as the multitude of distinct regional cultures and immigrant cultures within the German-speaking world.

There are some dishes, however, that most German speakers agree are the best, and these can be found in most German restaurants.

German Wurst (sausage), Schnitzel (breaded pork or turkey) and Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) are stereotypical German foods for a reason: they are well enjoyed and plentiful!

Other common German foods include Käsespätzle (a German macaroni and cheese dish) and Reibekuchen (traditional German pancakes).

Also, did I mention that Germans love Spargel (asparagus)? In fact, they have an entire festival for its harvest.

As a country of immigrants, Germany has incorporated and enjoyed non-traditionally German food in recent years. Favorites include Currywurst, sausage doused in curry powder, and Döner kebab, a Turkish kebab sandwich. These are particularly satisfying after a night of drinking German Bier (beer).

German holidays

Traditionally a Christian nation, German religious holidays should be quite familiar to those from other Western nations.

For example, Germans celebrate:

  • Weihnachten (Christmas Eve)
  • Weihnachtstag (Christmas Day)
  • Karfreitag (Good Friday) and 
  • Ostermontag (Easter Monday).

These celebrations are marked with church attendance, gatherings with family and friends as well as decorations and elaborate meals.

I also suggest heading to a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) if you’re in a German-speaking place for the holidays. They are a great place to find cool Christmas gifts as well as enjoy traditional German food and Glühwein (mulled wine).

Germany also has national holidays such as Tag der deutschen Einheit (Day for German Unity) which celebrates the reunification of West and East Germany.

Germans are also game for a good party. Like other Western nations, Germans celebrate Silvester (New Year’s Eve) with a big party.

And who could forget Oktoberfest, a month-long German celebration in late September and early October that is dedicated to drinking beer and hanging out.

 


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German popular culture

While influenced by other major Western popular cultures such as the United States, Great Britain and other countries in Europe, the German-speaking world retains many aspects of its own popular culture.

The German-speaking world makes its own music, movies and TV shows entirely in German. In fact, it’s not hard to find German pop, rock and rap music on streaming services such as Spotify or YouTube.

There are also many movies and TV shows that can be found on streaming services such as Netflix.

The German-speaking world even has its own media conglomerates. These channels host news in German as well as their own television shows. Many of these can be found on their websites.

Why Learn German?

Sure, the German language is connected to a fascinating history and a vibrant culture (or should I say cultures) but there must be more to learning German than just an interesting military history, Schnitzel and German beer.

In fact, there are lots of benefits to learning German:

Word-building is creative and fun

Because of the way the German language is structured, you can express virtually anything through word-building. Ever wanted to say “a face that is deserving of a slap”? Well, in German, the word is Backpfeifengesicht.

What about “trying to make something better but just making it worse.” There’s a German word for that too: verschlimmbessern.

In fact, German word-building makes creating new words possible. Simply learn the rules for word-building and start! New German words are created and popularized every day.

 


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Language of international business

German isn’t only useful to traveling to Germany. The German language is the gateway to the Eurozone. In case you don’t know, the Eurozone is a collection of 19 countries in Europe that all use the same currency: the euro.

However, this alliance doesn’t just allow you to spend money easily in 19 countries without going to a currency exchange. It also means that these 19 countries’ economies are extensively linked together.

And because Germany is the biggest economy in the Eurozone, the German language gives you unprecedented access to quality higher education, job opportunities and international business endeavors.

With German, the sky really is the limit academically and professionally.

 


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FAQ About Learning German

Interested in learning this amazing language we call German? Check out some common questions that may arise while deciding to take the plunge.

Which variety of German should I learn?

Many learners get stuck on this question, but frankly, the choice is pretty easy.

Start with German Standard German and then go from there. This is the easiest variety to find learning resources for, and it’s easy to learn local slang and dialectal differences once you already have a base in the language.

After establishing a foundation in German Standard German, ask yourself the following question: where do you plan on speaking German?

Most if not all German speakers understand Standard German, so learning a dialect is not necessary for a general trip to a German-speaking country. 

If, however, you have a specific place in mind where you plan on living, studying or working long-term, you should plan on studying that location’s dialect.

For example, those looking to move to Switzerland or Austria should learn these varieties of German in addition to German Standard German.

This also applies to those looking to move to various locations within Germany where Central German, Low German, Alemannic, Swabian or Bavarian is spoken. This will make it easier to connect with locals from these regions.

How hard is it to learn German?

German has a reputation for being a hard language to learn.

But while it may be tricky to learn German declinations for noun cases, the language makes up for this with a pretty simple verb conjugation system.

Besides, writing and pronunciation are intricately connected in German, so it is spelled exactly how it is pronounced… unlike some languages (we’re looking at you, French and English).

A background in English or even knowledge of another similar language like Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish or Danish will make learning German easier. These languages are part of the Germanic language family, so they share a large number of vocabulary and grammatical features.

How long does it take to learn German?

Quite frankly, the answer to this question is entirely based on you as a learner.

The fact is, you will learn German quicker if you put more time into the process. Studying for two hours a day for a month will yield better results that studying two hours a week for a month.

But it isn’t just about time: your method matters too. We’ll touch on that later.

In official terms, estimates for how long it takes to learn German vary. For example, it takes up to 900 hours of study to reach an advanced level of German according to the Foreign Service Institute

 


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Which jobs require German?

There are countless jobs within the German-speaking world that require fluency in German.

  • Working at a restaurant, a grocery store or any German business requires German, especially if most of the company’s clients are German speakers.
  • There are also jobs for English speakers who also have fluency in German, such as an English teacher. While this doesn’t require German, being bilingual is definitely an asset.
  • German proficiency is also an asset if you’re planning on working in the tourism industry within a German-speaking country.
  • As expected, to be a German translator or interpreter, you should have a high level of German proficiency.

Lastly, even outside of the German-speaking world, knowing German can be beneficial. In the business world, German is a major language, and it can open the door to business opportunities with German speakers and German companies.

Which German language exam should I take?

German language exams are not necessary for learning the language, but they are definitely useful for learners looking to prove they have German proficiency.

In fact, many German language jobs and schools require their workers or students have a certified level of German.

Each German proficiency exam has a slightly different function.

The Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang (German Speaking Exam for University Entry) and the Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache (German Test as a Foreign Language) are both common for entry to a German university.

 


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Besides those two, the Goethe Institute offers a number of German proficiency exams divided into the levels outlined in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and they are usually taken by those looking to prove their proficiency for a German-speaking job or for those looking to gain German citizenship.

 


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What’s the best way to learn German?

Knowing how you learn best is a great way to pick a method that will work for you. For example, if you learn best by reading and writing, you should learn German with a textbook.

If you learn best by watching and listening, you should learn German with an audio or video course.

Regardless of your preferred learning style, immersion in authentic German content is key.

What that means is that you should aim to surround yourself with real German as much as possible. Believe it or not, grammar exercises from a German grammar drill book won’t fully prepare you to speak and understand real German.

Instead, you should aim to listen to the language as much as possible, read as much as possible and use the language actively as much as possible.

That means watching real German language TV shows and movies, listening to German music and podcasts, reading German books and articles and practicing your German speaking skills with real native speakers. It may be intimidating at first, but this at-home immersion can yield the quickest results.

 

That was a pretty deep dive! Now that you know the ins and outs of the language, what are you waiting for? This magnificent language is waiting for you!

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