If English is your mother tongue, then that makes German your uncle tongue.
German-speakers, vice versa.
The relationship between English and German is all but ancient history—the two languages are long-lost linguistic siblings.
But when English speakers are learning German, it seems like we’re all too quick to focus on the elements of our new language that seem foreign, obtuse, archaic and totally difficult to learn.
We pick up on all the unfamiliar words and funny grammar rules straightaway. At the top of the list are cases, gender, tenses and ridiculously long words (I’m looking at you Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, the now-retired word for “Cattle marking and beef labeling supervision duties delegation law”).
Yet English and German are recently descended from the same root language, Proto-Germanic, which was spoken for thousands of years as one tongue. It was only in the last 500 years or so that the two languages diverged to their present forms.
That’s only two shakes of a lamb’s Schwanz (tail) in linguistic terms.
This shared history, culture and, most importantly, language, which has developed over thousands of years, can benefit you while learning German today.
Why Is History Important for German Learners?
What have emperors, kings, traders, invasions and wars got to do with learning the difference between all the German cases? Quite a lot, actually.
Because the two languages were once the same, the grammar of English and German is quite similar, even if we don’t always recognize it so easily in English. Everything that we find difficult in modern German, from cases to gender to movable sentence structure, these all once existed in English.
Say what? Yes indeed. The two languages have grown and changed, intermingled and drifted apart, through various invasions and migrations in Europe.
English has shed quite a lot of these grammatical rules over the last few hundred years. While they may have fallen out of common usage, there are still a few remainders to be found in somewhat unexpected places today. Your brain has already been exposed to more of the German language’s key elements than you may have realized.
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And now, let’s start making some linguistic connections.
5 Surprising Connections Between English and German
1. The basics
Much of our modern English vocabulary comes from Latin.
The French-speaking Normans invaded England in 1066 (led by that old rascal William the Conqueror), bringing a slew of French and Latin words with them to England.
However, England was already full of Germanic tribes who were speaking a kind of Old English, using words like ich, finde, Hand and many others that are still used in German today.
This original English language that was infiltrated by French and Latin, called Anglo-Saxon, gets its name from the Germanic tribes who migrated there around 500-800 A.D. That’s right, Germanic. Can you see where this is going?
These Germanic tribes had been speaking their own version of English before the Normans came, and continued to speak it after the Normans came to England. Norman and Latin words didn’t displace much vocabulary, or subtract anything, but rather they added to this early language.
Even 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 are from the same roots, making them all extremely similar. Give or take a few spelling and pronunciation differences, they’re practically the same. For example:
- I have – Ich habe
- It is long – Es ist lang
- Where is that – Wo ist das
When starting to learn German, concentrate on the basics and remember that they’re almost the same as their English counterparts. The words with the strongest similarities are often simple, functional words, like the, be, my and would which are used for almost 50% of all spoken English. When you encounter familiar words in English, use the similarities to help you remember them better!
2. Sentence structure and word order
We all remember reading Shakespeare back in school, between dreaming about recess and trying not to get caught texting (or writing notes on paper, depending on how old you are) underneath the desk. The strange grammar and sentence structure put a lot of people off Shakespeare.
It’s as if Shakespeare couldn’t decide what he was actually saying, throwing words anywhere he wanted. Well actually, that’s the case!
At the time, the English language was going through a change from Middle English to Modern English. A lot of these old Germanic rules were being shed and much of our modern vocabulary was being created. (Shakespeare himself invented over 2,200 words writing all those plays and sonnets!)
Here’s good example of Shakespeare’s English, from Hamlet:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
See how the first part ends in “a lender be,” with the verb “be” at the end? Looks similar to German word order, no? This short phrase also employs a semi-colon and two commas, reminiscent of the strict punctuation of modern German.
Back in Willie’s day, word order was a lot freer than it is now. The verb, noun or adjective could be moved around to stress its importance, exactly like German does today.
German is a notoriously difficult language to learn, and many people are quite proud having mastered it. Yet have you ever been to Hungary (or Magyarország as they call it) and tried to speak a little with the locals?
The Hungarian language has 14 vowel sounds and over 18 cases. Meine Güte (my goodness), it makes German seem simple. Or perhaps you have tried to read out loud some Gaelic, where the bhf combination actually sounds like a W? Have you tried to decipher some Cyrillic, an alphabetical system completely removed from English and German?
Well, you don’t have to struggle nearly this much with German.
Words from German and English are often incredibly similar in their pronunciations. There were periods where consonant sounds changed slightly between German and English. A good example is the German letter P, which changed to F 1500 years ago (Ship turned became Schiff, for example) but has remained the same ever since.
There are more examples of this type of change, usually involving everyday words like Father and Vater, Water and Wasser, Apple and Apfel—you get the idea. Both in meaning and pronunciation, these are practically the same. Compare this to French, where every final letter is silent and pronouncing the letter R sounds like somebody choking on a large piece of fromage.
Even the umlaut in German doesn’t introduce any sounds that we don’t have in English, but rather it clarifies them so that we don’t get too confused when trying to pronounce something! How nice! Vowels in English can sound very different than they’re written, as it’s not a phonetic language, but in German we don’t have this problem at all because of that handy little umlaut. German pronunciation, because it’s close to English and so logical in structure, isn’t difficult zu lernen (to learn). Listen to some podcasts or audio books, read aloud and once that accent is in your head you’ll never forget it.
Sometimes it seems like the biggest gulf between German and English is caused by those darn articles and word endings. We don’t have anything so arbitrary and complicated like that in English, do we? Well, actually…
Historically, all European languages had inflections in some shape or form, yet most have been gotten rid of as languages modernized.
There are plenty of exceptions to this, though. English still has the Genitive and Nominative cases. German is a unique animal in that it’s one of the few languages that has retained most of its inflections. This means that German words change depending on gender, number, order and tense.
As English has no gender and a strict sentence structure, we have pretty simple inflections. Girl becomes girls. Makes sense, right? You’ll just add an “s” or “es” to pluralize most of the time. Dog becomes dogs, got it. Man becomes…men. Oh wait, that doesn’t follow the rule. Let’s try again. Goose becomes…geese? What’s going on here?
These are Old English inflections, remnants of the old language, where the stem of the word is modified. Many of our most widely used words change like this, just as strong verbs change in German. Therefore, don’t let German inflections scare you. Our language is not so far removed from this. Think of strong German verbs as equivalent to English irregular verbs.
5. Outside influences
The Normans, as you know, brought a lot of new words into the English language. However, they weren’t the only ones.
When Germanic people arrived in the British isles, their language and culture was influenced by the Celtic-speaking people who had previously settled there.
The Vikings, when they weren’t busy pillaging, scaring monks and the like, also settled in the British Isles, trading and living alongside Anglo-Saxons. The Vikings and Celts were spread all over Europe, including in what is now Germany, and their languages also influenced German.
These same Latin, Celtic and Norse words have been transferred and shared between English and German, creating a lot of nice cognates for us to easily understand.
Direct and Direkt come from the Latin Directus, likewise do Active and Aktif come from Activo.
Here’s a handy list with more Latin-derived words. Other common words like Physics and Physik, Anarchy and Anarchie have shared Greek roots. There’s more to the German and English language relationship than the original Proto-Germanic language. The influence of other languages through trade, migration and colonization have created two languages which are similar in some ways and so different in others.
While this may seem like ancient history, the shared roots of German and English are invaluable to know.
Native English speakers have an advantage over most others as the basics of the two languages are so similar. German appears almost familiar to us. The similarity in language is not the only advantage. Similar culture, values, food and drink may also make learning and integration both easy and fun.
Keine Angst (no fear), right?
Go ahead and make your German learning anxiety a thing of the past!