While they are two different languages, German and English are actually quite similar! Both languages are West Germanic languages, meaning they come from an older ‘version’ of German. Each has its own history, but that shared past means they still have a lot in common. Hopefully knowing these 17 similarities and differences will make learning German less intimidating!
1. Both German and English have similar linguistic periods
Both English and German have Old, Middle, and New/Modern periods in their linguistic history. These periods tend to occur around the same time, with Old German and English beginning around 500-750 CE. This is because the two languages split at an earlier point, giving them both time to undergo sound changes and develop their own intricacies before written texts were developed.
The Old form of both languages are nearly indecipherable to modern speakers who haven’t learned the ‘language.’ Aspects of German were more prevalent in Old English, such as -en verb endings, noun and adjective cases, and overall syntax. The two languages became more distinct over time, with Middle German and Middle English both becoming more like their modern counterparts.
Middle German has two periods: New High German and Middle Low German. It’s also around this time that Scots and Northumbrian split from Middle English. There are still some similarities here, but far fewer than there are between Old English and Old German (or even between Old English and Modern German!).
- Old German: Pho ende uuodan uuorun zi holza
- Due to lack of Old German writing, this is a different poem than the one below
- Middle German: Mîn herze und mîn lîp diu wellent scheiden,
- Modern German: Mein Herze und mein Leib, die wollen sich trennen
- Old English: Uren Fader þat art in heofnas,
- Middle English: Our Fadir that art in heuenes,
- Modern English: Our Father who art/are in heaven,
2. German was once a lingua franca of Central Europe
Much like how English tends to be a lingua franca or common language today, German was also once the common language. The Holy Roman Empire was a collection of German federations. It once controlled a large swathe of Central Europe, stretching from parts of France at its westernmost point to parts of Poland in the east, and Sardinia in the south. This meant that large numbers of people in Europe spoke a German dialect at least a little. This also explains why German is still considered a minority language in some of these areas today.
Compare this to English’s reach in modern times. Considering Britain’s role as a colonial power, and the US’ role as a military and economic power, English has become a fairly commonly spoken language today. You can go to a completely different part of the world and be able to find someone who can speak English, even if they aren’t totally fluent.
So while German eventually faded out of prominence, both it and English have held a position as a lingua franca at some point.
3. Certain letters are pronounced differently between English and German
A lot of letters are pronounced the same between English and German, but there are also some commonly occurring letters that are different between the two! Knowing them is important in learning the German language.
Some differences that you might know include the w sounding like a v, the v sounding like the English f, and j being pronounced like y.
But you have z, which is far more common in German than English. z is pronounced ts, similar to the noise a cymbal makes. So, if you wanted to ask ‘how many trains does the boy have’ you would say wie viele Züge hat der Junge’ and would pronounce it ‘vee FEel-uh tsue-guh hat dair yung-uh.’
The letters g, d, and s can be a bit trickier because they’re pronounced in a couple of different ways. G can be pronounced as the typical English hard-g, but if it comes at the end of the word in a ‘vowel + g’ combo, then it will sound more like a k.
The letter d’s pronunciation also depends on the ending of the word. If d is at the beginning or in the middle of the word, then it stays a d. If instead it is at the end of a word or in a dt cluster, then it is pronounced t. A sample sentence you can use to practice is mein Kind hat genug Drama, or ‘my kid has enough drama,’ and is pronounced ‘mine kint hat geh-nuk drama.’
s can be pronounced as s, z, or sh, depending where on the word it is! If it comes in the middle or at the end of a word, then it stays an s. It is pronounced like the English z if it comes at the beginning of a word in the ‘s + vowel’ combo. However, if it comes at the beginning of the word in a ‘s + consonant’ combo, then it will be pronounced sh! So, if you wanted to say ‘she is a student’ it would be sie ist eine Studentin and would be pronounced ‘zee isst I-nuh shtoo-den-tin.’
Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, but they can generally be followed to help with pronunciation!
4. German has a more fricative-based pronunciation than English
While this could probably fall under the different ways certain letters are pronounced, fricative pronunciation can be tricky to grasp. Fricatives are sounds in a language with some, but not complete, blockage of airflow. In English these include f, v, sh, and other similar sounds. For English speakers learning German, the pronunciation of r and ch are more fricative than they would be in English and can be harder to pronounce.
In English, for example, the r in ‘red’ is pronounced with the tongue at the front of the mouth, with the tip slightly curved back. In German, on the other hand, the r in rot (also red) is pronounced with the tongue toward the back of the mouth, with the tongue body raised toward the uvula. This produces a rougher r sound similar to the French r in ‘Paris.’ This is in contrast to when r comes at the end of words in German, where it is usually just dropped and left to inflection, such as wenige (veh-knee-guh, few) vs. weniger (veh-knee-gah, less)
Likewise, the ch is pronounced as a more raspy sound in German than it is in English. Both languages have two common pronunciations of the ch diphthong, one that’s softer and one that’s harder, as well as some unusual pronunciations. Both languages use the soft ch more often than the hard ch.
In English, the soft ch is an affricate, like in ‘cheese,’ and the hard ch is a stop, like in ‘loch.’ In German, the soft ch is a fricative pronounced by arching the blade of the tongue (the part just behind the tip) toward the top of your mouth while keeping it flat and not touching the roof of your mouth. In some German accents, this is sometimes replaced by the sh sound.
The hard ch is also a fricative in German and is pronounced similarly to the r in rot. The tongue body should be raised toward the uvula, but the sound should be more like hissing than the r (you can practice by putting your tongue in the position and just blowing air out through your mouth). The hard, or back, ch comes after ‘back vowels’ (u, o), a, and ä. So, you would use the soft ch in ‘ich’ and the hard ch in ‘machen.’
In English, the third, less common way of pronouncing ch makes it sound like sh. English words using this third pronunciation tend to be loanwords from French, think charade or charcuterie. German has a handful of additional pronunciations.
The most common uncommon way of pronouncing ch in German is as a k. This pronunciation typically happens when the ch is beginning a word and is follower by r, l, a, or o, like in ‘Chor’ for ‘choir’ (but alsoirregularly in ‘Orchester’ for orchestra!). In some dialects you’ll also get the German ch sounding like the ch in ‘cheese’ when it comes in the -chen ending, like in Mädchen.
5. English and German both have ‘Standard’ and ‘non-Standard’ dialects
If you’re an English-speaker, then you’ve surely noticed how different areas of the English-speaking world have different dialects. German also has different dialects, some of which are easier to understand than others. The Standard German dialect is often just called ‘German’ or ‘High German/Hochdeutsch,’ the same as how Standard English is often just called ‘English.’ Both languages have or have had a fairly large geographic reach as well as contact with other languages. These make it so that some areas develop sound and grammar changes that aren’t present in other places.
In Germany, the dialect differences tend to be on a north-south axis, but there are also differences in the dialects in the east vs west. The reason that German dialects tend to be differentiated along north-south is that German has sound change ‘lines’ that are a general demarcation of where things are pronounced in noticeably different ways in the flatter vs more hilly and mountainous areas of Germany.
For instance, the Uerdingen and Benrather lines mark where the ch sound is pronounced more softly (front) vs. harder (back). Above the lines, German speakers tend to make the ch into more of a k sound, whereas below the line you still get the ch as a soft sound, and sometimes even a sh sound. You might also notice that people in Bavaria (to the east) pronounce the ch harder than people in Rheinland (to the west). People across the lines will still use the ‘standard’ pronunciation, and the differences in dialects are more of a gradient than a hard border.
American English is a bit looser with its dialectal boundaries, likely due to the size of the country. On the East Coast, as well as as far west as Texas, there are north-south differences in pronunciation. This leads to some differences in vowel pronunciation, such as ‘I’ farther north and ‘ah’ towards the south for the word I.
US English also has some distinct east-west dialectal boundaries as well and some state-specific ones. A fairly well-studied east-west boundary line in the US is the cot-caught merger, where people to the west of the boundary pronounce them the same while speakers to the east of the boundary generally distinguish o from augh.
British English, on the other hand, does fall along more north-south boundary lines like German. In Britain, there is less diphthongization the farther north you go, so that words like ‘out’ sound more like oot. In southern England there is also a more minor east-west line like in Germany, with places closer to Wales pronouncing the a in ‘bath’ more like ah vs. augh.
6. Different German countries also have different accents
Perhaps it is no surprise then that German and English both also have country-specific accents! Australian German sounds fairly similar to High German (Hochdeutsch), similar to how Australian English and British English sound alike, but still distinct. Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch) and Hochdeutsch can be compared to Scotch English and US English.
Both English and German have more than just pronunciation differences in their accents, there are also vocab changes as well. While perhaps a more minor similarity, this will hopefully help learners understand why some courses give you the option of Austrian German vs. German (Germany).
7. German and English have few irregular verbs
Both languages only have about 200 irregular verbs. This means that you can predict with a fair amount of confidence how a verb is going to look within a given sentence. The verbs ‘to have,’ ‘to be,’ and ‘to become’ are some of the shared irregular verbs in both languages, though the full list of irregular verbs that both languages share is quite a bit longer.
In English, the only pronouns that get a special verb ending are she, he, and it, which add an -s to the end of the verb when it isn’t proceeded by ‘to be.’ Likewise, only ‘I,’ ‘s/he,’ and ‘it’ get different ‘to be’ conjugations; everything else gets ‘are.’
Conversely, in German, only ‘Sie,’ ‘sie (pl),’ and ‘wir’ get the –en verb endings and everything else gets a special ending. These three pronouns are also the only ones to get the ‘sind’ form of ‘to be.’ To clear things up a bit, I’ve listed the conjugations for the regular verb ‘run/rennen’ in both languages below.
English regular conjugations:
- I –> run, (am -ing)
- You –> run, (are -ing)
- S/he, it –> runs, (is -ing)
- They –> run, (are -ing)
- We –> run, (are -ing)
German regular conjugations:
- Ich –> renne (-e)
- Du –> rennst (-st)
- Er, sie, es –> rennt (-t)
- Sie, sie –> rennen (-en)
- Wir –> rennen (-en)
8. Language structure also tends to be similar
Since they are related to one another, German and English have a fair number of structural similarities. This is one of the reasons, aside from vocab, that German is a somewhat easier language to learn for English-speakers, and vice versa.
Both English and German are what are known as SVO languages, meaning the subject of a sentence comes before the verb which comes before the object. An example would be ‘I love you,’ or ‘ich liebe dich’ with I/ich being the subject, love/liebe being the verb, and you/dich being the object. The word order gets switched around when asking questions, but again English and German follow the same sentence structure for these switches.
Using the example above, you can see that questions such as ‘who do I love/wer liebe ich,’ or any question that puts the question word first, gets a new pattern that goes object-verb-subject (OVS). Likewise, questions without question words get a different pattern, such as ‘do I love you/liebe ich dich,’ which goes verb-subject-object (VSO).
Unlike the Romance languages, English and German both also put adjectives before nouns. So, where Spanish would say ‘el gato hermoso,’ where hermoso is ‘pretty/beautiful,’ English and German say ‘the pretty cat/die schöne Katze.’
In this same vein, adverbs generally get special endings in both languages. For English, the -ly ending is a decent way to determine whether something is an adverb vs. an adjective. For German, the -lich ending does the same, with words containing it generally being adverbs. Of course, both languages have their exceptions, but it’s a pretty solid starting rule for either language.
However, despite their similarities, there are some things that are different. One instance is the use of two verbs in one sentence, such in past and future tenses, or even just in more complex sentences. If I wanted to say I am going to do something in English, the order would go verb-verb, but in German the second verb goes to the end of the sentence.
- I will see the movie’ –> ich werde den Film sehe
As mentioned, the same thing happens in certain past tenses:
- I have seen the movie’ –> ich habe den Film gesehen
It also occurs when you use words like ‘because:’
- Because it is easy’ –> weil es einfach ist
9. German doesn’t distinguish between the habitual present and the present progressive
The two comparison points above this one briefly hint at this point, but unlike English, German does not distinguish between the habitual present and the present progressive. The habitual present indicates an action is recurring (ex. ‘I drink tea), while the present progressive indicates an action is currently occurring (ex. ‘I am drinking tea). In English and Romance languages, the difference in conjugation is important, but for German the conjugation is omitted entirely.
Both examples would translate as ‘ich trinke Tee,’ and the listener would need to rely on context to understand whether the action is habitual or progressive. This can trip many new learners up as they try to conjugate ‘I am drinking tea’ as ‘ich bin Tee trinken’ (or even, ‘ich bin trinke(n) Tee’). Sometimes you’ll hear German speakers adding in ‘gerade’ between the verb and the rest of the sentence. This is used to indicate the action is occurring in the moment, such as if a friend asks what you’re doing and you respond: ich trinke gerade Tee.
Making it even more complicated, German does distinguish between multiple past tenses like English (ex. I went, I have gone –> ich ging, ich habe gegangen). Future tenses also get multiple forms in both languages.
10. German has 3 genders
Like a fair number of the world’s languages, and unlike English, German is a gendered language. Rather than the typical feminine-masculine binary, German also includes the neuter as a gender category. The basic articles are der/ein (m.), die/eine (f.), and das/ein (n.), though word positioning in the sentence means that these undergo declensions as needed. Any plurals also get die.
These genders also get carried into adjectives, which receive different endings based on which gender the noun it’s describing is. The basic endings for adjectives are -er (m.), -e (f., pl.), and -es (n.).
German also has declensions that change articles and adjective endings, so it’s important to learn the gender of a noun along with the noun itself. This will save you loads of trouble later on when you need to use more complicated sentences where declensions matter.
Declension and article/adjective gender are also important because German is not tied to word-order the same way English is, and the ending can tell you what role a word plays in a sentence. For example, ich gebe einen Apfel das Kind has the same meaning as ich gebe das Kind einen Apfel, or, ‘I give the kid an apple.’
11. Formal, informal…plural?
German, like many languages, has a different pronoun for formal, informal, and plural second person pronouns. In German, these are Sie (formal), du (informal), and ihr (plural). Each has a separate verb conjugation from one another, but Sie and sie (they) both have the same form, which makes context important. If you’re reading or writing German, the capitalization of the formal Sie is also important because ‘she’ and ‘they’ are also sie, but lowercase.
English does not have three second person pronouns. In fact, many dialects only have one, simply ‘you!’ However, there are a good number of English dialects that differentiate between the singular and the plural you. These include the American South’s ‘y’all,’ ‘yinz’ from Philadelphia, and ‘yous(e)’ from a number of different dialects in both the US and the UK. Other accepted pluralizations often include adding additional words, such as ‘you guys,’ rather than a modification of you itself.
Language and Culture
12. German and English share an alphabet
Both German and English share the same 26 letters that most Western European languages use. This certainly makes it easier for language learners to read and write in the language. However, there are a couple of additional letters in German that there aren’t in English.
The vowels ‘a,’ ‘o,’ and ‘u’ have an umlauted version in German and are pronounced slightly differently from their non-umlauted counterparts:
- ä –> ae, with an emphasis on the ‘e’ so nahe (nah, close) becomes näher (neigh-yuh, closer)
- ö –> oe, where Vogel (foe-gl, bird) becomes Vögel (feu-gl, birds)
- ü –> ue, where Bruder (brood-uh, brother) becomes Brüder (brued-uh, brothers)
There’s also a sharp-s letter called the eszett that looks like: ß. It is pronounced similarly to the s in ist, but is held for slightly longer. If you aren’t using a German keyboard, you can replace the eszett in words with ss. This special letter is only found in the middle or at the end of words, never at the beginning.
13. The German keyboard is slightly different than the English one
While the German alphabet has the same 26 letters the English one does, there are four additional letters any German keyboard needs to accommodate: ä, ö, ü, and ß. To account for these differences, the German keyboard moves the semi/colon, quotes, brackets, and hyphen/underscore to different locations to make room for the additional letters. This means that some of the other symbols on the keyboard, like the question mark, forward slash, and ampersand, also get moved around.
Likewise, the occurrence frequency of z in German is higher than the frequency of y, which is opposite of the way it is in English. The z-y change is probably the simplest, since those two letters just switch places, with the y now in the lower left corner and the z being between t and u.
14. There are lots of German-English cognates
Since the two languages share a common past, there are lots of similar German and English words. A cognate is a word that looks or sounds similar to a word of the same meaning in another language. So, German words that sound like English, or vice versa, and have the same definition are cognates. While some of these are more recent and can be attributed to the role of English in technology, many of them are simply shared words!
Some of the most obvious cognates are nouns, since you don’t have to deal with conjugations or case endings, but you can find similar words in every aspect of the language.
Some noun cognates you might come across include:
- Vater –> father
- Sonne –> sun
- Pass –> passport
- Schuhe –> shoe
- Haus –> house
- Wasser –> water
German and English also share plenty of adjective cognates:
- kompetent –> competent
- musikalisch –> musical
- kreativ –> creative
- freundlich –> friendly
- normal –> normal
There are also some verbs, though you do have to watch for conjugations:
- rannte –> (I) ran
- schwimmen –> (to) swim/swimming
- trinke –> (I) drink
- sehe –> (I) see
- fallen –> (to) fall/falling.
While there are plenty of true cognates, there are also some false cognates that may trip learners up. For example, Art means ‘way, kind’ not ‘art,’ and bald doesn’t mean ‘bald,’ but ‘soon.’ You mostly learn these through trial, error, and relying on context as best you can.
15. Like English, German has a lot of homonyms
For those who are trying to recall their English grammar classes, homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings, and sometimes different spellings. English has some famously misused homonyms, such as there-their-they’re, your-you’re, and its-it’s. However, there are also some that are less common, such as bat-bat, thyme-time, and hour-our (or our-are, depending on accent).
German also has homonyms that can trip up native and nonnative speakers alike! For instance, Bank can mean ‘bank’ or ‘bench,’ and ‘sauer’ can mean ‘sour’ or ‘mad.’ Like in English, there are some tricks for certain German homonyms that can help speakers distinguish between the different meanings. For one, some homonyms use different cases. Die Band is a music band, but das Band is a ribbon, tape, or belt, and der Band is a volume (like in a book series). Der Leiter for ‘leader’ and die Leiter for ‘ladder’ also has this handy trick.
16. German and English also borrow words from one another
While this is common in a lot of languages, it’s interesting to look at the German words used in English today that we don’t always realize came from our sister language! Many of the most common words in English have a Germanic origin. An example of this is ‘have,’ which comes from Proto-Germanic ‘habejanan,’ and is clearly related to the modern German habe(n).
The shared words go beyond this though! ‘Pretzel’ and ‘strudel’ are perhaps the most obvious examples of English words that came from German, but ‘iceberg,’ ‘poltergeist,’ ‘Neanderthal,’ and ‘noodle’ are also all German words that English borrowed. Of this list, strudel, poltergeist, and Neanderthal are spelled the same in both languages, while pretzel –> Brezel, iceberg –> Eisberg, and noodle –> Nudel.
The reverse is also true, with there also being German words that came from English. As mentioned, a lot of new English words in German come from technology, but even when we ignore examples from the tech world, such as Laptop, there are plenty of borrowed words! Some examples include Job, T-Shirt, joggen, and super. Like with the German words in English, the spellings of these borrowed words haven’t really changed. More interestingly, Job and joggen are both still pronounced with the j sound, not the traditional German y!
17. Knowing English or German can help with your job prospects
As mentioned under the History section, both English and German have been important languages at different points in time. English is currently the most widely spoken language in the world, with German falling at number 12. Both the English-speaking and the German-speaking worlds have a large number of tech jobs, and Germany is one of the prime locations for businesses. Germany is also an important place in the field of science, medicine, and research development, making knowing the language a plus for anyone interested in going into those fields.
This means that if you speak one or both of these languages, then your job prospects are looking up!
If you liked this list of English-German similarities, then check out our list of German proverbs and German fun facts! Or perhaps you want a translation app that can help you with those declensions and false cognates.