You have probably heard often enough that German is a very difficult and complex language to learn. This is true to some extent; however, a lot depends on the way it is taught, the learner’s natural ability for languages and the amount of practice dedicated to it. The following are some highlights or peculiarities of the German language that you will encounter in your study of it. It is not meant to discourage anyone from studying German, but to simply introduce what you’re getting into. I find that German is a very logically structured language with fewer exceptions than those which are found in English. Remember the key to your success in learning German will truly be as this old German adage states: Übung macht den Meister! -> Practice makes perfect. (See also Five peculiarities of the German Alphabet.)
The Difference Between a German Sausage and a Verb
Why am I comparing a sausage to a verb? Simply because German verbs can be chopped and cut up similar to a German sausage! In German you can take a verb, chop off the first part, place it at the end of a sentence. Actually you can even do more to a German verb than what you can do with a sausage: you can insert another “part” (a.k.a. syllable) in the middle of a verb, add other verbs alongside it and even elongate it. How’s that for flexibility or should I say chopability? Of course there are some rules to this chopping business, which once you understand them, will be easy to apply. Here are some articles to help you chop like a pro:
Every German student loves this German language peculiarity – all nouns are capitalized! This serves as a visual aid for reading comprehension and as a consistent rule in spelling. Further, German pronunciation pretty much follows the way it is written (though you need to know the peculiarities of the German alphabet first, see above), which makes German spelling not very difficult. Now to put a damper to all of this good news: Not all German nouns are inherently nouns and may therefore throw off the German writer at first as to whether to capitalize a word or not. For instance:
Verb infinitives can change into a noun
German adjectives can change into nouns
This role changing of words happens in the English language as well, for example when verbs change into gerunds.
Most would agree, that this is the greatest hurdle of German grammar. Every noun in German is identified by a grammatical gender. The der article is placed before masculine nouns, die before feminine nouns and das before neuter nouns. It would be nice if that was all there was to it, but German articles change, along with the endings of German adjectives, adverbs and nouns depending on the grammatical case they are in. For example, let’s take a look at the following sentence:
Der Junge gibt der wütenden Mutter den Ball des Mädchens.(The boy gives to the angry mother the girl’s ball.)
In this sentence, der wütenden Mutter acts as the indirect object, so it is dative; den Ball acts as the direct object, so it is accusative and des Mädchens is in the possessive genitive case. The nominative forms of these words were: die wütende Mutter; der Ball; das Mädchen. Almost every word was changed in this sentence.
See more on German Grammar Cases.
One very important point about German grammar gender is that nouns don’t necessarily follow the natural law of gender as we know it. For example, though die Frau (woman) and der Mann (man) are designated feminine and masculine respectively, das Mädchen (girl) is neuter. Mark Twain in his humorous account of “The Awful German Language” described this German grammar peculiarity in this way:
"Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print -- I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
She has gone to the kitchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
It has gone to the opera.
However Mark Twain was wrong when he said that a student has to have “a memory like a memorandum-book.” There are some strategies that can help a German student figure out which gender a noun has.
In German there are four cases:
Der Nominativ (nominative)
Der Genitiv/ Wesfall (genitive)
Der Akkusativ/Wenfall (accusative)
Der Dativ/ Wemfall (dative)
Though all cases are important, the accusative and dative cases are the most widely used and should be learned first. There is a grammatical trend especially orally to use the genitive case less and less and replace it with the dative in certain contexts.
Articles and other words are declined in various ways, depending on gender and grammatical case. For an overview of article declination, see Article Declination.
The German Alphabet
The German alphabet has a few differences from the English language. The very first thing you need to know about the German alphabet is that there are more than twenty-six letters in the German alphabet! Read up more about the German alphabet in The Five Peculiarities of the German Alphabet.