Though Mark Twain titled his essay “The Awful German Language”, he also had some nice things to say about it:
“Having pointed out, in detail, the several vices of this language, I now come to the brief and pleasant task of pointing out its virtues.The capitalizing of the nouns I have already mentioned. But far before this virtue stands another — that of spelling a word according to the sound of it. After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced without having to ask; whereas in our language if a student should inquire of us, “What does B, O, W, spell?” we should be obliged to reply, “Nobody can tell what it spells when you set if off by itself; you can only tell by referring to the context and finding out what it signifies — whether it is a thing to shoot arrows with, or a nod of one’s head, or the forward end of a boat.”
Spelling bees are not very popular in Germany because German spelling is relatively straightforward. Here are a few tips on German spelling to help you through; check our post on German pronunciation for more.
Spelling bees are not a thing in Germany because German spelling is fairly easy. (Photo credit: Stacey Huggins via VisualHunt)
In 1996 a law was passed than went into effect in 1998 reforming German orthography.
It had been talked about for a long time to address certain inconsistencies in German spelling and remains very controversial.
Additional laws were passed in 2004 and the most recent addendum dates from 2017, introducing a capital “ß”.
Any newer textbooks and German vocabulary lists will use the modern spelling and grammar, but you may occasionally encounter certain older texts that still use the old spelling – most significant are the changes to the use of “ß” and the virtual extinction of “ph” for the sound “f”.
This is very confusing for people who are trying to learn German fluently for the first time. Not only should words at the beginning of sentences be capitalised, every single German noun must be as well. For German language beginners, it is very practical as it makes it easy to recognise nouns, though it is sometimes a little difficult to separate them from proper names, as Mark Twain found out:
“I translated a passage one day, which said that “the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest” (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.”
This means, though, that in titles you should only capitalise the nouns and the first word of the title (“Die unendliche Geschichte” von Michael Ende, as opposed to English “The Never ending Story”). This keeps the grammatical identity of each word clear.
With the new German spelling, Schifffahrt retains all three of its “f”s. Photo via VisualHunt.com
When building the famous German compound words, the letter at the end of one word is often the same as the one at the beginning of the next.
This leads to double letters, such as in the words “Rauhhals” (a sore throat).
When the first word ends in a double consonant, all three consonants are kept: “Schiffahrt” (Schiff + Fahrt, a boat trip).
The “Eszett” often stumps people learning German for the first time. The German Eszett originates with an s+z (Ess+Zett) (the old-fashioned s was written much like a “f”).
The two were so often written together that they merged into one letter. However, if you have to write a word with Eszett on a non-German keyboard, write it out as a double “s” – “gross”, not “grosz”.
Learning how to use German letters appropriately. (Photo via visualhunt)
This used to be how you wrote the Eszett in uppercase, but just this year (2017), the uppercase Eszett was introduced into German spelling.
One of the great supposed achievements of the new German orthography reform of 1996 was to unify when to write “ß” and when to use a “ss”. Strictly speaking, “ß” follows long vowels while “ss” follows short ones – so stress, with its short “e” in German, should be written “Stress”.
The difference between “Maße” (measurements) and “Masse” (mass) is the length of the vowel, and of course their meaning.
However, it should be noted that there are some exceptions – the word for street should now properly be spelled “Strasse” even though the “a” is long – and the word used to be written “Straße”. Baffled students of German suspect that it was changed to make writing German addresses easier on foreigners.
Just like the “ss”, the doubling of a consonant in German shortens the vowel before it. The words “rennen” (to run), “Donner” (thunder), and “Masse” all have short vowels.
When writing German, always think about the length of the vowels. Very short vowels are followed by two consonants – if there is only one consonant sound following, it will be doubled.
A consonant + vowel group, however, will lengthen the vowel before it.
When the consonant following it is the last letter of the word, and the vowel is long: “Mahl”, meal. To separate it from from “Mal”, time, which has a short “a”, an “h” is added.
The problem with this is that the “h” stays on even when the base word is lengthened – “Mahlzeit” – or with verbs made from the stem. There are other instances where the “h” appears as well that are not quite as evident, but this rule is pretty much universal: “Mahl”, “Kohl”, “Rohr”, “Stuhl”.
Sometimes the reason for the “h” does not seem evident, as the vowel sound is followed by a consonant+vowel group anyway. Try to listen carefully, and you will notice that vowels lengthened by an “h” tend to be slightly longer than those lengthened by a consonant + vowel group.
“Ie” is longer than simply “i”. Germans do not generally lengthen “i”s with the letter “h”. Instead, they use “ie” for a long “i”.
Ever wonder why school has that odd letter combination in the beginning? It comes from the German “Schule”, and while English has divided the “sch” combination into two sounds (s+k), in German “sch” is the same sound as English “sh”.
When is the sound “sh” not spelled “sch” in German?
When an “s” at the beginning of a word is followed by the letter “p” or “t”, “s” is pronounced like “sh”. Therefore, “Spiel” (game), “stehlen” (to steal), and “Beispiel” (example) all are written with a simple “s”.
One “ch” sound can easily be confused with “sch” to the untrained ear. It is said forward in the mouth and comes after the letters “i”, “e”, “ie”, “ö”, “ä”, “ü” or a consonant. However, be careful at the end of words, be careful: -ig (”Essig”, “lässig”, “richtig”) is very often pronounced the same as “-ich” (”endlich”, “menschlich”).
Those with -ich at the end are generally adjectives built on a noun. Words ending in -ig can be nouns (”Essig”, vinegar), adjectives (”lässig”, casual) or adverbs or both (”richtig”, correct).
The second “ch” is said in the throat and comes after the vowels “a” and “o”.
A pitfall for English-speakers learning German are words that use “ph” for the “f” sound – mostly words with Greek roots, such as photograph or dolphin. German used to follow this orthography, but since the spelling reform you use “f”: “Fotograf”, “Delfine”. And don’t forget that both “f” and “v” are pronounced like the English “f”!
One of the things that often stump beginners learning German for the first time is the use of “j” versus “y”.
In German, it’s spelled Geographie and Astronomie, not geography and astronomy. (Photo by Free-Pictures on Pixabay)
It’s quite easy, though:
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