Why we love the German language — even if it might not always make sense!

How is 2020 so far?

For some of us, January and February have been a whirlwind and we haven’t had time to properly work on our new year’s resolutions, or our goals in general. But fret not! January-February was the free trial, 2020 can start in March!

Photo by AC Almelor on Unsplash

If one of your goals is to learn a new language that happens to be German, or if you have always wondered what this angsty sounding language with seemingly daunting grammar was all about, we have compiled some quirks of the German language specially for you!

Gender (and no, we’re not talking about the social construct)

In the German language, all words (nouns) have a gender. Unlike in the English language, the gender of German words does not refer to the meaning, but instead refers to the word itself. Nouns have one of three genders: masculine, feminine or neutral; and are accompanied by pronouns that refer to the corresponding gender: der, die or das respectively.

But how is the gender of a word determined? Let me list some examples to see if you can find a logical pattern!

(Clockwise From Top-Left) Photos by Ocean Ng, Martin Katler, Bence Balla-Schotner on Unsplash

Feminine Words:

  • Rose | (die) Rose
  • Clock | (die) Uhr
  • Machine | (die) Machine

Masculine Words:

  • Chair | (der) Stuhl
  • Dog | (der) Hund
  • Apple | (der) Apfel

Neutral Words:

  • Animal | (das) Tier
  • Child | (das) Kind
  • Car | (das) Auto

Do you begin to see a pattern here?

(Clockwise From Top-Left) Photos by Kelly Miller, Priscilla Du Preez, Anna Dudkova on Unsplash

No?

(Clockwise From Top-Left) Photos by Aatur Harsh, Laura College, Ben White on Unsplash

Well that’s probably because there isn’t one! There really is no logical explanation. In fact, I have German-learner friends who have been told the only way through genders in German is to memorise until you get Sprachgefühl (a feel for the language).

A native speaker will know the gender of all (or most) German words, while a language learner will need to rely on guesswork and memory to get it right! The best strategy for a German learner would be to learn the meaning and gender (and corresponding pronoun) of any word at the same time.

Learn German, and 20 German dialects too!

Germany has just one language, German. Right?

Well, technically yes. Hochdeutsch (High German), more officially known as Standarddeutsch is the German used in formal contexts, education and formal communication. But Germany actually has around 20 dialects, which are so different from each other that one dialect speaker will not be able to understand another!

Image by Uwe Beier from Pixabay

Generally, German dialects can be divided into three language realms, the northern, southern and middle realms. But beware — these divisions do not correspond to geographic locations on the map.

The upper dialect realm geographically corresponds to the southern part of Germany stretching from Franconia all the way to the borders of Austria and Switzerland. Likewise the realm of the lower dialect realm corresponds to northern states such as Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhein-Westphalia. Thankfully the middle language stays true to its geographic location covering the middle region.

Just how different are the dialects?

Let’s take a look for the English word, “Head”:

  • German: der Kopf (note: it’s also masculine!)
  • Hessisch (dialect of the state of Hesse): Deetz
  • Obersächsisch (dialect of the state of Sachsen): Nischel

There are zero similarities here. But this is not always the case.

For example:

English: Vegetables

  • German: Gemüse
  • Dialect: Gmias
    Bairisch, the dialect spoken in Bavaria
  • Gender: das > neutral

English: To walk

  • German: laufen
  • Dialect: loofen
    Berlinerisch, the dialect spoken in Berlin
  • Gender: n/a

English: Nice

  • German: schön
  • Dialect: scheen
    Thüringisch, the dialect spoken in Thüringen
  • Gender: n/a

Here, you still see some similarities to standard German but all in all, dialects in Germany are very diverse and unique to their states and language realms. There has been discussion as to whether standard German or dialects are the ‘right’ German.

While there is no right or wrong, standard German can be considered as the lingua franca, or the common language spoken throughout Germany, and the German that you as a foreign language learner would learn. Imagine having to learn 20 different dialects!

Counting

via GIPHY

A definite encounter for any language student would be learning how to count in that language. In some languages, such as English and Indonesian, the tens are mentioned first for numbers higher than 20, followed by the unit: dua puluh dua (twenty-two).

In German, and some other languages, the unit is named first, followed by the tens: zweiundzwanzig (two and twenty). This also applies to larger numbers, 154 for instance would be einhundertvierundfünfzig (one hundred, four and fifty).

It can be confusing and hard to wrap your head around in the beginning as you will have just learnt the unit terms for numbers, and hearing two numbers mentioned in tandem may be misleading, but as with all things language, memorisation and practice makes perfect!

Like all other languages, German has its quirks. But it could be precisely these quirks that make learning a language fun and unique in the first place. Plus, understanding these idiosyncrasies could help you master the language!

Was one of your new year’s resolutions to learn a new language? If you are already on Jala, redeem your rewards towards Babbel’s excellent German course here. Already speak German? We are always looking for translators on Jala. Head over to Jala and start using your language skills to translate now!

Written by Dewi Fitzpatrick

Jala is a community-powered translation platform connecting people and translations across the globe.