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Deutsche Sprache

Number of native speakers

95-100 million (official language countries), 120 million (all countries)

Official language in

Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy (South Tyrol), Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium, EU, Nordic Council

Minority language in

France (1.2 million), Brazil (0.9 million), Russia (850,000), South Africa (300,000 - 500,000), Kazakhstan (360,000), Poland, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Czech Republic, Namibia, Denmark, Slovakia, Vatican City (Swiss Guard), Venezuela (Colonia Tovar)

Language of diaspora

US, Argentina, Canada , Mexico, Australia, Chile, Paraguay, New Zealand, Bolivia, Netherlands, UK, Peru, Spain, Poland, Israel, Norway, Ecuador, Ukraine, Dominican Republic, Greece, Ireland, Belize

26 letters
Grammatical cases
Language code
de, deu, ger
Linguistic typology
inflectional , compounding , SOV /V2
Language family
Indo-European, West Germanic, High German
Number of dialects
Several hundreds, dozens with ISO 639-3 codes, some of them arguably languages of their own: Low German, Central German, Upper German (with Alemannic), Yiddish, Luxemburgish, Pennsylvania German.

Longest word

telecommunication customer protection directive
news transfer acceleration system

Curious word or sentence

cold sweat
8 consecutive consonants
battery eggs
5 consecutive vowels
environmental influences
5 consecutive vowels


German is an official language in seven EU countries, and the largest language of the union. However, it is not an international language like English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. First, German emigration to other continents, though substantial, was individual and state-less, without the military or cultural support of an empire. Thus, over time, tens of millions of German settlers in the Americas, Southern Africa and Oceania have been absorbed by their host nations and lost their language. Second, two world wars have reduced the German-speaking territories and led to loss of goodwill (to put it mildly) and the closure of cultural institutions such as schools in countries like the US and Brazil. A notable exception of the general numerical decline of German is the Amish community in the US, with a yearly(!) growth rate of almost 5%, which in theory should make them the largest US population group by the turn of the century.


  • Old High German

  • ~ 200 - 900

    High German consonant shifts
    (bdg→ptk, th→d, v→b, k→ch, p→pf, t→ts/ss)

  • ~ 870

    Lay of Hildebrand & Muspilli texts.

  • Middle High German

  • 1138 - 1254

    Hohenstaufen: Alemannic-based literary standard
    Eastward expansion

  • ~ 1200 - 1400

    Teutonic-Order state in the Baltics Early Yiddish
    (Middle High German with Hebrew letters)

  • Early New High German

  • ~ 1300 - 1600

    Hanseatic League Low German administration

  • 1450

    Printing press (Gutenberg)

  • 1522 - 1534

    Bible translation (Luther)

  • New High German

  • 1700 - 1900

    Mass emigration to America

  • 1800

    Standard High German (Hochdeutsch) becomes a spoken language

  • 1852 - 1860

    Standard High German Dictionary (Grimm)

  • 1901

    (2nd Orthographical Conference)

  • 1996

    Spelling reform

High German consonant shifts

Century Shifted (High German) Unshifted (English)
d→t 2-4 good
p→ff 4/5 ship
t→ss 4/5 eat
k→ch 4/5 make
t→ts 5/6 toe
p→pf 6/7 apple
ß→b 7/8 give
b→p 8/9 rib
d→t 8/9 day
dg→ck 8/9 bridge
þ→d 9/10 thorn

Writing system and pronunciation

German has a 26-letter alphabet, but uses umlaut diacritics on a, o and u (ä, ö, ü), as well as a special letter (ß) for voiceless s after long vowels.

  • a
  • ä
  • b
  • c
  • d
  • e
  • f
  • g
  • h
  • i
  • j
  • k
  • l
  • m
  • n
  • o
  • ö
  • p
  • q
  • r
  • s
  • ß
  • t
  • u
  • ü
  • v
  • w
  • x
  • y
  • z

German has an etymological spelling style out of touch with current pronunciation, however, pronunciation can (usually) be predicted from the written form. Examples of special spelling conventions are sch /ʃ/ (Schale 'bowl'), st /ʃt/ (Stoff 'fabric'), sp /ʃp/ (Spaß 'fun') and the diphthongs ei /a͡ɪ/ (Ei 'egg') and eu /ɔʏ̯/ (Heu 'hay').

There is a famous children's song that nicely demonstrates the German sound system:

Three Chinese with a double bass sat on the street and talked. Along came the police: Now what is this? - Three Chinese with a double bass.

The song is repeated many times, each time replacing all vowels with one and the same vowel or diphtong, for instance 'a': Dra Chanasan mat dam Kantrabass ..., 'ö': Drö Chönösön möt döm Köntröböss ..., or even 'au': Drau Chaunausen maut daum Kauntraubauss ....


German has four cases and three grammatical genders, with agreement between articles, adjectives and nouns. The declination of adjectives differs depending on whether the noun phrase is definite or indefinite. Interestingly, German nouns themselves have almost no case inflection, the inflection marker resides mainly in the article. A special trait of German is the use of umlaut for inflections. Thus many German nouns mark plural by changing the stressed vowel: a/o/u → ä/ö/ü.

definite noun phrase:

the grey wolf/wolves
the little mouse/mice
the fast horse/horses
Nominative der graue Wolf
die grauen Wölfe
die kleine Maus
die kleinen Mäuse
das schnelle Pferd
die schnellen Pferde
Genitive des grauen Wolf(e)s
der grauen Wölfe
der kleinen Maus
der kleinen Mäuse
des schnellen Pferd(e)s
der schnellen Pferde
Dative dem grauen Wolf
den grauen Wölfen
der kleinen Maus
den kleinen Mäusen
dem schnellen Pferd
den schnellen Pferden
Accusative den grauen Wolf
die grauen Wölfe
die kleine Maus
die kleinen Mäuse
das schnelle Pferd
die schnellen Pferde

indefinite noun phrase:

a grey wolf/wolves
a little mouse/mice
a fast horse/horses
Nominative ein grauer Wolf
grauen Wölfe
eine kleine Maus
kleine Mäuse
ein scnnelles Pferd
schnelle Pferde
Genitive eines grauen Wolf(e)s
grauer Wölfe
einer kleinen Maus
kleiner Mäuse
eines schnellen Pferd(e)s
schneller Pferde
Dative einem grauen Wolf
grauen Wölfen
einer kleinen Maus
kleinen Mäusen
einem schnellen Pferd
schnellen Pferden
Accusative einen grauen Wolf
graue Wölfe
eine kleine Maus
kleine Mäuse
ein schnelles Pferd
schnelle Pferde

Verbs inflect for person and number, and agree with the subject. Apart from inflectional endings, a large number of German so-called strong verbs have internal vowel changes to mark tense inflection, and umlaut occurs in 2nd and 3rd person singular verb forms, as well as in the past subjunctive.

(to sleep)
Singular Plural
1st person Ich schlafe
(I sleep)
Ich schlief
(I slept)
Wir schlafen
(we sleep)
Wir schliefen
(we slept)
2nd person Du schläfst
(you sleep)
Du schliefst
(you slept)
Ihr schlaft
(you sleep)
Ihr schlieft
(you slept)
3rd person Er/sie/es schläft
(he/she/it sleeps)
Er/sie/es schlief
(he/she/it slept)
Sie schlafen
(they sleep)
Sie schliefen
(they slept)

Word formation and lexicon

German is famous for having a large lexicon. This is due in part to a long literary tradition accumulating synonyms from many ages and dialects, as well as the fact that German allows word compounding (Apfelsaft), where English uses chains of noun (apple juice) and French prepositional phrases after nouns (jus de pomme). Interestingly, the German Wikipedia is the 2nd largest in the world, and much bigger than one would expect given the number of German speakers.

Yet another reason for the size of the German lexicon is the mighty German bureaucracy, needing a bureaucratic word for everything from Postwertzeichen (Briefmarke - stamp) to Personenkraftwagen/PKW (Auto - car).

Thus, when applying for a driver's license, a simple "no" may sound like this: Ihr Antrag auf Einleitung eines Verfahrens zur Erteilung der Erlaubnis zum Führen eines Kraftfahrzeugs auf öffentlichen Straßen wurde abgelehnt. (Your application for the initiation of proceedings aiming at the conferral of a permission to drive a motor vehicle on public streets was refused).


The German dialectal landscape is very complex, in part because the language area for most of its history was a political patchwork of sovereign areas only loosely held together by an elected emperor. In dialectal terms, the most famous border is a north/south soundshift divide running roughly through Frankfurt, with b/d/g north and p/t/k south. Dialectal differences don't stop at sound shifts though, but are also found in the lexicon. Rolls, for instance, are Brötchen in the North, and Wecken or Semmel in the South, mutating through Weckerl and Semmerl in Bavaria to Weggli and Semmeli in Switzerland. Further northern variants include Schrippe (Berlin), Luffe (Braunschweig) and the Danish-equivalent Rundstück (da: rundstykke).


  • Low Saxon
    1. Schleswigisch
    2. Holsteinisch
    3. Nordniedersächsisch
    4. Groninger Platt
    5. Nordniedersächsische Dialekte in den Niederlanden
    6. Westfälisch
    7. Ostfälisch
  • East Low Saxon
    1. Mecklenburgisch-Vorpommersch
    2. Nordmärkisch
    3. Mittelmärkisch


  • West Central German
    1. Ripuarisch
    2. Moselfränkisch
    3. Letzeburgisch
    4. Hessisch
    5. Pfälzisch
    6. Lothringisch (Fränkisch)
  • East Central German
    1. Thüringisch
    2. Sächsisch
    3. Berliner Dialekt
    4. Lausitzisch-Schlesisch


  • North Upper German
    1. Ostfränkisch
    2. Südfränkisch
  • West Upper German
    1. Schwäbisch
    2. Niederalemannisch
    3. Elsässisch
    4. Hochalemannisch
    5. Höchstalemannisch
  • East Upper German
    1. Nordbairisch
    2. Mittelbairisch
    3. Südbairisch

Multilingual website for learning German:

Thematic words

Funny or odd traditional proverbs and idioms

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