The German Language

Official language of Germany and Austria and one of the official languages of Switzerland, used by more than 100 million speakers. It belongs to the West Germanic group of the Germanic languages.
German is an inflected language with four cases for nouns, pronouns, and adjectives (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative), three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and strong and weak verbs. German probably ranks sixth in number of native speakers among the languages of the world (after Chinese, English, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, and Russian). It is widely studied as a foreign language and is one of the main cultural languages of the Western world.

As a written language German is quite uniform; it differs in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland no more than written English does in the United States and the British Commonwealth. As a spoken language, however, German exists in many dialects, most of which belong to either the High German or Low German dialectal groups. The main difference between High and Low German is in the sound system, especially in the consonants. High German, the language of the southern highlands of Germany, is the official written language. See also Germanic languages.Language Differences between English and German

The following language differences may contribute to errors in syntax or morphology in a German/English bilingual child.

Case System

Since German inflects its nouns, pronouns and adjectives to show case (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive) and with that, the function of the word within the sentence, it is not as tied to word order as English is. Consider the sentence “The dog bites the man”. In this sentence, “dog” is the subject or agent (the biter), while “man” is the object or patient (the one being bitten). If you reversed the order of the nouns in this sentence, the resulting statement “The man bites the dog”, of course, would mean something entirely different. In German on the other hand, it is in the inflected article that one recognizes the noun as subject or object. In the sentence “Der Hund beisst den Mann” (The dog bites the man), “der” indicates nominative and therefore “subject”, while “den” marks the accusative, which is reserved for direct objects. As a result, the sentence “Den Mann beisst der Hund” (note reversed nouns with constant articles) has the same meaning as the first sentence, with slightly shifted emphasis. (It’s the man the dog bites).
A German-English bilingual child might use the more flexible German word order in an English sentence. Without the benefit of case to mark the function of an English noun, the resulting sentence would express an inverse relationship between subject and object and thus be non-sensical. Following along the lines of the example above, a child might say “The man bites the dog” in direct translation of the German sentence with emphasis on man, instead of the correct English equivalent “It's the man the dog bites.”

Verb Position

In a German declarative sentence, the conjugated verb is always the second element. In English, this may or may not be the case. While word-order in the English sentence “The man went home.” is analogous to its German counterpart “Der Mann ging nach Hause.”, with the verbs in both sentences (“went” and “ging”) being in second position, preceded only by the subject (“The man” and “Der Mann”), English tends to follow the SVO (Subject Verb Object) word order, while German prioritizes verb position. Thus, in the English sentence “Yesterday the man went home.”, the verb has been shifted to third position, while the German translation “Gestern ging der Mann nach Hause.” inverts subject and verb positions to maintain verb position.
By extending the German language rule that the verb in a simple declarative sentence always be in second position to an English sentence, the young German/English bilingual might produce a sentence such as “Yesterday went the man home.”

While the conjugated verb is always the second element of a main clause, dependent infinitives or past participles take the final position. Consider the sentence “I can help you with your homework.”, in which the main (and in German, conjugated) verb “can” immediately precedes its infinitive “help”. In the German translation, “Ich kann dir bei den Hausaufgaben helfen”, the conjugated verb “kann” is the second element of the sentence, while the dependent infinitive “helfen” is in last position. It is most likely this phenomenon in “the awful German language” that prompted the following lines by Mark Twain:
“Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.” A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Finally, the conjugated verb itself takes the final position in a subordinate clause, introduced by a subordinating conjunction or relative pronoun. In the sentence “I like him, because he is a very nice guy.”, English observes SVO word order in both clauses, whereas German (“Ich mag ihn, weil er ein sehr netter Kerl ist.”) puts the conjugated verb of the main clause, “mag”, in second position and the conjugated verb of the subordinate clause “ist” in final position. A possible error of a German/English bilingual child with generalization of this rule to English might look something like this: “I’ll call him, because he my friend is.”

Simple Past vs. Present Perfect

While English reserves present perfect tense for an action that began in the past and is continuing into the present (“I have lived in Portland for 3 years.” – you still live in PDX!) and simple past for an action that began and was completed in the past (“I lived in Chicago for 2 years.”- you don’t live there anymore!), German uses present perfect for conversation, or as ‘informal past’ (“Ich habe schon gegessen.” - “I've already eaten/I already ate.”), and simple past in writing (“Ich ass in einem guten Restaurant.” - “I've already eaten/I already ate.”). It is easy to see how this might lead to some confusion in the German/English bilingual child.

Future Tense

German does not need to mark future events with future tense, if their timing is implied by the context. While the English sentence “Tomorrow I will call my mother” creates an obligatory context for future tense, the German equivalent, “Morgen rufe ich meine Mutter an.”, uses present tense, as the word “morgen” (tomorrow) clarifies the timing. A German/English bilingual, then, might neglect to use future tense in the presence of a future time expression or when future is implied by context, resulting in a sentence such as “Tomorrow I go home.”

German Phonology

German phonology describes the phonology of Standard German.
Since German is a pluricentric language, there are a number of different pronunciations of standard German which however agree in most respects.


German Vowels 1

German Vowels 2

  1. Short [i y u e ø o] occur only in unstressed syllables of loanwords, for instance in Psychometrie [psyçomeˈtriː] 'psychometry'. They are usually considered complementary allophones together with their long counterparts which cannot occur in unstressed syllables.
  2. The schwa [ə] occurs only in unstressed syllables, for instance in besetzen [bəˈzɛt͡sən] 'occupy'. It is often considered a complementary allophone together with [ɛ] which cannot occur in unstressed syllables. If a sonorant follows in the syllable coda, the schwa often disappears so that the sonorant becomes syllabic, for instance Kissen [ˈkʰɪsn̩] 'pillow', Esel [ˈeːzl̩] 'donkey', besser [ˈbɛsr̩] 'better'. Note that the syllabic [r̩] is realized as [ɐ] in many varieties, for instance besser [ˈbɛsɐ] 'better'.
  3. The long open-mid front unrounded vowel [ɛː] is merged with the close-mid front unrounded vowel [eː] in many varieties of standard German, so that, for example, Ähre [ɛːrə] 'ear' (of wheat, etc.) and Ehre [eːrə] 'honour' are homophones for many speakers.
  4. The open vowels [a] and [aː] are free allophones together with [ɑ] and [ɑː], respectively.

The vowels are often analyzed according to a tenseness contrast, /i y u e ø o/ being the tense vowels and /ɪ ʏ ʊ ɛ œ ɔ/ their lax counterparts. Like the English checked vowels, the German lax vowels require to be followed by a consonant, with the notable exception of [ɛː] (which is however absent in many varieties). In order to apply the division into pairs of tense and lax to all German vowels, [a] is sometimes considered the lax counterpart of tense [aː].


The German diphthongs are /a͡ɪ a͡ʊ ɔ͡ɪ/, for instance in Ei /a͡ɪ/ 'egg', Sau /za͡ʊ/ 'sow', neu /nɔ͡ɪ/ 'new', Säule /ˈzɔ͡ɪlə/ 'column'.
Marginally, there occur some more diphthongs, for instance [ʊɪ̯] in interjections such as pfui [p͡fʊɪ̯], and in loanwords, among others, [œɪ̯ ɔʊ̯ ɛɪ̯ oa̯] as in Feuilleton [fœɪ̯ˈtɔ̃], Homepage [ˈhɔʊ̯mˌpʰɛɪ̯d͡ʒ], Croissant [kroa̯ˈsɑ̃]. It is debated whether such diphthongs should be considered phonemes of the German language or not.
In the varieties where /r/ vowelizes to [ɐ] in the syllable coda, a diphthong ending in [ɐ̯] may be formed with virtually every vowel.


German consonants 1

German consonants 2
With approximately 25 phonemes, the German consonant system exhibits an average number of consonants in comparison with other languages. One of the more noteworthy ones is the unusual affricate /p͡f/.

  1.  In the northern varieties, [ʔ] occurs before word stems with initial vowel. It is often not considered a phoneme, but an optional boundary mark of word stems.
  2. [d͡ʒ] and [ʒ] occur only in words of foreign origin. In certain varieties, they are replaced by [t͡ʃ] and [ʃ] altogether.
  3. [ç] and [x] are complementary allophones after front vowels and back vowels. For a more detailed analysis see below at ich-Laut and ach-Laut.
  4. [r], [ʁ] and [ʀ] are free allophones of each other. [r] is used only in Southern varieties. In the syllable coda, the allophone [ɐ] is used in many varieties, except in the South-West.
  5. According to some analysis, [χ] is an allophone of [x] after /a aː/ and according to some also after /ʊ ɔ a͡ʊ/.
  6. Some phonologists deny the phoneme /ŋ/ and use /nɡ/ instead, and /nk/ instead of /ŋk/. The phoneme sequence /nɡ/ is realized as [ŋɡ] when /ɡ/ can start a valid onset of the next syllable whose nucleus is a vowel other than unstressed /ə/, /ɪ/, or /ʊ/. It becomes [ŋ] otherwise. Example:
    1. diphthong /dɪftɔnɡ/ [dɪftɔŋ] : diphthongieren /dɪftɔnɡirən/ [dɪftɔŋɡiːʁn̩]
    2. Englisch /ɛnɡlɪʃ/ [ɛŋlɪʃ] : Anglo /anɡlo/ [aŋɡlo]
    3. Ganges /ɡanɡəs/ [ɡaŋəs] ~ /ɡanɡɛs/ [ɡaŋɡɛs]

The voiceless stops /t/, /p/, /k/ are aspirated except when preceded by a sibilant. The obstruents /b d ɡ z ʒ/ are voiceless [b̥ d̥ ɡ̊ z̥ ʒ̊] in the Southern varieties.
Ich-Laut and ach-Laut

The term ich-Laut refers to the voiceless palatal fricative [ç], the term ach-Laut to the voiceless velar fricative [x]. In German, these two sounds are allophones occurring in complementary distribution. The allophone [x] occurs after back vowels and /a aː/ (for instance in Buch [buːx] ‘book’), the allophone [ç] after front vowels (for instance in ich [ɪç] ‘I’) and consonants (for instance in Furcht [fʊrçt] ‘fear’)

Fortis-lenis pairs

Various German consonants occur in pairs at the same place of articulation and in the same manner of articulation, namely the pairs /p-b/, /t-d/, /k-g/, /s-z/, /ʃ-ʒ/. These pairs are often called fortis-lenis pairs, since describing them as voiced/voiceless pairs is inadequate. With certain qualifications, /t͡ʃ-d͡ʒ, f-v/ are also considered fortis-lenis pairs.

The fortis plosives /p, t, k/ are aspirated in most varieties (exceptions include Bavarian-Austrian varieties). The aspiration is strongest in the onset of a stressed syllable (such as Taler [tʰɑːlər]), weaker in the onset of an unstressed syllable (such as Vater [fɑːtʰər]), and weakest in the syllable coda (such as in Saat [zɑːtʰ]).

The lenis consonants /b, d, ɡ, z, ʒ/ are voiceless in most southern varieties of German. For clarity, they are often transcribed as [b̥, d̥, ɡ̊, z̥, ʒ̊]. The nature of the phonetic difference between the voiceless lenis consonants and the similarly voiceless fortis consonants is controversial. It is generally described as a difference in articulatory force, and occasionally as a difference in articulatory length; for the most part, it is assumed that one of these characteristics implies the other.

In most varieties of German, the opposition between fortis and lenis is neutralized in the syllable coda, due to terminal devoicing (Auslautverhärtung). A few southern varieties of German, such as Swiss German, present an exception to this.

In various central and southern varieties, the opposition between fortis and lenis is also neutralized in the syllable onset; sometimes just in the onset of stressed syllables, sometimes in all cases.
The pair /f-v/ is not considered a fortis-lenis pair, but a simple voiceless-voiced pair, as /v/ remains voiced in all varieties, included the Southern varieties that devoice the lenes. Generally, the southern /v/ is realized as the voiced approximant [ʋ]. However there are southern varieties which differentiate between a fortis /f/ (such as in sträflich [ˈʃtrɛːflɪç] from Middle High German stræflich) and a lenis /f/ ([v̥], such as in höflich [ˈhøːv̥lɪç] from Middle High German hovelîch); this is analogous to the opposition of fortis /s/ ([s]) and lenis [z̥].


The first syllable of German words receives stress, with the following exceptions:

  • Many loanwords, especially proper names, keep their original stress.
  • Verbs of the ”-ieren” group (“studieren”, “kapitulieren”, “stolzieren”, etc.) receive stress on their penultimate syllable.
  • Compound adverbs, with her, hin, da, or wo as their first syllable part, receive stress on their second syllable.
  • Moreover, German makes a distinction in stress between separable prefixes (stress on prefix) and inseparable prefixes (stress on root) in verbs and words derived from such verbs. Therefore:
  • Words beginning with be-, ge-, er-, ver-, zer-, ent-, emp- and a few others receive stress on the second syllable.
  • Words beginning with ab-, auf-, ein-, vor-, and most other prepositional adverbs receive stress on their first syllable.
  • Some prefixes, notably über-, unter-, and um-, can function as separable or inseparable prefixes, and are stressed and unstressed accordingly.
  • Rarely, two homographs with such prefixes are formed. They are not strictly homophones.

Consider the word, umschreiben. As um•schreiben (separable prefix), it means “to rewrite”, and is pronounced ['umʃʀaɪbən], and its associated noun, die Umschreibung also receives stress on the first syllable. On the other hand, umschreiben (inseparable prefix) is pronounced [um'ʃʀaɪbən]. This word means “to circumscribe”, and its associated noun, die Umschreibung (“circumscription”, “circumlocution”) also receives stress on the second syllable. Another example is the word umfahren. With stress on the root it means to drive around (an obstacle in the street), and with stress on the prefix it means to drive over / to collide with (an object on the street).

Implications for the SLP

Typical errors in English phonology for a person whose L1 is German include the following:

  1. The interdental fricatives “th” (voiced and voiceless) do not exist in German phonology. A common substitution for these sounds is /s/.
  2. The English liquid /r/ does not exist in German, where “r” is typically produces as uvular or alveolar trill. As a result, /r/ is frequently distorted in the speech of German dominant English speakers, particularly in consonant clusters or in the coda of a syllable, where /r/ might be vowelized as /ɐ/, as it is in many German dialects.
  3. The English liquid /l/ is pronounced as a lighter, or more anterior /l/” in German, with the body of the tongue more lax than for the English equivalent. The result for the German-English bilingual child might be the pronunciation of a light /l/ in places where English typically uses a dark /l/.
  4. The bilabial glide /w/ does not exist in German phonology. The letter “w” in German is pronounced as /v/ as is the letter “v” in some cases (in others it is pronounced /f/). German-English bilinguals therefore frequently mispronounce /w/ as /v/. In some cases, the correct production of /w/, once mastered, is carried over to /v/ sounds in English words, resulting in the following error made by an L1 German in the US: When trying to order a “veggie omelet” at a restaurant, she asked for a “wedgie omelet”. Proud that she had ceased to produce /w/ as /v/, as you would in German, she began to pronounce /v/ as /w/ in all contexts.
  5. /s/ and /z/ are allophones of the letter “s” in German, which may result in poor distinction between those two sounds in the English language for a German-English bilingual child.
  6. Differences in vowel quality when speaking English are also not unusual for a German-English bilingual. Vowels are more static in German and often produced more anteriorly than their English counterparts. The German vowels /y/ and /ø/ (written as Umlauts 'ü'and 'ö') are produced anteriorly, with various degree of lip rounding. To produce /y/, for example, an English speaker would phonate /i/ and then pucker his/her lips as in /u/.
  7. Word-final devoicing of consonants in German may also be transferred to English words by an English/German bilingual child, resulting for example in the pronunciation of /bat/ for both “bad” and “bat”.

German Dialects

It is estimated that approximately 800 distinct dialects are spoken in Germany, Switzerland and Austria today (Estimates range from 250 to 800, depending on one’s definition of dialect). Since Germany did not exist as a country until fairly recently (1871), its many sovereign fiefdoms, over the course of centuries, developed their own regional dialects. Dialects in more geographically isolated areas (e.g. in Alpine regions) tend to differ more from the standard “Hochdeutsch” than others, since contact with other German speakers, for centuries, was cumbersome. German dialects may differ greatly in phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax.

The farther apart two geographic regions are, the more different their dialects will be. A person speaking the Southern German dialect “Bavarian”, will not be understood by someone who speaks the Northern German dialect “Plattdeutsch” and vice versa. With Martin Luther’s translation of the bible from Latin into “Hochdeutsch” in the 16th century, an official, standard version of the language was introduced, clearing the way for urban migration during the industrial revolution. Since Hochdeutsch is taught in the schools and used in the media, people all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland speak Hochdeutsch in addition to their regional dialects.

Example of phonological difference:

While /s/ and /z/ are allophones of the letter “s” in German, Southern German dialects tend to use /s/, while Northern German dialects pronounce the same letter as /z/.

Example of semantic difference:

The word “Berliner” means “a person from Berlin”, however in Berlin itself, it also means “doughnut” (while in Munich, a doughnut is a “Krapfen”). This explains the funny double-entendre contained in John F. Kennedy’s famous quote “Ich bin ein Berliner.” While he meant to say “I am a citizen of Berlin”, his statement could also be taken as “I am a doughnut”.
There are, for example, almost as many German words for a simple (sandwich) roll as there are German dialects. Here are just a few: Semmel, Schrulle, Weggen, Broetchen, etc.

Example of morphological difference:

The diminutive morpheme added to the end of a noun, signifying that we are talking about a little version of “noun” differs from dialect to dialect as well. While Hochdeutsch uses the suffix –chen (Bluemchen – little flower), Bavarian, uses –el (Bluemel), Switzertuetsch or Swiss German uses –li (Bluemli), and Swabian uses –le (Bluemle), to mention just a few.

Implications for the SLP

Phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax are not uniform in speakers of German. The dialect a child speaks at home will influence all of these components of language. A child with a Southern German linguistic background might have difficulties producing the voiced /z/, while a child from Northern Germany may often substitute /z/ for /s/. Both children might have to be explicitly taught that there is a phonemic difference between the two sounds. The same is true for the affricates /ch/ and /dg/. Again, a child from the South of Germany might show a tendency to produce the voiceless affricate, whereas the client from Northern Germany may favor its voiced counterpart. The fact that both are distinct phonemes of English might need to be clarified and taught.
When testing a German-speaking client through an interpreter, it is important to keep in mind that there are vast differences in vocabulary, Grammar and pronunciation between dialects. If at all possible, an interpreter from the same region as the client should be selected to avoid mis-understandings.



Original Contributor: Daniela DeYoung 2006

Resources and References