Rescribe: German Translation Notes

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The German Language is spoken by 98 million people as a first language, and by over 121 million people in total. It is the official language of Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein, and is one of the three official languages of Switzerland. It is also one of the main languages spoken in Luxembourg.

Language family

German belongs to the same language family as English. The group is called "West Germanic" (one of three Germanic language groups) and is made up of six modern languages: English, German, Yiddish, Frisian, Africaans, and Netherlandic.


There are a number of German dialects. What is commonly called "German" is known to linguists as Standard German or Hochdeutsch (High German). Many Germans also speak a regional dialect, distinguished from Hochdeutsch by the absence of the second consonantal shift introduced in the 8th and 9th centuries. These varieties are collectively known as Plattdeutsch or Low German. Almost all Plattdeutsch speakers are also fluent in Hochdeutsch.

Other significant dialects spoken by German populations are Allemannisch, Saxon, Swabian and Bavarian. Allemannisch is another name for Swiss German—Schwyzerdütsch—and is known as Alsatian in France.

Grammar and word formation

German grammar is extremely methodical and employs a strict word order to minimize syntactical ambiguities. German is a vigorous compounder when a new word is needed. English, being a Germanic language, employs the same technique albeit in a more restrained manner, but frequently compounds with latinate words where German would not. For example, English will combine the latinate morphemes for "far" and "speak" to make "telephone," or "far" and "see" to make "television"; German will take the German morphemes and make "Fernsprecher" and "Fernsehen." German compounding can become quite cumbersome—consider Hinterbliebenenlebensversicherungsgesellschaftskrise, a word for the crisis affecting life insurance companies that aid the widows and orphans of deceased captains.

Numbers also appear very unwieldy to the English eye. For example, because German writes numbers up to one million as one word, 999,999 is written out as Neunhundertneunundneunzigtausendneunhundertneunundneunzig.

Some would claim that the orderly nature of German grammar, in which the verb is delayed until the end of the sentence, requires the thinker to compose in larger and more complex syntactical units than in English and that this leads to a more developed capability for abstract thought, which is evidenced in the fact that much of the world's most abstract philosophy is written in German. (Of course, English is also capable of cumbersome syntax.) Some would counter that German merely lends itself to obscurity. Amongst them is Mark Twain, who wrote a famous essay about the German language.

Current issues

The German language is in the midst of an orthographic reform (Rechtschreibreform). However there is significant resistance to the program, and recently some influential media in Germany, reflecting popular opinion, have rejected its dictates. This resistance is now casting doubts upon its ultimate success.

One of the key elements of the reform concerns perhaps the most unique feature of the German alphabet: the ""—otherwise known as the "eszet" ("s-z") or "scharfes s" ("sharp S"). Unlike all other German letters, the "" exists only in lower case form. Determining the use of the "" over the "ss" is such a complex process that the Internationaler Arbeitskreis fr Orthographie (International Working Committee for Spelling) has developed new rules attempting to simplify its use. Unfortunately, the new rules are not that simple. Some of us wish that the Germans would adopt the Swiss approach and eliminate the use of the sharp S entirely, but most Germans and Austrians do not feel this way.

The Rechtschreibreform began August 1, 1998. The transitional period during which both old and new spelling are acceptable will last until July 31, 2005. After that, the new spelling should be used. For more information on the words that will be affected by the orthographic reform, please look here.

We are currently following the dictates of the Rechtschreibreform, but will continue to monitor the level of resistance to determine whether that is the most appropriate policy.

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