Keep Your Herr On: A Beginner’s Guide to German

Here’s the five Gut and Wurst things you need to know about the language:

Lots of similar words:

Around 40% of German words are similar to English ones because they once shared the same ancestral language.  Shared words include Hammer (hammer), Freund (friend) and gut (good) as well as phrases like was ist das? (what is that?) and ich habe (I have).

But watch out for words which sound similar – but aren’t – like Chef (a boss), Gift (poison), winken (to wave) and Kind (child).  And the word Wurst means a sort of sausage, not worst.

Happily the plural of the German word for child is a gift for bad jokes e.g. English children are kind but German children are Kinder.

Tricky nouns:

Don’t ask us why but nouns in German have a capital letter (see above).

German nouns can also be either masculine, feminine or neuter and there’s seemingly no logic to it. The moon for instance is male, the sun female and girls are neuter.  Really?!

And they take four different cases and there’s different ways of making them plural. Enough said already.

Lots of great compound words

This is where German gets much more fun.

At the shorter end of the scale there’s the word for glove Handschuh (literally hand shoe), the word for fridge Kühlschrank (cool cupboard) and the word for airplane Flugzeug (fly thing).

Longer words include:

  1. Backpfeifengesicht – a face in need of a fist (from the German words for cheek, whistle and face).
  2. Weitschmerz – a sensation of melancholy and world-weariness (from the words far and pain).
  3. Kopfkino – a vivid daydream (from Kopf meaning head and Kino meaning cinema).
  4. Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften – meaning insurance companies providing legal protection. It lays claim to being one of the longest German words in everyday use.  And possibly the dullest.

Three ways of saying ‘you’:

  1. Sie is for people you don’t know, people older than yourself, your work colleagues and your social superiors eg doctors.
  2. Ihr is a casual plural form of address which translates simply as “you all”.
  3. Du is commonly used to address a young child or close friend. It is also used in social situations between equals – like in a mixed naked sauna in Berlin.  (Don’t ask how we know!)

Verbs come second in a sentence:

The verb is always the second idea in the sentence – so if you add a new bit of information to the start of a sentence, the verb stays in the same place rather than getting pushed to the end.

Satisfyingly the word “verb” is the same in both English and German and, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll now know that in German it’s “Verb”, not “verb”!  So that’s the end of our quick beginners’ guide. And, as the Germans like to say:

Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.  (Everything has an end – only the sausage has two!)

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