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9 Surprising Facts About the German Language

Germany is renowned for its famous scholars and musicians: Sigmund Freud transformed the study of psychology, Albert Einstein revolutionized our understanding of science, and Johann Sebastian Bach changed the way we think about music. And though these Germans are household names in the English-speaking world, we tend to not know quite so much about the language that they spoke. For example, did you know that German nouns have three genders, or that the first printed book was written in German? Keep reading to learn some of the top interesting facts about German.

interestingfacts_german1Image via Jürgen Matern / Wikipedia

  1. German is the most-spoken mother tongue in Europe.

Globally, German is the 11th most-spoken language, with about 90 million native speakers. In Europe, however, it’s the #1 most common mother tongue, beating out Italian, French, Spanish, and even English. About 16% of the European population speaks German as a first language.

  1. German words have three genders.

In many Romance languages, nouns can be either masculine or feminine, which has historically caused headaches for English-speaking language learners. German further complicates the picture by introducing a neuter gender for words that are neither masculine nor feminine.

  1. Time is counted with respect to the next hour, rather than the previous one.

If a German tells you that it is halb drei (“half three”), you might assume that it’s 3:30. However, you’d be wrong: in German, you report time by counting the minutes to the next hour, so “half three” means that it’s half an hour until three: in other words, it’s 2:30.

  1. It’s not just spoken in Germany.

Though the majority of German speakers reside within Germany, German is the official language of four other countries: Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein. It’s also spoken in some parts of Northern Italy, as well as in the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.

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  1. German makes extensive use of compound words.

German is famous for having long words such as kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung, which means “automobile liability insurance”. This is because German makes extensive use of compound words, which can build on each other to create monstrosities like the one shown above. For instance, Staubsauger (vacuum cleaner) consists of the noun Staub (dust) and saugen (to suck).

  1. It’s the third most commonly taught language worldwide.

German edges out Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Spanish, landing in third place among the most widely taught languages. This places German right after English and French.

  1. The first printed book was written in German.

interestingfacts_german2Image via Kevin Eng / Wikipedia

The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed by way of movable type, which spawned the age of the printed book. It was finished in 1454.

  1. The German alphabet has one more consonant than English.

German and English both make use of Roman characters. German, however, contains an extra consonant ß, which represents a double-S. ß is unique among German consonants in that it’s never found at the beginning of a word. Though you can sometimes substitute “SS” for “ß” if you’re using a non-German keyboard, this only works for certain words: Masse and Maße, for instance, mean entirely different things (“mass” and “dimensions”, respectively).

  1. English and German share 60% of their vocabulary.

Given their close relation, German and English share more than half of their vocabulary — so if you know English, you’re already halfway there to speaking German! In comparison, English and French share just 27% of theirs.

Of course you’re familiar with the works of famous German musicians like Ludwig van Beethoven: now you also know how Beethoven told time in his day!

As the most spoken language in Europe, it’s worth your while to get a good understanding of German under your belt. So if you’re thinking about joining the millions of other German language learners across the world, consider taking personalized German courses taught by a native speaker. Contact us to get more information about the third-most commonly taught language in the world.