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German (Deutsch) belongs to the Western group of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is one of the world’s major languages spoken by an estimated 95 million native and 28 million second-language speakers in some 40 countries around the world (Ethnologue).

German diverged from other Germanic languages by a sound change called the High German Consonant Shift, also known as the Second German Consonant Shift, that occurred in the 3rd-5th centuries and was probably completed by the 9th century AD. Its effect can be seen by comparing modern German words with their English counterparts, e.g., pound-Pfundapple-Apfelcat-Katzeheart-Herzmake-machen. The High German Consonant Shift divided Germany into a smaller Northern part (without the sound shift) and a larger central and Southern part (with the sound shift). The other countries where German is spoken are all south of this line. Since the consonant shift did not occur are the North German Lowlands, their language is called Low German as distinct from High German spoken in the areas where the sound change occurred.

mapGerman has undergone a number of changes throughout history.

  • Old High German
    It was spoken until the 10th-11th centuries. Its grammar resembled that of Latin or Slavic languages in its complexity. It is incomprehensible to readers of modern German.
  • Middle High German 
    It was spoken until the end of the Middle Ages. It is partially comprehensible to readers of modern German.
  • New High German
    It developed at the end of the Middle Ages. It is partially comprehensible to readers of modern German.



  • German is the official language of Germany (with Danish, Frisian, and Sorbian as minority languages) where it is spoken by 70 million people as a first language and by another 8 million people as a second language (Ethnologue).
  • Standard German is the only official language in Liechtenstein and Austria. It is spoken by 7.5 million people in Austria.
  • In Switzerland, German shares co-official status with French, Italian, and Romansh.
  • In Belgium, German is a statutory provincial language in German-speaking areas.
  • In Luxembourg, German shares official status with French and Luxembourgish.
  • German is the official language, along with Italian, of the Vatican Swiss Guard.
  • German is used as a regional language in Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Denmark, France, and Namibia.
  • German is one of the 24 official languages of the European Union. It is the language with the largest number of native speakers in the European Union, and the second most spoken language in Europe after English.
  • German is one of the three working languages of the European Commission, along with English and French.
  • German was once the lingua franca of central, eastern and northern Europe. Today, it is the second most studied language in Europe and Asia, after English. The popularity of German is supported by the wide availability of German TV in Europe.
  • German is the third most-commonly taught language in U.S. schools and universities, after Spanish and French.



There is considerable variation among German dialects. All German dialects belong to the dialect continuum of High German to Low German. Only neighboring dialects are mutually intelligible. Many dialects are not comprehensible to those who speak standard German.

  • Low German dialects are more closely related to Dutch than to High German dialects.
  • High German dialects, spoken in the upper Rhine region, are divided into Middle German and Upper German.
  • Standard German is one High German variety, which developed in Saxony, and which was accepted as the written standard in the 16th and 17th centuries.
  • Austrian and Swiss German are based on Upper German.
  • The High German dialects spoken by Ashkenazi Jews have several unique features, and are usually considered to be a separate language, called Yiddish.
  • The German dialects spoken in colonies founded by German-speaking people were based on the regional dialects spoken by the original colonists, e.g., Pennsylvania German (erroneously called Dutch instead of Deutsch) is based on Palatinate German.


Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where German is spoken in the U.S.


Sound system

The sound system of German is typical of Germanic languages. Its main features are described below.

German has 16 vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate word meaning. Most vowels can be long or short. Vowel length makes a difference in the meaning of otherwise identical words. In the table below, length is indicated by a column after the vowel. In addition, German has three diphthongs /ai, oi, au/.

i, i:
y, y:
u, u:
e, e:
ø, ø:
o, o:
a, a:
  • Rounded vowels are pronounced with rounded and protruding lips.
  • /i/ = beet
  • /e/ = bait
  • /ɛ/ = bet
  • /y, ø/ are rounded front vowels with no equivalents in English.
  • /ə/ = bud; it occurs only in unstressed position
  • /a/ = bat
  • /u/ = boot
  • /o/ = boat


German has 21 consonant phonemes.

  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /ʒ/ = s in vision
  • /x/ has no equivalents in English
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /ç/ has no equivalent in English
  • /r/ can be realized as a alveolar trill /r/, a uvular fricative /ʁ/ or a uvular trill /ʀ/.
  • Voiced paired consonants become voiceless at the end of words and before /t/ and /s/, e.g., lieb, liebt, liebst are pronounced as /li:p/, /li:pt, and l:ipst/.


Stress in German words normally falls on the first syllable of the root. There are some exceptions, especially in loanwords.


German is a highly inflected language having preserved many morphological features of Old High German. Among the Germanic Languages, only Icelandic and Faroese have a comparably rich morphology.

Nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns

  • Nouns are declined based on gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter. The gender of some nouns can be predicted based on their endings, but in most cases the gender of a noun is arbitrary and has to be memorized.
  • There are two numbers: singular and plural.
  • There are four cases: nominativeaccusativedative, and genitive.
  • There are two articles: indefinite and definite.
  • Articles and adjectives agree with nouns in gender and case in the singular; there is no gender distinction in the plural.
  • Adjectives have strong and weak endings.
  • Personal pronouns have a full set of case distinctions.



  • There are strong verbs (so-called irregular verbs that undergo internal vowel changes when conjugated), and weak verbs (so-called regular verbs that add endings to stems).
  • Verbs are conjugated based on person (lst, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular and plural).
  • Verbs have two simple tenses, present and past and numerous compound tenses formed with auxiliary verbs, such as haben ‘have’, sein ‘be’, and werden ‘be, become’ plus past participle or infinitive.
  • There are three moods: indicativesubjunctive/conditional, and imperative.
  • There are two voices: active and passive.
  • The meaning of verbs can be expanded and refined through the use of prefixes, e.g., aufmachen (auf ‘out’ + machen ‘make, do’, i.e., ‘to open’). Sometimes, prefixes can be separated from the main verb, e.g., Mach das Fenster auf!  literally means ‘Make the window out!’, i.e., ‘Open the window!’


Word order
Word order is is best described by the position of the verb in German clauses. The verb typically occupies the final position in subordinate clauses, and first or second position in main clauses. The position of all other sentence constituents is relatively free.


Most German words are derived from Old Norse. German has also borrowed from French, and English. Much of its scientific terminology has Greek and Latin roots. The latest source of loanwords is English. Words are frequently formed by compounding native components, e.g., Weihnachtsmann, literally ‘Holy Night Man’, i.e., ‘Santa Claus’.

Below are some common words and phrases in German.

Hello Hallo
Good bye Auf Wiedersehen
Please Bitte
Thank you Danke
Excuse me Entschuldigung
Yes Ja
No Nein
Man Mann
Woman Frau


Below are the German numerals 1-10.




Prior to the 13th-14th centuries, German was largely unwritten, and all official documents were in Latin. With Johannes Gutenberg‘s  invention of the printing press (circa 1400-1468) and Martin Luther‘s (1483-1546) translation of the Bible using a more colloquial language than had been previously used in writing, there was, for the first time, a German text of common interest that spread rapidly all over Germany. This contributed to the creation of a standard written language that would be understood throughout Germany. Another important step towards the standardization of German was the creation of an orthography by the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1879. The Kingdom of Prussia followed one year later when Konrad Duden (1829-1911) created his famous dictionary which is still used today as the standard of German orthography. Since 1880, the orthography has undergone two reforms (1901 and 1990s). Today, German is written using the Latin alphabet. In general, the spelling of German words is a pretty good indication of their pronunciation.

A a
B b
C c
D d
G g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
N n
O o
P p
Q q
R r
S s
T t
U u
V v
W w
X x
Y y
Z z


In addition to the 26 standard letters, German has three vowels with an umlaut: Ää, Öö, Üü and a special letter ß that represents ss.

Some notable German letter-sound correspondences are:

  • V represents /f/, e.g., Volkswagen is pronounced with an initial /f/.
  • represents /v/, e.g., Wien ‘Vienna’ is pronounced with an initial /v/.
  • Z represents /ts/, e.g., Zeit ‘time’ is pronounced with an intial /ts/.
  • Q is always followed by u.
  • Y and X appear only in loanwords.
  • Long vowels are generally doubled, or followed by a silent h or single consonant.
  • Short vowels are generally followed by a double consonant.
  • ß is equivalent to ss. It is used when the preceding vowel is long; ss is used when the preceding vowel is short.
  • All nouns are capitalized, regardless of whether they are proper or common.

Older alphabet styles

  • Fraktur (deutsche Schrift ‘German script’)
    The Fraktur alphabet was used for printed and written German from the 16th century until 1940. The name comes from Latin and means ‘broken script’, so-called because the letters are not connected to each other.
    Alle Menschen
  • Sütterlin
    Sutterlin was created by the graphic artist Sutterlin (1865-1917). It was taught in German schools from 1915 to 1941 and is still used by the older people.


Take a look Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in modern German orthography and in Faktur.

Die Allgemeine Erklärung der Menschenrechte
Artikel 1
Alle Menschen sind frei und gleich an Würde und Rechten geboren. Sie sind mit Vernunft und Gewissen begabt und sollen einander im Geist der Brüderlichkeit begegnen.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 1 

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Did You Know?

German words in English
English has borrowed many words from German. Below are just a few of them.

from German
angst Angst ‘neurotic fear, anxiety, guilt, remorse’
autobahn Auto ‘car’ + Bahn ‘road’
blitz shortening of Blitzkrieg ‘rapid attack’ from Blitz ‘lightning’ + Krieg ‘war’
dachshund Dachshund, from Dachs ‘badger’ + Hund ‘dog’
delicatessen delikatessen, plural of delikatesse from delicat ‘delicacy’ + essen ‘food’
ersatz Ersatz ‘units of the army reserve’, literally ‘compensation, replacement, substitute’, from ersetzen ‘to replace’
gesundheit literally ‘health!’
kindergarten literally ‘children’s garden’ from Kinder ‘children’ + Garten ‘garden’
kitsch literally ‘gaudy, trash’
sauerkraut Sauerkraut, literally ‘sour cabbage’ from sauer ‘sour’ + Kraut ‘cabbage’
schnitzel Schnitzel ‘cutlet,’ literally ‘a slice’, from Schnitz ‘a cut, slice’ + –el, diminutive suffix
spiel ‘glib speech, pitch’ from spielen ‘to play’
weiner shortening of Wienerwurst from wiener ‘Viennese’ + Wurst ‘sausage
wunderkind Wunderkind, literally ‘wonder-child’



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn German?
Germanis considered to be a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.

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      We intentionally make the language descriptions fairly short. What sort of information would you like us to elaborate on with regard to German?

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    Hi Irene,

    Danke schön for the very in-depth article. I’ve been learning German for about 8 years and love to stumble across refreshers! This just happened to teach me a lot more about dialects and history. I’d never heard of”Schnitz” before and checked in for more details. Looks like it’s used primarily in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland only? Maybe where the Schnitzel was born? haha.

    I’ll be sharing this with my colleague, who just starting German!
    Great article,

  6. Catherine

    Thank you for all this information. It’s even interesting for me (i’m swiss and i’m teaching German as a second language).

    @ Shana: “ein Schnitz” is not the same as “ein Schnitzel”. In Switzerland we use “Schnitz” for a piece of apple. I think it comes from “schnitzen” –> to cut with a knife

    by the way, in Switzerland we always write “ss” and we never use ß.

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