Five things that bug me about German

If you’ve ever tried to learn German, you know that it has some peculiar features. Some of these don’t bother me that much, like piled-up consonant clusters, umlauts, and irregular verbs, but others make me want to tear my hairs out. Here are five of the things that I could definitely do without, auf Deutsch.

The dative case: As you may know, German nouns, articles, pronouns and adjectives morph into various forms according to how they fall into grammatical structures called “cases.” With the accusative case, there is a sensible reason for the changes (direct object), and minimal changes involved. The genitive case (for possessives) is also not that complicated, and can be avoided if necessary. I could live with these without undue stress.

But the dative! Messy and complicated it is, with more changes than any other case, sometimes taking over prepositions that otherwise belong to the accusative, and attaching itself to random verbs for no apparent reason. If there were one thing I could toss out from the German language (along with the sixteen ways of saying “the”), this would be it.

Prepositions: Besides their involvement in the case problem, prepositions in German have slightly different meanings or are used in slightly different ways than their English soundalikes, and that is very confusing. Plus, their habit of attaching themselves to the front end of verbs but then detaching and leaping to the end of the sentence is very irritating. (In English we have many similar “phrasal verbs,” which are challenging for learners, but at least the preposition doesn’t jump around so wildly.)

Capitalizing nouns: This obviates a useful method of distinguishing between proper and common nouns. Plus, it introduces so many extra keystrokes when typing. And it makes everything look like it’s being written in a high eighteenth century Style, with Emphasis on Words of Importance. I have a hard time taking this convention seriously.

The letter ß: If this letter represented a different sound than double s, or was ALWAYS used to replace that combo, it would make more sense to me. But no, it’s just another set of rules to learn and another keystroke to add on a non-German keyboard. I’m pleased the Swiss are sensible enough to not bother with this letter, at least.

Anglicisms: You might think these would be welcome as they mean fewer words to learn, but they so often seem so ugly and awkward, like vulgar American interlopers in a German-speaking environment. It also becomes tempting to create more in this vein by just adding “-en” and “-lich” to English words, a thing my husband enjoys doing to tease me, thus leaving me unsure of which are legitimate neologisms and which are nonsensical inventions.

What features of language — your own, or one you’re learning — would you gladly do without? Or do you take everything in stride?

Books I hope to read someday…

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20 thoughts on “Five things that bug me about German

  1. I shall speak briefly of Welsh, of which I had two years of learning under three different tutors and can’t say I’ve got much further than picking out the odd word in a text or spoken phrase, making a decent stab at pronouncing, and understanding basic signs and place-names.

    Mutation is the big bugbear for most English-speakers, though most don’t recognise that it happens occasionally in English, as with vowels in plural forms (foot, goose, louse, man, mouse, tooth), in verbs (seek / sought,
    think / thought, teach/ taught), though less so where initial consonants are concerned, the case in Welsh. It’s a question of practice, and I don’t practise that much.

    I also trip up occasionally with Welsh ‘f’, pronounced ‘v’, especially as German ‘v’ is spoken ‘f’. Some Welsh beginners grumble about remembering the difference between Welsh ‘f’ and ‘ff’, forgetting that English has the same way of distinguishing the two sounds in ‘of’ and ‘off’.

    But the main difficulties I have with Welsh is (a) not learning it when young, the best time to get acquainted with new languages, and (b) being very lazy and not taking opportunities to siarad Cymreig when living in a Welsh-speaking community; living now on the Welsh side of the border there is less pressure because English remains the lingua franca here…

    1. English pronunciation and its correlation with spelling is completely nuts, so we have not much to feel superior about in that regard.

      And necessity is certainly the mother of learning when it comes to language. I may have to write a post about that sometime.

  2. For Norwegian a major difficulty is that there are two official ways to write it and some official documents needs to be written in both forms. In practise it means that I write them in my best Swedish-Norwegian and my colleagues then have to make two different translations of them. As I read texts in both forms I also mix them up.

  3. Danish used to use capital Letters in the same Way that German did, and then they got rid of so many that half the proper Nouns *don’t* have capitals. But on the whole Danish has little to complain about, except the pronunciation — everything is far back in the throat and I swear there are more vowels than consonants. Someday I sure would like to be able to pronounce the word vrøvl,but that will probably have to wait for the Resurrection.

    Oh, the numbers are fiendish. And articles are kind of fun, since indefinite articles (en/et) stand alone, but definite articles stick to the ends of words. Et hus, a house. Huset, the house. Husene, the houses. The trouble is, I can never remember definite plurals. Is it husene or huserne? I had to look it up.

    1. Goodness, that is a confusing way to deal with articles. I shall not complain so much about der/die/das/den/dem/des etc. At least they stay put.

      1. The moving articles are a thing in Swedish and Norwegian too (don’t know about Icelandic). On the other hand it makes reading challenges such as “read a book with a one-world title” so much easier. E.g. Undset’s The Wreath is just Kransen in original.

        In Norway I’ve been told that Danish is Norwegian but they can’t speak (when written the languages are very similar but the pronunciation is not), while Swedish is Norwegian but we can’t spell (spelling is more different between Swedish and Norwegian but the pronunciation is similar).

        1. Ha! I can read Norwegian but I can’t really understand it well, and Swedish is mostly just a little bit too difficult, but I can read it OK if I try. Danish really is pretty odd with not pronouncing half the consonants. I saw a very funny Danish video once about how the entire language has been collapsing for years and everybody just pretends to understand each other.

          1. I think I know the video you mean, it is great! I have been in Denmark enough to understand most of what they say but I have no chance of pronouncing anything in Danish, I suspect that when I try I swallow the wrong half of the words 🙂

            1. Danish not pronouncing half the consonants sounds not that unlike English… at least in German it’s completely easy to translate spelling into pronunciation. I’m getting more reconciled to this language by the day.

  4. Remembering my German years, i thought your post was so funny. If you haven’t yet, you need to read Mark Twain’s essay on the Awful German Language. Hilarious! I think it’s in there he speaks about a work he had in German. it was in 2 volumes, because all the verbs were in the 2nd volume, lol.

  5. Learning German isn’t so bad. I studied it for 11 years. You want a tougher one with more cases? Try Russian or Polish! And with Russian you get to learn a whole new alphabet! Although when writing in Russian, my writing seemed neater and not so sloppy.

    1. You’re right, what am I complaining about? Russian and Polish sound really hard. I will never understand the need for so many cases, except to make languages difficult for non-native speakers. I would like to try to learn a language with a non-Latin script at some point, though.

      1. Well you can do like the vlogger Bald and Bankrupt did after attempting to study Russian grammar in university. He gave up on grammar, just learned vocabulary and now he travels all over the former Soviet Union speaking his version of Russian. Everyone understands him. If you weren’t a native speaker and heard him speaking Russian, you would swear he is totally fluent. He can only read printed Russian though. He can’t read written script, which in my opinion is easier to read.

        1. How interesting, and what an intrepid and brave person he must be. It’s true that grammar is often not necessary for understanding (which brings up the question of why we need it at all, maybe a topic for a future post.)

  6. I hear you. As a native speaker of German, I don’t see some of the problems the same way you do though I also had to learn the rules as a child. However, at least we have rules. I cannot tell you the amount of times I stood in front of a new word in English and had no idea how to pronounce it. Or an English speaker would tell me, your sentence doesn*t sound right but I can*t tell you why …

    Anyway, it is wrong that the ß is not a different letter to a double s. If you say Masse (short a), you mean mass, if you say Maße (long a), it means measure, so there is a reason for the letter.

    As to the Dativ, have you heard that there are languages who have more than 10 cases, Hungarian has 18.

    Having said that, it is probably easier for English speakers to learn German than it is for speakers of many other languages.

    I learned English, French and Latin at school. While I found French very hard because of all the grammar, I later considered it a lot easier than English just because of all the rules I could rely on. You will get there one day, I’m sure.

    1. Thank you for correcting me about the letter ß, that is good to know! I’m still confused about some uses, e.g. “Preußler” — does the “eu” sound change? Or is it considered a “long” sound and always followed by ß?

      It’s true that German is at least consistent with its rules, and English spelling/pronunciation is anything but consistent. I can appreciate what a headache it is for non-native speakers. (My husband says that’s the most difficult thing about the language for him.)

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