Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Some German Words and Phrases Are Like Their English Equivalents

Around the world, many people find themselves living next to neighbors who speak a nominally different language that they can nevertheless understand. There is a Scandinavian movie called “Kitchen Stories” about the friendship that develops between a Norwegian and a Swede who converse by each man speaking his own language. Occasionally, they must ask each other for clarification where a word is different, but, for the most part, each has little trouble understanding the other because Norwegian and Swedish are just that similar. (Danish is pretty similar to both of them, but don’t tell a Dane that.)




Much the same is true between the Serbs and Croatians even though they famously hate each other, and many peoples in third world countries such as on the African and Asian continents are able to understand their neighbors. On the other hand, though some Arabic speakers I have met pretend to the world that Arabic is the same everywhere, I have been told by others that it is entirely possible for a Moroccan not to understand much that an Egyptian says, even though both nominally speak Arabic. This is a problem, too, for languages like English and Spanish that are widely spoken: the further apart their speakers are, the more divergent their ways of speaking become, until it becomes difficult for them to understand each other.

English is generally regarded as a unique language in that it has no sister languages that are easily understood, and this is generally true. There is an obscure language called Frisian that is spoken off the coast of England and in other places, such as the Netherlands, that some regard as similar to English, although it seems to me more similar to Dutch or Africaans than English. In any case, I believe that most Frisians, nowadays, learn the Queen’s English, or Dutch if they live in the Netherlands.




The family of languages called “Germanic” cover northern Europe and include German, Dutch, Flemish (one of the two languages of Belgium and very similar to Dutch), Scandinavian (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish), English and Frisian. These languages have much in common although there are many differences that make them mutually unintelligible. Nevertheless, there are many striking similarities between, for example, the vocabularies of German and English. It is almost (but not quite) as if they are mutually intelligible—at least they might be if speakers were to limit themselves to a very small and selective vocabulary. There are also many examples of what linguists call “false friends” or words that seem like equivalents in another language but have minorly or majorly different meanings. The German word “bei,” for instance, sounds like the English word “by” and could be used similarly in some contexts but more often means “at.” (The diphthongs “ei,” “ai” and “ay” in German are pronounced like the English word “I.”) The word “gift,” however, means a “present” in English but in German means “poison” (Gift—nouns are always capitalized in German). Even so, the two languages’ ancient relationship is reflected in many examples of similarities between them.

Consider the names for numbers in German and English:

Nummer… (“Number,” although another commonly used word for “number” in German is “Anzahl.”)

ein = one (It also translates as the articles “a” and “an.”)

zwei = two (There are regular equivalents between different German and English sounds and spellings. Notably, words that start with “t” in English sometimes start with “z” in German. This “z,” however, is not pronounced like “z” in English but like “ts” as in the middle or end of some English words like “Betsy” or “puts.” The German “w” is pronounced like the English “v.”)

drei = three (Words that begin with “d” in German often have equivalents in English beginning with “th.” As seen below with the equivalent words “Tochter/daughter,” words that begin with “t” in German can have equivalents in English that begin with “d.”)

fier = four (The diphthong “ie” in German is pronounced like “ee” in English.)

funf = five

sechs = six (Often an initial “s” in German in pronounced like the English “z.” The combination “ch” can be pronounced like a “k” or, unpronounceably for most English speakers, like the “ch” in the Scotish word “loch.” An exception is found in words borrowed from, or based on words borrowed from, foreign languages. “Charmant,” for example, means “charming” and is pronounced “sharmant.”)

sieben = seven (You will notice that one language might have a “b” where another has a “v” in a related word. This is quite common in many languages and is related to the way sounds change over time in the human mouth. This can happen both between languages and within the same language, as in the case of the words “move” and “mobile,” which are relatedgoing back to Latinand yet have different middle consonants.)

acht = eight (“a” is pronounced like “ah” in English.)

neun = nine (“eu” is pronounced like “oy” in “boy.”)

zehn = ten

elf = eleven (I like that this word looks and sounds like the name of a fairy tale creature.)

zwölf (This word is pronounce “tsvolf”—rhymes with “wolf.” The two dots over the “o” make it pronounced differently from the “o” in the English word “doll,” which BTW is closer to the usual pronunciation of “o” in German.)

dreizehn = thirteen

fierzehn = fourteen

funfzehn = fifteen

sechzehn = sixteen

siebzehn = seventeen

achtzehn = eighteen

neunzehn = nineteen

zwanzig = twenty (The “-ig” ending in German is more or less equivalent in meaning to the “-y” or “-ly” ending in English.)

Many basic nouns in German are surprisingly similar to their English equivalents. Note that nouns in German are always capitalized and the word for “the” has three different forms in German, which divides all nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter categories. (Did I say that it is not as if there are no differences between German and English?) “Der” is like “the” for masculine nouns, “das” is for neuter ones, and “die” is for feminine ones but also is used for all plural nouns. As mentioned already, “ein” is equivalent to “a” and “an.”

der Sand = the sand

das Glas = the glass

das Feuer = the fire [In Alfred Hitchcock's movie, Torn Curtain,” Paul Newman yells “Fire!” in a crowded German theater and succeeds in clearing the place, even though Newman's character does not speak German. The word is similar enough in the two languages that no one in the theater could have misunderstood.]




das Leder = the leather

der Finger = the finger

die Hand = the hand

der Arm = the arm

das Plastik = the plastic (material)

das Silber = the silver

das Gold = the gold

das Metall = the metal

der Stahl = the steel

das Kupfer = the copper (The “pf” combination is very common even at the beginnings of German words. This consonant combo also appears in German words like “Apfel” which means “apple.”)

die Wolle = the wool (But “Baumwolle,” which is pronounced “bowm-voll-eh,” means “cotton.” BTW, I should note that there are rarely if ever any silent letters in German as there are in so many English words. So the final “e” is voiced.)

There are even some simple sentences that can more or less be understood if you recognize a few equivalent letters and sounds between German and English:

Der Sand ist weiss. (The sand is white.) [Actually, “weiss” is usually spelled in German “weiß” with a special letter standing in for the double “ss,” but I am already giving some of you way too much information, right?]


Das Licht ist an. (The light is on.)

Ich esse sieben Äpfel. (I eat seven apples.) [The German word “essen” means “to eat.” In the Mel Brooks film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” some of the characters go for a cruise, sailing on a luxury liner called the SS Immer Essen, which means “Always Eating.”]

A note about Apfel” and Äpfel.” Most words in German are made plural by adding the suffix “-en,” but very old words—in fact, several of the words that are likely to be similar to English words—become plural by putting an “umlaut” (two dots) over a vowel. Accented letters like “ä,” “ö” and ü can be difficult to pronounce, although “ä” is actually pronounced more the way the “a” is pronounced in the English word “apple” whereas the singular German word “Apfel” is pronounced more like “Ahp-fell.” I never said that German is entirely easy.

Sie ist meine Mutter. (She is my mother.) [“Mein,” which sometimes carries additional pronounced endings “-e” and “-en,” means “my” and rhymes with “mine.” This sentence is pronounced “Zee ist mine-eh Muh-ter. I apologize for not being able to do justice to the way that “uh” is pronounced.]

Sie ist meine beste Freundin. (She is my best friend.) [Freund is friend; -in is feminine; Freudin means girlfriend.”]

Ich habe acht Brüder. (I have eight brothers.)

Der Vater hat neun Töchter. (The father has nine daughters.)

Er hat elf Schwestern. (He has eleven sisters.)

Note that the personal pronouns in German are a combination of the very different and the almost familiar vis a vis their English equivalents. Ich means I and “Wir” means “we.” “Du” is equivalent to the archaic English word “thou.” “Er” is he and “es” is it.” One of the most confusing to beginners is “Sie” and “sie.” The first (with a capital “S”) is “either “you” (plural) or “they,” while “sie” with a lower case “s” is “she.” Bets are off, however if “she” is the first word in the sentence because then it will be capitalized. The trick is to pay attention to the context and the verb used. “Sie sind” can mean “you are” or “they are,”  but “sie ist” always means “she is.” 

Wir sind Bruder und Schwester. (We are brother and sister.)


Ich trinke Bier. (I drink beer.) [The “t” sound in a German word can correspond to a “d” sound in an English word.]


More complex thoughts and even jokes may be understood with only a little help:

Ein Zwilling kommt selten allein. (A twin seldom comes alone.)

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, whose own theories about sexuality got him into trouble, once said the following to Wilhelm Reich, who had an even more radical theory:



Hier stecken Sie in ein Wespennest.

(Here you are poking [or sticking a stick] in a wasps’ nest [Wesp + en (plural) + Nest].)

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