German is an exacting Language

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Ragging on the German language is hip. Though it has been hip for several hundred years (looking at you Mark Twain). It is not lyrical or even friendly in its tone and can come off very harsh almost rude. Many of the linguistic constructs seem to make little to no sense, especially to English speakers.

And yet like climbing a mountain, it can be pretty awesome to master. You are worried of falling off the edge of every sentence, but if you have braved death to surmount the language-as-a-throat-condition it is a wonderful feeling. Plant the flag which is the verb at the end of the achievement and smile.

“Ganz Genau”

It is indeed very difficult to get perfect. The language also brings with it the idea that it should be exact and perfect. The paradox is kind of baked into German.

The word “genau” means “exact,” and yet is often just the concept of “correct”. If you are at a bakery and ask for something, the lady points at a specific thing with a questioning look and the answer is “genau.” Correctness is associated with exactness.

On the other side, it is very very difficult to get precisely correct. There are 3 genders, 4 cases, a double fistful of prepositions and a grammar that feels like riding a roller coaster.

Fluency and Energy

I am fluent. Well as fluent as I am going to get. I work in German and give work advice/talks and have a psychologist. Though after a few days of lack of sleep I still have issues.I had a four hour meeting in pure German a while back with only a few faux pas and I didn’t go screaming into the darkness. It was more of a slow whine.

And yet German exacts a toll on its users. There is a lot of mental energy for non-germans. This is part of what makes being an expat in Germany difficult.
For Latinate natives, it requires memory and patience. To hold onto the verb until the end.
For English speakers, you need even just the general idea of genders.


Yet Germans know all of this. For a linguistic society steeped in “genau,” they seem very aware that the language is very difficult. It is very common to hear my German friends talk about not wanting to have to learn German if they didn’t grow up in it. The biggest problem is the gender, for which even after years, I have only a bare feeling. There are 3 genders and very few rules, so while I know a lot of them, even more just don’t stick.

The solution? Pick your favorite and just use that one.
The German reaction? They definitely notice, but most don’t care. There are a few words that the German society doesn’t even agree what gender it should have. Butter, if you believe it, is feminine in parts of the country and masculine elsewhere.

In the end, it is an exacting language, but the one sure way through is to ignore that part of it and just go. Blithely speak and make mistakes. In the end, if you completely break down most Germans speak decent English as well. Definitely don’t let not understanding the language stop you from visiting to even settling in Germany.

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This post has been inspired by a hilarious set of fiction diary entries of a German speaker here.

12 thoughts on “German is an exacting Language

  1. I studied German all through secondary school (left 8 years ago) and when in Berlin in September I was pleased that I could still have some nice conversations with locals.

    I am currently learning Persian so THAT it a completely different ball game.

  2. German certainly seems intimidating to learn, and it’s usefulness in other areas of the world is low. But to learn this language would certainly be an accomplishment!

  3. Hallo Andrew, it’s interesting to hear your opinion on German, especially because I got to experience the opposite while living for many years as an expat in the US. From a technically point of view it is probably easier to learn English, but I always thought it was quite difficult to understand the subtleties and the meaning behind that what was being said.

    For example in Germany I was used to speak my opinion freely and be exact, but in the US that was not appreciated and I was called rude on many occasions. It was actually quite strange for me to realize that everything I said, especially in an office environment, had to be sugar coated and flowery nice, instead of the bare and exact truth. But luckily people were always quite forgiving with non-native speakers… : )

    On the other hand what is really killing me when I have to write German again, are the capitalizations and the seemingly endless words… Sorry about the articles, they are just what they are and don’t follow any obvious logic. But where did you hear “der Butter”? I have never heard that one before…

    • Hi Dennis,
      German takes a long while before you can actually communicate. The flipped word order causes a lot of headaches for the latinate/english brain. English seems to have a shallower learning curve whereas German has a big wall up front. The depth of meaning is in a different spot in the language. I have always heard that German implies meaning based on word choice. English, especially the Americans I think, adds a lot of meaning to how a word is said.

      The directness thing is odd for me even now. When someone asks me if a project is done, my natural reaction is to say “if nothing else changes it should be.” This is taken as a yes in the US, while the Germans feel uncertain with the answer. To actually set down an opinion in America leaves you open for blame and consequences, so much is said with an “out”. To be pinned down in German feels constraining. What I have learned is that though they want a concrete answer, the Germans I have worked for understand that things change and are ok with changing one’s mind later, as long as it is still presented directly. It is a big thing to get used to.

      I like the capitalization in German. It has seeped into my English. I don’t know where i heard the Butter thing.

      • Hey Andrew,
        It’s good to know that the capitalization is no problem for you. Still, for me the long words and seemingly endless sentences are quite a challenge when visiting Germany. It’s quite funny sometimes how you can get used to one thing or another…

        Interesting to hear that the directness can feel constraining. Growing up with it, not getting a solid answer in the US always made me feel like hanging in the air. But on the other hand it can also be nice not having to commit to something. I think I might have taken advantage of that sometimes… 🙂

        How are you dealing with the Sie and Du? At first in the US it seemed really strange to me that I can call my boss by his first name and actually everyone else too, even the clients. And now when I have to write an email in German, I really have to watch out not to be too casual with the way how I address the other person…

        The flipped word order is obviously the same problem the other way round as well, but besides that, you are probably right and German does come with a wall that takes a while to be climbed. But overall don’t you think it’s quite amazing to live in another culture and language? So many doors are opened all of a sudden to the culture, once you start understanding the language… 🙂

        • I have absorbed a lot of the German into my english. I am writing fiction (in English) and notice how certain sentences seem fine when I write them, but when I read them they just scream German. Not the word order, but some of the ways adjectives float about.

          The Sie and Du is odd. I certainly can do the Sie forms, but I find them tedious for many reasons. I hate the feeling of distance between me and whoever I am talking to. I have a banker that I get along with very well and it is odd to still call him Mr S and all the formal things. Besides that the Sie forms seem vague. Sie is for you formal both singular and plural and she. I have a hard time sometimes in a conversation to keep things apart. Overall, I still carry the non-German idea that first names are how you talk to people. Last names are for forms.

          I do like being able to speak the language. I haven’t really experienced Germany without it though. My first trip I had already taken several years of the language. I wasn’t good at it, but I could do a tiny bit. I certainly have traveled where I don’t speak the language and notice it there.

  4. I’ve been learning German and it’s been pretty hard. Picked up Spanish and French easily. German, though, makes me frustrated. =/

    • German can be a pain. I found French really frustrating, but quite liked Italian. The best tip about German is to just no worry so much about all the articles and just get into practicing with flipping verbs about.

  5. Ahh, the German language! I am not fluent, but I did study it in university for 4 years and it was mentally draining. The different cases and endings drove me nuts, but I still think it’s one of the most beautiful languages in the world.

    • And yet there are languages that are more complex. Apparently Russian has 6 cases and all of the gender is encoded into the endings of each word.
      German can be beautiful true, but in a different way than the romance languages. There is a beauty in packign a lot of meaning into a few words (even if certain words extend across the page).

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