Thinking about German grammar and English spelling
Thinking about German grammar and English spelling

Berlin is known as an international and multicultural city and you often hear English as much German, this is no surprise for a region with the highest level of English proficiency in Germany. However, it’s still necessary to learn the language to work and live here and to truly make most of what the city has to offer. Here we will explore some similarities and differences between English and German. Including the importance of false friends, sentence structure and strange spelling in both languages, how these can affect language learners and users along with their significance in the translation process.

What are the similarities between English and German?

The English and German languages share common roots; they are both West Germanic languages, along with Afrikaans and Dutch. Many words in both English and German have similar roots, Latin and French words are used regularly in both and over a third of non-specialised terminology in English has Germanic roots. It doesn’t take much of a leap to take a guess at what some of these words mean in German, even if you’ve never learnt any, for example haben, finden, Haus, Maus, Hand are pretty closely related to their English equivalents (have, find, house and mouse for those who are struggling).

Is German really as hard to learn as people say?

 You could be forgiven for thinking that because these two languages share common features, it is easy for English speakers to learn German and vice versa. However, Mark Twain, among countless others, didn’t agree. Clearly he’d spent the morning trying to learn adjective endings when he said he ‘never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give us some chance to learn German’. So, just how differently do English and German speakers formulate words and sentences? What are some of the main differences between English and German grammar? Why is English spelling so inconsistent? And did Mark Twain ever master German grammar? Let’s explore these questions (except maybe the last one) and see what this means for translation and the need for a professional to do this work.

False friends in English and German

Languages are always changing, so it’s no surprise that the phenomenon of ‘false friends’ has occurred between many, many languages. This phenomenon is when words in the two languages look very similar but mean two completely different things. Cue the huge potential for misunderstandings. One example is already mentioned above: the word ‘gift’ in English is much nicer than someone giving ‘Gift’ (poison) to someone in German. If only Hamlet was written in German and mistranslated, he might have got a shiny new crown instead of an untimely death.

This phenomenon can even cause confusion for native speakers of German, with many newer words sounding like loan words from English but meaning something different. For example, saying ‘Das ist ein Handy’ in German isn’t pointing out how useful something is like ‘handy’ in English, it’s the word for a mobile phone. Even something as seemingly simple as telling the time can cause confusion due to difference in meaning in English and German, getting up at ‘half seven’ for work isn’t so bad in the English speaking world, but do it at ‘halb sieben’ (half six) in Germany and you’ll find yourself wondering why you’re so tired and why it’s still dark outside.

There are hundreds of examples of how the waters between these two relatively similar languages have muddied throughout their evolution, and it would be easy to go on all day about why it’s okay for your boss to give you ‘Rat’ in Germany but not to do it in the UK. However, we need to move on to other differences in expression between German and English and the consequences they can have on translation and conveying meaning.

How closely related are English and German? Rigid rules, sentence structure and word order

Rules on word order and sentence structure among other things are much more defined in German. Once again, the man with the most volatile relationship with German, so much so that he wrote an essay titled ‘The Awful German Language’, Mark Twain, can help shed some light. He commented that when discussing literature or technical subjects, a German will disappear into a sentence and ‘that’s the last you’re going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of the Atlantic with a verb in his mouth’.

Now, what exactly is he getting at? Well, English is fairly simple in terms of conjunctions often signal breaks between sentences (however, furthermore) and long sentences with many clauses and using too many commas is somewhat of a cardinal sin in English. However, as anyone who has read academic or literary German will know, long sentences are common in German, the longest German sentence clocked in at 1077 words, found in Hermann Brochs’ ‘Tod des Vergil’ (The Death of Virgil). Equally common are subordinating conjunctions which change the word order of the clause which follows, often putting the verb to the end: dass (that), weil (because), nachdem (after). Many people who have learnt German have experienced how difficult it is to wait until the end of the clause, or sometimes the end of the clause after, or the clause after, to hear the all-important verb which ties the whole sentence together. Speaking or writing can be even harder; just when you think you’ve put a sentence together perfectly, you remember you forgot a verb or put and adverb in the wrong place. Incidentally, this is also one of the main stumbling blocks when it comes to translation. Machine translations are still fed using segments or strings of words, albeit on a huge scale. This means that the complex sentence structure in German is translated very literally and requires a qualified proof-reader to decipher them.

All of these aspects can confuse English speaking learners of German, and that’s without dealing with gendered nouns, pronouns and adjective declension! It’s starting to become clear why Mark Twain had such a love-hate relationship with the German language. Anyway, that’s enough on how hard German is for English speakers, let’s move on to the hardest part of the English language.

Difficult and weird English spelling rules

It would be easy to think that spelling would be harder in the language which turns sentences into short essays and decided to have a spelling reform in 1996 to try and simplify things for German speakers and learners. But no, it’s the language with the relatively simple grammar, strict sentence structure and non-gendered nouns causing headaches for pretty much everyone who uses it, even native speakers.

Even to a non-German speaker, words like die Meinung (opinion) don’t pose much of a challenge once you know that ‘ei’ in German sounds much the same as it does in ‘Eiffel Tower’. English learners are in for a shock when they encounter weird (strange) and pronounced as in beard, feign (pretend to be affected by) pronounced as in pain and either ( used before the first of two alternatives), sometimes pronounced as in diver, but sometimes as in beaver depending on the speaker.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. The ‘ou’ sound is not as common in German as in English and they are often in the form of loan words like ‘der/die Cousin’ (loaned from French) and ‘Tourist’ (loaned from English but with French origins), which consequently have relatively similar pronunciation to French. Then we encounter a rather unlikely but very real English sentence like ‘I thought I saw the group of tourists stood by the bough of a tree in the countryside, somewhere near Loughborough’. Seemingly simple, right? That’s until we find out the ‘ou’ in thought is pronounced as in saw, the ‘ou’ in bough is pronounced as in how, the ‘ou’ in countryside is pronounced like the ‘u’ in pull. Last but not least, the first ‘ough’ in Loughborough is pronounced ‘uff’ as in muffin and the second ‘ough’ is pronounced ‘burgh’ as in Edinburgh in British English but pronounced ‘borough’ as in burrow in American English. What’s more is, this can change pretty vastly depending on the accent and whether you are using American or British English.

 Confused? Scared? Feel like sitting in a darkened room and crying? You’re not the only one, countless English learners have been undone by pronunciations which don’t even come close to how the word is actually spelt, making expressing themselves in English a lot harder than it seems. If any language needs a spelling reform, it’s English! Even native speakers struggle; cartoonist and native speaker Dave Kellett thinks ‘the English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary’. Now, let’s take a look at what this means for translating texts and why it’s best to let a professional translation agency like Berlin Translate take care of the job.

Expert knowledge, native speakers, well-formulated expression of English and German

Berlin Translate avoids these pitfalls by working with translators native with a high level of proficiency and cultural awareness in their second language and a great deal of experience.  In addition, they use modern translation technologies such as Computer Aided Translation Tools and Translation Memories, meaning that the correct translation is saved and can aid the translator later. Finally, our quality control process, where translated texts are proofread by an experienced pair of eyes, results in a high quality, satisfactory final product.

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