A Look at the German Language

From here.
We will look at German from the POV of how hard it is to learn German, coming from the background of a native English speaker.
German’s status is controversial. It’s long been considered hard to learn, but many learn it fairly easily.
Pronunciation is straightforward, but there are some problems with the müde, the Ach, and the two ch sounds in Geschichte. Although the first one is really an sch instead of a ch, English speakers lack an sch, so they will just see that as a ch. Further, there are specific rules about when to use the ss (or sz as Germans say) or hard s. The r in German is a quite strange ʁ, and of common languages, only French has a similar r. The ç, χ and ‘ü sounds can be hard to make. Consonant clusters like Herkunftswörterbuch or Herbstpflanze can be be difficult. Of the vowels, ö and ü seem to cause the most problems.
There are six different forms of the depending on the noun case:

but 16 different slots to put the six forms in, and the gender system is irrational. In a more basic sense and similar to Danish, there are three basic forms of the:

Each one goes with a particular noun, and it’s not very clear what the rules are.
One problem with German syntax is that the verb, verbs or parts of verbs doesn’t occur until the end of the sentence. There are verbal prefixes, and they can be modified in all sorts of ways that change meanings in subtle ways. There are dozens of different declension types for verbs, similar to Russian and Irish. There are also quite a few irregular verbs that do not fit into any of the paradigms.
German also has Schachtelsätze, box clauses, which are like clauses piled into other clauses. In addition, subclauses use SOV word order. Whereas in Romance languages you can often throw words together into a sentence and still be understood if not grammatical, in German, you must learn the sentence structure – it is mandatory and there is no way around it. The syntax is very rigid but at least very regular.
German case is also quite regular. The case exceptions can be almost counted on one hand. However, look at the verb:
in which the direct object is in dative rather than the expected absolutive.
An example of German case (and case in general) is here:
The leader of the group gives the boy a dog.
In German, the sentence is case marked with the four different German cases:
Der Führer (nominative)
der Gruppe
gibt dem Jungen (dative)
einen Hund (accusative).
There are three genders, masculine, feminine and neutral. Many nouns that you might think would be feminine are actually masculine, for instance,  petticoat is masculine! Any given noun inflects into the four cases and the three genders. Furthermore, the genders change between masculine and feminine in the same noun for no logical reason. Gender seems to be one of the main problems that German learners have with the language. Figuring out which word gets which gender must simply be memorized as there are no good clues.
Phonology also changes strangely as the number of the noun changes:
Haushouse (singular)
Haeuserhouses (plural with umlaut)
But to change the noun to a diminutive, you add -chen:
Haueschen – little house (singular, yet has the umlaut of the plural)
This is part of a general pattern in Germanic languages of roots changing the vowel as verbs, adjectives and nouns with common roots change from one into the other. For instance, in English we have the following vowel changes in these transformed roots:

foul filth
tell tale
long length
full fill
hot  heat
do   does

Much of this has gone out of English, but it is still very common in German. Dutch is in between English and German.
For sick, we have:

krank      sick
kränker    sicker
kränklich  sickly
krankhaft  pathological
kranken an to suffer from
kränken    to hurt
kränkeln   to be ailing
erkranken  to fall ill

For good, we have:

gut     good
Güte    goodness
Gut     a good
Güter   goods
gütig   kind
gütlich amicable

German also has a complicated preposition system.
German also has a vast vocabulary, the fourth largest in the world. This is either positive or negative depending on your viewpoint. Language learners often complain about learning languages with huge vocabularies, but as a native English speaker, I’m happy to speak a language with a million words. There’s a word for just about everything you want to say about anything, and then some!
On the plus side, word formation is quite regular.
Pollution is Umweltverschmutzung. It consists, logically, of two words, Umwelt and Verschmutzung, which mean environment and dirtying.
In English, you have three words, environment, dirtying and pollution, the third one, the combination of the first two, has no relation to its semantic roots in the first two words.
Nevertheless, this has its problems, since it’s not simple to figure out how the words are stuck together into bigger words, and meanings of morphemes can take years to figure out.
German has phrasal verbs as in English, but the meaning is often somewhat clear if you take the morphemes apart and look at their literal meanings. For instance:
vorschlagento suggest parses out to er schlägt vorto hit forth
whereas in English you have phrasal verbs like to get over with which even when separated out, don’t make sense literally.
Reading German is actually much easier than speaking it, since to speak it correctly, you need to memorize not only genders but also adjectives and articles.
German is not very inflected, and the inflection that it does take is more regular than many other languages. Furthermore, German orthography is phonetic, and there are no silent letters.
German, like Dutch, is being flooded with English loans. While this helpful to the English speaker, others worry that the language is at risk of turning into English.
Learning German can be seen as a pyramid. It is very difficult to grasp the basics, but once you do that, it gets increasingly easy as the language follows relatively simple rules and many words are created from other words via compound words, prefixes and suffixes.
Rating German is hard to do. It doesn’t seem to deserve to a very high rating, but it makes a lot of people’s “hardest language you ever tried to learn” list for various reasons.
German gets a 3.5 rating, moderately difficult.

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8 thoughts on “A Look at the German Language”

  1. Dear Robert
    German is like French in that it presents few reading problems but many spelling problems. If you see a French word, you can know how it is pronounced in 99% of the cases. Part of the reason is that French has a very regular stress pattern. The stress is always on the last syllable, unless the last syllable contains an e pronounced as a schwa, as in quatre or faible.
    On the other hand, if you know how a French word is pronounced, you often don’t know how it is spelled. For instance, parler, parlez, parlé, parlée, parlés, parlées are all pronounced in exactly the same way. Sens, sent, sans, sang, s’en are all pronounced alike. Si, sis, six, scie, scies, scient all have the same pronunciation.
    One big problem with German spelling is that it has 3 different ways of distinguishing a short vowel from a long one: by doubling the vowel or adding e, by adding an h to the vowel, or by doubling the consonant. In addition, e = ä, eu = äu, ei = ai. As a result bet, beet, beht, bät, bäht are all pronounced with the long e. Bett and bätt would be pronounced with the short e. Ir, ihr, ier, iehr are all pronounced with a long i. German spelling is far from phonetic. Unlike Dutch, German has conserved the Greek ch, ph, th and rh pronounced respectively as k, f, t and r.
    A German attributive adjective can have 5 endings: e, en, em, er and es. However, to determine which one of those 5 to use, you need to know in which one of the 32 slots it falls. There are 3 genders and the plural and 4 cases, so that is 4 x 4 = 16. In addition, there are strong and weak endings, so the 16 has to doubled. Here is the pattern.
    ……………strong endings………………..weak endings
    Easy, isn’t it? Cheers. James

  2. Dear robert,
    Why is it i feel Dutch is harder to learn than german, I am speaking about Flemish Dutch as i would be moving to Catholic University Leuven and its in Leuven and i am learning Dutch and i find its hard to learn flemish dutch
    I am moving for my Final 3 semesters of my Doctoral thesis at Arenberg School and University Hospital Leuven…

  3. Oh Robert: you get your “haters” not just because of your fascination for bigfoot and the Dyer hoax/story/discovery, as I can see.
    One short remark: “female” is not always neutrum, but also female. “das Weib” (neutrum, the woman) is antiquated German. In modern German we have “das Mädchen” (neutrum, the girl) and “die Frau” (female, the woman) as well as “die Dame” (female, the lady).

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