If you know nothing about German—like, not even how to say hello—we can bet that your ability to recognize written German is spot on.
Don’t believe us? How’s this for a test: Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaft.
Now you get it.
German is known for lengthy words like the one above (which, for context, means “an insurance company that provides legal protection”). It’s a language that might evoke some level of gratitude, too. Pat your nine-year-old self on the back for never having to spell that word on a test.
But German is, of course, so much more than the sum of its compound parts. As the 12th most spoken language in the world, German is quite useful for those with an eye for business; it also has significant, lasting influence over the English language.
Below, we’ll take a look at how modern-day German came to be, along with where German is spoken, how many people speak it, and the elements that make it so endearingly unique.
Where is German spoken?
Since German belongs to the West Germanic language family, it’s no surprise that the language is widely spoken in Germany—they share the same name, after all. But past the obvious, Germany’s neighboring countries have also adopted the language. In total, German is listed as the official language of six countries:
While written German looks largely the same across borders, spoken German lays claim to a surprising number of dialects, including Austro-Bavarian, Alemannic (Swiss German), and High Franconian. These dialects are spoken in regional pockets across Germany and beyond. If you’re planning on learning German, there’s no need to worry about diving into the nuances of each dialect. Rosetta Stone’s Standard German can help you have a conversation with speakers in any region—and when you’re ready, you can discover on your own what makes each dialect unique!
What are the differences between High German and Low German?
While there are many German dialects, you’ll often hear them grouped by region. High German has two meanings: First, it refers to the full array of German dialects spoken in the southern “highlands” of Germany. The further south you travel in Germany, the higher the elevation, and thus the more likely you are to encounter High German dialects.
Second, High German (Hochdeutsch) refers to the standard language—both written and spoken—that is taught in schools and used by more formal entities, like the media and the national government.
By contrast, Low German refers to the group of German dialects spoken in northern Germany, a region characterized by its “lowlands” and lack of hills.
How many people speak German?
Liechtenstein is the 6th smallest country in the world; its population of roughly 38,000 doesn’t put much of a dent in the overall number of German speakers.
Thankfully, there are plenty of German speakers across Europe and around the globe that continue to keep the language alive and well. In all, about 134 million people speak German—either as a native language or as a second language—and it continues to give its speakers a leg up in the business world.
Were it not for its reputation as one of the more challenging languages to learn, German would likely have even more speakers. And it’s true on some levels that German is challenging. It is a language with a high inflection, which means that words change based on the role they play in a sentence. For example, an adjective or even an article (“a,” “an,” and “the” in English) will receive different endings to indicate the subject and object of the sentence. That’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to German grammar.
But at the same time, mastering German vocabulary is relatively simple, at least for English speakers. Since German and English belong to the same language family, many words—like “arm,” “bitter,” and “kindergarten”—are identical between languages. You’ll find that even more words are similar enough and easy to recognize, like the ones below:
- Kaffee = coffee
- exakt = exact
- Garten = garden
- lernen = learn
- perfekt = perfect
Fun facts: What makes the German language unique?
From lengthy words to unusual grammar rules, the aspects that learners find most challenging about German give it personality. Below, we dive into the facts that can help you fall in love with German for the first time, or all over again. They might even help you win a round of language-themed trivia.
Unique German grammar rules
- When in doubt, capitalize everything: Well, almost everything. All nouns in German are written with capital letters.
- Every noun has a gender: Like the Romance languages, nouns have genders. But while Spanish only has two genders (masculine and feminine), German has a third: neutral. Nearly all animal nouns are feminine, days of the week are masculine, and colors are neutral.
- Plurals aren’t as simple as adding an “-s”: To make a noun plural in German, you’ll need to use one of five endings: -e, -er, -en, -n, and -s. The ending you use depends on the gender of the noun, as well as its standard ending in singular form.
Unique German words
- Ohrwurm: “Earworms” can be welcome companions, though they often overstay their welcome. You’re said to have an “earworm” when you have a song stuck in your head.
- Kaffeeklatsch: Who doesn’t love a little “coffee gossip”? You can use this to describe any coffee shop get together.
- Freundschaftsbeziehungen: This 24-letter noun is a mouthful! It’s best used to name the relationship you have with close friends.
The unique evolution of the German language
- Shared origins: German and English belong to the same language family, and the ties between the two languages are strong. English has a 60 percent lexical similarity with German, compared to a 30-40 percent lexical similarity with Spanish.
- A long history: The Standard German spoken today is vastly different from the German spoken in 6th century CE, when the language first emerged.
- Biblical ties: Martin Luther is largely known for his 95 Theses, but his 1522 translation of the Bible was equally groundbreaking. Using the language of the Saxon chancery, he laid the groundwork for Standard German.
Get ready to speak German
German has 134 million speakers—what’s stopping you from adding yourself to the community? With a 60 percent lexical similarity with English, German isn’t nearly as difficult as it looks. Get a better feel for the language with a look at common German phrases, or dive into top-notch cuisine with this comprehensive guide.
And when you’re done with those, check out Rosetta Stone. With our bite-sized lessons, you can learn German in a way that feels fun and natural. Plus, Rosetta Stone’s TruAccent helps you sound amazing from your very first lesson, with immediate in-app pronunciation feedback.
You’ll find yourself in a Freundschaftsbeziehungen with the locals—or the German speakers in your own community— in no time.
Start your first lesson today at www.rosettastone.com!