As you work through this textbook you will:

  • Gain enough grammatical and syntactical information about the German language to enable you to read any desired text with the aid of a dictionary.
  • Apply patterns of word formation to accelerate the process of learning vocabulary.
  • Practice small-scale translation as the necessary foundation for dealing with more complex readings.

Relationship between German and English

Both of these languages belong to the Germanic family of languages. They share an evolutionary origin and have many common features, although just like their relatives Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish, they have since diverged in various ways.

These examples show how close the vocabulary relationship can be:

Eng. sing, Dutch zingen, Ger. singen, Dan. synge, Sw. sjunga

Eng. broad, Dutch breed, Ger. breit, Dan. bred, Sw. bred, Nor. bred

You can see that some vocabulary will be easy to learn. The syntactical differences between modern German and modern English will be more challenging, and they will occupy us for most of this textbook.

Learning Vocabulary

For some individuals, this is perhaps the most difficult of tasks, and it is one that many perceive as particularly difficult with German. The following points are made to counter that perception:

  • Like English, German borrows words from other languages, and often either from the same source that English does, or directly from English:

    Auto, Hotel, Manager, Orange, Handling

  • There are many easily recognizable words, called cognates, such as:

    Musik, Literatur, Maschine, Kaffee, Tee, Bier, Traktion

    These words have the same meaning as their English cognates, and indeed there are historical relationships between them, but over time they have become spelled and pronounced slightly differently in the two languages.

  • Then there are cognates which have undergone considerable sound changes but the meaning of which can often be guessed correctly:

    Pfeffer, Apfel, helfen, Wasser, tanzen, trinken, Bett, machen, and Ralleystreifen!

  • German also builds words from roots or stems of common words just as we do in English to a lesser extent. For example, in English, these two series of words all share the same roots:

    bind, bound, binder, bindery, band, binding

    flow, influence, confluence, fluent, flowing, float

    German has similar examples but you will find many more examples of this way of word building as you learn more about the language. Let’s use the German equivalents of the above:

    binden, gebunden, Binder, Binderei, Band, Bindung

    fließen, Einfluß, Zusammenfluß, fließend (for both fluent and flowing), Floß and we can add: Flüssigkeit (the liquid) or flüssig (liquid) and beeinflüssen (to influence)!

  • German also uses many compound nouns, more than English does. You will find that there is a logic to this compounding, even though some of the long words in German often cause consternation. Examples:

    Unterseeboot   = submarine (undersea boat)

    Arbeitsmethode  = work method

    Jahreszeit    = season (year’s time)

    Vorderradantrieb = front wheel drive

    (Vorder = front / fore, Rad = wheel, Antrieb = drive).

    And how about this?

    Flugzeugabwehrkanone = Flak!

    (Flugzeug = airplane; Abwehr = defense; Kanone = cannon/gun, hence: air defense artillery)

We will be dealing with word formation in a number of the chapters in this book in order to help you learn vocabulary and understand how German builds much of its vocabulary.


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A Foundation Course in Reading German Copyright © 2014 by Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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