German Language/German I

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The German language is a West Germanic language spoken primarily in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. While its close linguistic and developmental relationship with English makes it quite easy to learn in some aspects, it is, unlike English, very "grammatical", having much declension and conjugation. This lesson, one of several to come, will introduce you to the basics of the German language.


The Basics of German[edit]

Pronunciation[edit]

See the wikipedia page on German phonology if you know your IPA. If not:

Consonants[edit]

f, k, l, m, n, p, t, x, are identical in usage and pronunciation to English.

  • b is p at the end of words, b elsewhere.
  • ch is "hissed" like a heavy "h" before e, i, ä, ö, ü, ai, ei, oi, eu, oi and between consonants; and "rasped" like Scottish "loch" after o, a, u, au
  • d is t at the end of words, d elsewhere.
  • dt is t.
  • g is always 'hard', like in goat, except for the suffix "-ig" at the end of words, where it is always "hissed" like a heavy "h".
  • h, when after a vowel, is silent and lengthens the vowel.
  • j is pronounced like consonental English y.
  • q is only seen with u, and this is pronounced qv.
  • r is "gurgled" like in French, or (in some areas e.g. in the south of Germany) rolled like in Spanish.
  • s is sh before radical p or t, z before or between vowels, and s otherwise.
  • sch is sh.
  • ß is always s. (ß is a double 's' = 'ss')
  • tsch is (English) ch.
  • v is f.
  • w is v.
  • z is ts.

Vowels[edit]

German English pronunciation
a when short like in 'but', when long like in 'calm'
ä when short like in 'cap', when long like in 'bad'
e when short like in 'bed', when long like the first part of "ay", before it becomes "i"
i when short like in 'pick', when long (often spelt ie or ih) like in 'peek'
o when short like in 'clock', when long like 'or' without the r, like in British or Australian English.
ö when short like in the first syllable of 'forget', when long (form your lips like for an 'o' and then pronounce) like in 'bird'
u when short like in 'good', when long like in 'shoe'
ü form your lips like for an 'o' and then pronounce an 'i' like in 'sit' (short vowel) or an 'e' like in 'bee' (long vowel)
y the same as 'ü'

Diphthongs[edit]

German English pronunciation
au like in 'cow'
äu, eu, oi, oy like in 'boy'
ei, ai, ay like in 'sky'
ie like in 'sea'

Word Order[edit]

The German word order is similar to English, i.e. Subject-Verb-Object. However, as its declension system ensures that grammatical relationship between words is never lost, it is more flexible. The absolute first cardinal rule of German word order is that the verb, in a normal clause, MUST be second. The others can swap: in order to show emphasis, the more important element is placed first. However the verb must always stay where it is, and where the subject is not first, it must follow the verb. Predicate word order is Time-Manner-Place (when, how, where), and it is common for native German speakers to put time first (punctual as they are).

Nouns[edit]

A noun is the part of speech that nominates a thing, eg. dog (Hund); idea (Idee); theme (Thema). German is a gendered language, which means that every noun possesses a particular set of grammatical attributes: masculine, feminine, and neutral, and plural: (der Hund (masc.), die Idee (fem.), das Thema (neutr.)). As with most European languages, these genders are not semantic: while there are a few obvious ones (der Mann the man; die Frau the woman) gender is mostly arbitrary (das Mädchen the girl). However, a noun's gender is intrinsic to it, as it is necessary for declination, which is very integrated in German, and therefore genders must be memorized along with roots. The plural functions somewhat as a fourth gender, although (thankfully) declination in the plural is uniform across the genders. (see articles and declination sections of this lesson) Nouns are always capitalized.

Plurals[edit]

Plurals are formed with a variety of suffixes, and so each noun's plural form must be memorized. This is not as bad as it sounds as there are some patterns present and plural forms are often intuitive, with the majority of plural nouns ending in -en or -n.

Plural Marker Singular Plural
no ending der Lehrer die Lehrer
umlaut + no ending der Vater die Väter
-e der Tag die Tage
umlaut + -e die Wurst die Würste
-er das Kind die Kinder
umlaut + -er der Mann die Männer
-n die Schwester die Schwestern
-en die Zeitung die Zeitungen
-nen die Studentin die Studentinnen
change -um to -en das Museum die Museen
-s das Hotel die Hotels
-se das Ergebnis die Ergebnisse
change -mus to -men der Rhythmus die Rhythmen

Note that some common noun forms uniformly take a plural form, e.g. -ung nouns always become -ungen. Additionally -um to -en is rare, normally for latin loanwords. And -nen is only ever for female (person) forms of nouns of occupation/status etc: der Student--> die Studentin---> die Studentinnen.

The Nominative (Subject) Case[edit]

Certain words in a sentence can be used to modify specific qualities about a noun. Such words can even entirely replace a noun (“computer” can become “it” so the word “computer” is not used every time that is referenced), in which case that word (“it” in this case) is a pronoun. When these words modify or substitute for the subject, they are in the nominative (or subject) case.

Articles[edit]

An article is a word that precedes a noun in order to show whether that noun describes a certain person or object or it refers generically to any person or object. English uses “the”, a definite article because the person or object is specifically referenced, for the first case and “a” or “an” for the latter. German is a little more complex and the article used also indicates number and gender of the noun, as well as the case.

Definite Articles[edit]

Nouns in German have preserved the three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) of the Proto Indo-European language, not only for people (like English) but also objects (unlike English). Apart from the noun’s gender, the German definite article in the nominative case also denotes whether the noun is singular (the noun references a single object) or plural (more than one object is referenced).

Definite articles

Singular Plural
Masculine der die
Feminine die die
Neuter das die

So in the nominative case die is always used for plural regardless of the noun’s gender.

Indefinite Articles[edit]

Just like the definite articles, the indefinite articles are also used to denote the noun’s gender but only for singular nouns.

Indefinite articles

Masculine ein
Feminine eine
Neuter ein

Personal Pronouns[edit]

Much like every known language in the world, German makes use of personal pronouns. The pronouns are used to substitute proper or common nouns. Instead of saying “The building is tall.” personal pronouns, in this case, allow the replacement of “the building” (the subject of the sentence, a noun) with “it” (still, the subject of the sentence, but now a pronoun): “It is tall.”

Personal pronouns

Singular Plural
1st Person ich (I) wir (we)
2nd Person (Informal) du (you) ihr (you)
2nd Person (Formal) Sie (you) Sie (you)
3rd Person er/sie/es (he/she/it) sie (they)


Sie (2nd person, formal) is used both in singular and plural when addressing someone or a group of people politely. Generally, when the person being addressed would expect to be addressed using a title (Dr. or Professor) or honorific (Mr. or Mrs., Herr or Frau in German) then the formal pronoun Sie is used. Unlike any other personal pronoun in the nominative case, Sie (you, formal) is always capitalized regardless of its location within a sentence. Since they take the same verb form, Sie (you, formal) and sie (they), are usually both shown together in verb-conjugation tables.

Verb Conjugation In The Present Indicative Tense[edit]

Verbs in German have to be conjugated or inflected according to the person, number, and tense among other things. Shown here are verbs that are altered in the present indicative tense (tense that expresses something that is taking place currently) from their infinitive form in accordance with the number (singular or plural) and person (first, second, or third) of the subject in the sentence. These altered forms are sometimes called “finite”. A parallel in English would be the verb “to be” as none of its forms are identical to the infinitive, exhibiting inflection. Most other verbs are conjugated in English by adding “(e)s” to their third-person singular form (he/she/it).

Sein (to be)

ich bin (I am) wir sind (we are)
du bist (you are, informal singular) ihr seid (you are, informal plural)
er/sie/es ist (he/she/it is) sie sind (they are), Sie sind (you are, formal singular and plural)

Regular Verbs[edit]

Almost all of the verbs in German end in “(e)n” in their infinitive form (an exception to this being sein). The part preceding “en” is called the verb’s “stem” or “root” while “en” itself is known as the verb’s “ending”. To conjugate regular German verbs in the present indicative, the stem of the verb is used followed by a specific ending as displayed below (endings are shown in bold).

ich stemm + e wir stemm + en
du stemm + st ihr stemm + t
er/sie/es stemm + t sie, Sie stemm + en

To conjugate the verb machen (to make) using the above pattern, “en” is dropped and “mach” is inserted in place of the stem. The same is done when conjugating sagen (to say or tell).

Machen (to make)

ich mache wir machen
du machst ihr macht
er/sie/es macht sie, Sie machen

Sagen (to say or tell)

ich sage wir sagen
du sagst ihr sagt
er/sie/es sagt sie, Sie sagen

Additional examples of regular verbs include gehen (to go), kommen (to come), and wohnen ("to live" as in "to reside", contrary to life).

Some Special Rules For Regular Verbs[edit]

  • Verbs that have stems ending in “d” or “t” add an “e” to the stem in the second- and third-person singular forms (du and er/sie/es).
  • Verbs that have stems ending in “m” or “n” preceded by another consonant that is not “l” or “r” also add an “e” to the stem in the second- and third-person singular forms.
  • Verbs that end in “eln” (handeln) drop the “e” in the first-person singular form (ich): ich handle.

Very Strong Verbs[edit]

Some verbs will change their stem vowel when declined in the present indicative in their second- and third-person singular forms (the du and er/es/sie) but are otherwise conjugated regularly. These verbs are known as “very strong” as opposed to “strong” verbs which only change their stem vowels in the past tense. Verbs in which stem vowel changes do not occur are known as “weak”. Changes from the regular rule are shown in bold.

“e” to “i”[edit]

Sprechen (to speak)

ich spreche wir sprechen
du sprichst ihr sprecht
er/es/sie spricht sie, Sie sprechen

Additional examples include essen (to eat) and geben (to give).

Another verb that somewhat adheres to this rule is nehmen. However, in addition to changing its stem vowel from “i” to “e”, the “h” is dropped and the “m” is doubled in the second- and third-person singular.

Nehmen (to take)

ich nehme wir nehmen
du nimmst ihr nehmt
er/es/sie nimmt sie, Sie nehmen

“e” to “ie”[edit]

Sehen (to see)

ich sehe wir sehen
du siehst ihr seht
er/es/sie sieht sie, Sie sehen

Lesen (to read)

ich lese wir lesen
du liest ihr lest
er/es/sie liest sie, Sie lesen

“a” to “ä”[edit]

Fahren (to drive)

ich fahre wir fahren
du fährst ihr fahrt
er/es/sie fährt sie, Sie fahren

Laufen (to run)

ich laufe wir laufen
du läufst ihr lauft
er/es/sie läuft sie, Sie laufen

Irregular Verbs[edit]

Irregular verbs decline using no preset rule and have to be memorized on an individual basis. As seen above, sein is one of such verbs that do not follow a specific pattern but its prolificacy will help memorizing it through repetition. Other such very-common yet irregular verbs are haben (to have) and heißen (to be called).

Haben (to have)

ich habe wir haben
du hast ihr habt
er/es/sie hat sie, Sie haben


Heißen (to be called)

ich heiße wir heißen
du heißt ihr heißt
er/es/sie heißt sie, Sie heißen

The Imperative Form Of Verbs[edit]

Verbs in German also conjugate according to the grammatical mood in addition to person or number. The imperative mood is mostly used when expressing a command (“Wait!” or “Go!”) and can only be applied in the second-person singular or plural (du, ihr, or Sie) and the first-person plural (wir) forms.

The Du-Imperative[edit]

The du-imperative is used when issuing a command to someone on a familiar basis (“You go there!”) and is formed in most cases by simply dropping the verb’s ending, “en”. Verbs that have stems ending in “d”, “ig”, or “t” add an “e” to the stem, as do verbs whose stems end in “m” or “n” preceded by another consonant that is not “l” or “r”. Verbs that have infinitives ending in “eln” drop the “e” in the du-imperative.

sagen Sag es! (You) Say it!
fragen Frag sie! (You) Ask her!
warten Warte! (You) Wait!

The Ihr-Imperative[edit]

The ihr-imperative is used when addressing a group of people (“All of you, go there!”) and is formed in the same way as the verb conjugation with the pronoun ihr omitted.

kommen Kommt her! (You, guys) Come here!
gehen Geht da! (You, guys) Go there!

The Sie-Imperative[edit]

The formal 'Sie' imperative is used to respectfully make commands, in situations and for people who are to be adressed formally. It is formed simply by placing the Sie form of the verb (identical to the infinitive) first, to be immediately followed by the pronoun. As always, the singular and plural forms of Sie are the same.

kommen Kommen Sie her! (respectfully) Come here!
gehen Gehen Sie dorthin! (respectfully) Go there!

The Wir-Imperative[edit]

The 'wir' imperative is used similarly to the "let's" form in English: to express a desire for action for the speaker and the spoken to, together. It is formed by the wir (infinitive) form of the verb placed at the start of the clause, followed immediately by "wir" (we).

tanzen Tanzen wir (jetzt)! Let's dance (now)!
gehen Gehen wir dorthin! Let's go there!

Imperative For The Verbs Sein and Haben[edit]

The informal imperative of sein (to be) is sei (be), while for haben it is habe or simply hab. The formal imperatives conform to the formal imperative paradigm (Seien Sie, Haben Sie).

sein Sei froh! (du)

Seid froh! (ihr)
Seien Sie froh! (Sie)
Seien wir froh! / Lasst uns froh sein! (wir)

Be happy!

Be happy!
Be happy!
Let us be happy!

haben Hab(e) Mut! (du)

Habt Mut! (ihr)
Haben Sie Mut! (Sie)
Haben wir Mut! / Lasset uns Mut haben! (wir)

Have courage!

Have courage!
Have courage!
Let us have courage!

Case in German[edit]

There are four cases in German: Nominative (subject); Accusative(direct object); Dative(indirect object); Genitive(possession).

The Nominative Case[edit]

The Nominative case is probably the most basic and easy to understand. It is the subject of the sentence, which means it is the 'doer' of the action. I am making a kite (Ich mache/baue einen Drachen): 'I' is the subject because 'I' is the one making something. The dog is running (Der Hund läuft): 'the dog' is the subject because it is the one running; very simple.

The Accusative and Dative Cases[edit]

The Direct and Indirect Objects normally cause people the most trouble. The Direct Object is the 'receiver' of the action. I love you (Ich liebe dich) 'you' is the direct object because it is the thing being loved. I'm baking cake (Ich backe Kuchen) 'cake' is the direct object because it is the thing being baked.

However, I'm giving you the paper/I'm giving the paper to you (Ich gebe dir das Papier) 'you' is now the indirect object. Paper is in Accusative, for it is the thing being given. Because the paper is being given TO YOU, 'you' is the Dative.

The thing that is having something done to it is Accusative. Whatever is being affected by what is done to the thing is Dative.

When used without any prepositions, a word in the Dative typically means 'to' that word/object.

The Genitive Case[edit]

This case shows possession, and it too is simple, but you must make sure you understand exactly which part of the sentence is Genitive. In most cases, genitive is used where in English, an -'s is used. For example: The boy's father is smart (Der Vater des Jungen ist klug). 'Boy' is in the Genitive case. I have your mother's book. (Ich habe das Buch deiner Mutter). 'your mother' is in the Genitive case.

It can also be used to mean 'of'; in the first example, "Der Vater des Jungen ist klug" can also mean "The father of the boy is smart", although it seems a bit archaic in English.

Another example: Yesterday was the worst day of my life. (Gestern war der schlechteste Tag meines Lebens.) 'Meines' in this sentence means 'of my'.

Declining Definite and Indefinite Articles[edit]

Here is how to decline articles in German:

M N F P
Nominative der das die die
Accusative den das die die
Dative dem dem der den (+ (e)n to end of noun)
Genitive des des der der
M N F P
Nominative ein ein eine -
Accusative einen ein eine -
Dative einem einem einer - (+ (e)n to end of noun)
Genitive eines eines einer von (+ (e)n to end of noun)

Using the Accusative and Dative Cases[edit]

Using the Accusative Case[edit]

For each case you learn, you should first learn the personal pronouns for that case. Here are the Accusative case personal pronouns:

Singular Plural
mich uns
dich euch
ihn/sie/es sie/Sie

Notice that in both the Accusative in Nominative cases, the ending of the third person personal pronouns corresponds to the declension of the definite articles, this is true for the Genitive and Dative cases, and can help very much when the correct declension of an article or a personal pronoun slips your mind.

Now let's try constructing some simple sentences with both the Nominative and Accusative Cases with two more verbs: Kennen, to be familiar with; Wissen, to know (a fact). Kennen and Wissen both translate to the same thing in English, but have a different meaning in German, make sure you are familiar with this difference.

Kennen is regular, but Wissen is not, so below is a conjugation chart of both:

kenne kennen weiß wissen
kennst kennt weißt wisst
kennt kennen weiß wissen

Now you can make some very simple sentences:
Ich kenne dich.
Er kennt uns.
Du kennst sie.
Ich weiß, du kennst ihn
Er weiß, wir machen etwas (something)
Weißt du die Antwort? (the answer)
Kennt ihr mich/ihn/sie/uns/sie? (me/him/her/us/them)

Useful Transitive Verbs[edit]

Some of these verbs may be irregular or stem changing, and are marked thus: (irr)

sehen (irr) to see
spielen to play
trinken to drink
lieben to love
hassen to hate
wollen (irr) to want
nehmen (irr) to take
hören to hear

Using the Dative Case[edit]

The personal pronouns for the Dative case are as follows:

mir uns
dir euch
ihm/ihm/ihr ihnen\Ihnen

A verb that very often requires both a direct and indirect object is Geben, to give. This verb is an e-i stem changing verb, so it is conjugated below along with Erzählen, to tell a story, which also usually takes both a DO and IO.

gebe geben erzähle erzählen
gibst gebt erzählst erzählt
gibt geben erzählt erzählen

Word Order Rules[edit]

When using both the Acc. and Dat. cases, it is also important to remember which will come first. This depends entirely on the pronouns and/or nouns you use. When using two personal pronouns, the DO comes first, and the IO follows without being indicated by To or For (Ich gebe ihm es; I give it (to) him). When the Acc. object is a pronoun, and the Dat. object is a noun (Ich gebe es dem Hund; I give it (to) the dog). However, when the Acc. object is a noun, but the Dat. object is a pronoun, the order is switched (Ich gebe ihm eine Krawatte; I give (to) him a tie). Again, so is the order when both the Dat. and Acc. objects are nouns (Ich gebe dem Chef die Krawatte; I'm giving the boss the tie).

Dative Verbs and Double Accusative Verbs[edit]

There are some verbs in the German language that require only Dative objects. Below are some of the most common [(some are also irregular or stem changing and are marked thus: (irr)]

helfen (irr) to help
congratulieren to congratulate
folgen to follow
schlagen (irr) to hit, beat
antworten to answer
danken to thank
gefallen (irr) to be pleasing to
glauben to believe
passieren to happen

There is also another very small, obscure class of verbs called Double Accusative verbs that most students don't learn until fourth year or AP German, and most native speakers don't even think about. Both objects will be in the Acc. case, regardless of how it would be translated into English (I'm teaching you German; Ich lehre dich Deutsch) it makes total sense to say "Ich lehre dir Deutsch", but only in theory, and it would be grammatically incorrect.

fragen to ask
schimpfen to scold
lehren to teach
kosten to cost