If there’s one thing German can do, it’s spelling. Even before the spelling reform of 1998, German spelling was always fairly straightforward. Once you have mastered a few simple rules, German is not that difficult.
However, just because the rules are fairly straightforward doesn’t mean that there aren’t any pitfalls for someone learning German for the first time. For example, sometimes there are two different ways to spell the same sound, or else the words are close enough to English that you might be tempted to spell them like English, too.
These fall under the general term of “cognates” – word that look similar to English because the have a similar stem or origin. However, some words may look like English, but mean something completely different. These are called kissing cognates – like kissing cousins, they are not related closely enough to mean the same thing.
In this age of instant messaging, Tinder and Facebook, many an English professor has lamented the death of the capitalised “I”. And so it is in German, where the impatient youths write their tweets and WhatsApp messages in lower case. That doesn’t mean it’s correct.
Remember, in German Lessons, all nouns are capitalised, not just proper nouns such as the names of places, countries and people. Adjectives, though, are never capitalised, even when they designate a language or ethnicity.
Names and titles have the first word capitalised, but otherwise follow the rules of grammar, so that a noun in a title is capitalised but an adjective is not: “Die unendliche Geschichte” (The Neverending Story) by Michael Ende, for example, or “Der englische Patient” (the film The English Patient).
In formal usage, you should capitalise the honorific “Sie” – if nothing else, it helps keep it distinct from the third person plural “sie”. Strictly speaking, you should capitalise “Du” in writing even when addressing a friend, but this level of formality has become very rare.
This baby guinea pig is “niedlich” – but you can also say “goldig” and have to end in “-ig”. Photo via Visualhunt.com
Many adjectives and some adverbs in German end in “-ich” – “niedlich”, “kleinlich”, “grünlich” (cute, niggling, greenish); or “endlich”, (finally).
Others end in -ig: “kurzweilig”, “merkwürdig”, (entertaining, weird); or “eilig” (hasty).
Endings in -lich or -ig are pronounced the same (the same “ch” sound as in “ich” or “frech”) and often correspond to the English endings -y, -ly or -ally (or, sometimes, -ish): “wahsinnig” = crazy, “deutlich” = clearly, “endlich” = finally.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no easy way to tell which one is right. If it doesn’t have an “l” – “merkwürdig” (weird) for example – it definitely ends in -ig, but some with an “l” take a “g”, such as “eilig” (hasty).
All adjectives based on a colour end in “-lich” – grünlich, rötlich, gelblich.
Another group of adjectives ends in -isch: “englisch”, “magisch”, “fantastisch”, “frisch”.
If you are familiar with the words’ pronunciation, this one, at least, is easy to tell apart from the others. -ich and -ig are pronounced the same , whereas -isch is pronounce “eesh”.
The ending in -isch often comes where English uses -ic or -ical: “magisch” – magical; “fantastisch” – fantastical; “konisch” – conical.
Greulich? Gräulich? Both are correct, and both sound the same when speaking German out loud, but they mean different things. “Greulich” comes from “greulen”, whereas “gräulich comes from “grau”, grey.
When the colour adjective is re-adjectivised, so to speak, it gets an Umlaut: blau – bläulich (blue-blueish), rot-rötlich (red – reddish).
This is also true for other adjectives: dumm – dümmlich (not to be confused with dämlich, which is usually used to curse – “diese dämliche deutsche Sprache!” You can say that someone is dümmlich – a little simple – but calling him “dieser dämliche Mensch” means you’re angry with him.)
“Äu” is generally used when, for some reason, an Umlaut is added to a word with “au”. This can be an adjective as in the examples above, or when forming plurals (Haus-Häuser) or when an adjective or a noun with “au” is made into a verb: Raub-räubern (theft-to rob); sauber – säubern (clean-to clean). In most other cases, the sound “oy” is written “eu”.
One of the most common spelling mistakes, not only for those learning German but for those who grew up in it, doesn’t concern actual German vocabulary but a last name. The name “Meier” is as common in German as “Smith” is in English and also designates a craft: the “Meier” is the maker of milk products: cream, cheese, butter.
The German surname “Meier” comes from the cheesemaking industry and can be spelled many different ways. Photo via Visualhunt.com
Regional variants were introduced long before German spelling was codified, and so you will find: “Meier”, “Meir”, “Maier”, “Mair”, “Meyer”, “Mayer”, “Mayr” and “Meyr”. Not to mention that the word can be part of a longer name, such as “Humplmayr”.
So if a colleague, friend or client tells you their name is “Meier”, don’t forget to ask: “Bitte buchstabieren Sie das für mich.” (Please spell it out for me.) Or, if you are in a slightly less formal context: “Welche Art von Meier sind Sie?” (What kind of Meier are you?)
Academic subjects end in “-ie” in German. Photo via Visualhunt.com
An English speaker learning German might be tempted by the beautiful similarity between the names for the various academic subjects to write them as he would in English, with their -y endings.
However, in German -y is pronounced like “ü”, therefore academic subjects end in -ie, making it: die Geographie, die Archäologie, die Philosophie (you will note that the -ie ending is feminine.)
Hacken or Haken? Lack? Lakei? Poker? Locker? When do you use a simple “k” and when do you use “ck”?
When learning to speak German, there is usually not that much emphasis put on pronunciation and, even more importantly, listening properly. Why is it important? Because the way words are pronounced helps you know how they are written – and vice-versa.
The general rule is: if a vowel is followed by a vowel+consonant combination, it is longer than when two consonants come after it.
A hook to hang clothes on is a “Haken” – with only a “k” since the “a” sound is long. Photo credit: pixieclaire001 via Visualhunt.com
Now you only need to remember which word is which.
Strictly speaking, the same is true for “s” versus “ss” – or “ß” (Eszett). “S” and “ß” follow a long vowel, while “ss” follows a short:
“Hase”, hare, and “Straße”, street, but “Hass”, hate.
Careful, though. The upper-case Eszett was only introduced this year (2017), so most fonts will not have it. When writing only in upper-case, it is usual to replace it with “ss” – but with most fonts you can get away with using a lower-case Eszett instead.
However, here is another tip for helping you along: a single “s” is generally pronounced almost like an English “z”,0 unless it is at the beginning of a word and followed by “p” or “t”, in which case it is pronounced “sh” (”Spiel”, game, for example, or “Stuhl”, chair).
The usual spelling for the “sh” sound in the German language is “sch” and should be used in all other cases (”Schule”, school or “Mensch”, person).
The German Language has two letters for the sound “f” – “f” and “v”.
It is helpful to remember that the sound “nf” is always written with “f” (”Senf”, mustard, or “Auskunft”, information), as is the sound “pf” (”Kopf”, head; “Pferd”, horse).
The only German words beginning with “fer-” are “Fernseher” and its verb “fernsehen” (television, to watch television), fern (far), fertig (finished), Ferkel (piglet) and Ferse (heel); all other words begin with “ver”, such as “Vernunft”,reason (see what I did there?). “Vor” is never written with “f”. All words ending in the sound “-eef” are written “iv”.
Here is a German site with a few examples.
Generally, words with a “ph” in them come from the Greek, and the “ph” transcribes the letter Phi, which has no equivalent in the Latin alphabet. With the spelling reform of 1998, many foreign words were “eingedeutscht”, that is, their spelling was changed to reflect German spelling rules. Thus, Photograph became Fotograf (photographer), Delphin became Delfin (dolphin) and Telephon became Telefon – so do their derivatives (fotografieren, telefonieren, etc.)
Words containing the elements “graph”, “phon” or “phot” could be written either way; other words with “ph” such as “Katastrophe” or “Philosophie” retain their “ph”.
For all the rest – this is one case in German spelling where you really just have to learn it by heart.
As if it wasn’t enough that “c” and “z” are both pronounced “ts”, “z” doesn’t often like to hang out alone unless it’s at the beginning of the word. Very often, it invites its friend “t” along for the ride. Usually, the “z” comes after the “t”: Katze (cat), Kitz (fox cub), ätzen (corrode, etch), putzen (clean).
But I, personally, can never remember how to spell the word “doctor”. I even just looked it up just for you: “der Arzt”. See what happened here? The “Z” is suddenly BEFORE the “t”.
In the German word for doctor, “Arzt”, the “z” comes before the “t”.
And “Letzter”, last, sandwiches the “z” between two “t”s – something that can also happen when you conjugate verbs with “tz” – “er ätzt”, “er putzt”.
The two words “wieder” and “wider” are so commonly confused that even German native speakers don’t get it. There is even a webpage devoted to the subject: http://wiederwider.de/
So consider whether something is happening again or against something else, and you will know whether to write “wieder” or “wider”.