While learning German is obviously not required for German genealogy research, it often helps to have at least a bit of understanding of the language when looking for your ancestors. In addition to being able to recognize the most important genealogy words in German records, knowing a little about how the German language works can help you to narrow down what documents you think are important for your genealogy research. Below, I have summarized some of the most basic facts about the German language, in the hopes that this may give you a bit of a leg up when looking at your German documents.
1. All nouns are capitalized.
In the German language, all nouns (persons, places and things) are capitalized, no matter if it is a “proper noun” or not. For example, the word birth (Geburt) is capitalized in German, as is the word child (Kind). So if you see a capital letter, you now know that it does not necessarily mean that the word is a name – it’s likely just a noun.
The word Geburt (birth) is written with a capital “G”.
2. German has many different words for the word the.
Crazy, right? Depending if the word is the subject (Nom), direct object (Akk), indirect object (Dat), or possessive (Gen)*, the German word for the changes. No need to worry about what these grammatical terms mean for this article (unless you are a grammar nerd like myself – in that case, see below), but if you see any of the words above, you will know they all mean the.
3. Lowercase words starting with ge- are likely past tense words.
The German past tense is formed with either haben/sein (to have or to be – see how they conjugate below) + the past tense of the verb, which is usually formed with ge-. For example, the German word for to eat is essen. To say I ate, you would say Ich habe gegessen. The German word for to drive is fahren. To say I drove, you would say Ich bin gefahren.
Some verbs use a “t” form in their past tense instead of the “-en” ending. For instance, the word for to play is spielen in German, with the past tense (I played) written as Ich habe gespielt. While getting into all the rules of the past tense here would take a bit too long, the important idea to take away is that if you see haben or sein plus ge-verb, the sentence is likely in past tense.
4. Umlauts can also be written out with an “e” after the vowel.
Most German writers do use the umlaut (ä, ö or ü), but in some texts, you will see this sound written as ae, oe and ue instead. In genealogy, this is especially relevant for the spelling of certain last names. For instance, the last name Mueller is spelled M-u-e-l-l-e-r in America, but our German ancestors spelled it M-ü-l-l-e-r. The ü changed to a ue in English spelling.
5. German loves compound words.
The German language consists of many compound words, or two words combined together to form one. How does this help you? Well, if you come across a word and can’t find it in your dictionary, try looking up the two parts of the word individually. This should then help you to form a better idea of what the author could have meant.
Some fun examples of German compound words include:
6. Sometimes the verb is written at the very end of the sentence.
While many German sentences do use Subject-Verb-Object word order (just like we do in English: “I ate the burger”, in which the verb, ate, comes right after the subject, I), sometimes German puts the verb at the very end of a sentence or phrase. Why would they do such a crazy thing, you ask? Well, if the sentence includes a certain type of word (a subordinating conjunction*, to be exact), such as weil (because), dass (that), ob (whether), während (during), etc., this is a signal for the verb to move to the end of a sentence, as it cannot be directly after the subject when one of these words are present. So if you don’t see the verb after the subject, keep reading, and it may be the very last word in the sentence. See this article on German word order for more information: https://www.fluentu.com/blog/german/learn-german-word-order/.
Mark Twain explains this crazy grammar best in his article “The Awful German Language“:
“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man’s signature — not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head — so as to reverse the construction — but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.”
You can see what Mark Twain means in this newspaper article I had the pleasure of translating below. The subject of the sentence, Termin (appointment), is in the second line, while the verb festgesetzt (was set) doesn’t appear until 9 lines later! So if you can’t find the verb in your document, don’t give up – just read on for a few more hours and it may eventually appear.
While there are of course many more intricacies to the German language, it is my hope that these basic tips will give you a bit more of an idea of how German works. The German language is at times fascinating, at times entertaining, and yes, as Mark Twain put it, at times awful – but overall, it is a great language to know, especially if you’re researching your German genealogy. Until next time, auf Wiedersehen (which happens to be another great compound word: wieder means again, sehen means to see)!
Image Credit: www.itchyfeetcomic.com
* Cases in German, explained with English examples:
Example Sentence: The girl threw me the ball.
Nominative case is the subject, which answers the question “who is doing the action?”.
Who threw the ball? The girl. Girl is therefore the subject of the sentence.
Accusative case is the direct object, which answers the question “who or what after the verb?”. The girl threw what? The ball. Ball is therefore the direct object of the sentence and in the accusative case.
Dative case is the indirect object, which answers the question “to whom or for whom after the verb?”.
The girl threw the ball to whom? To me. Me is therefore the indirect object of the sentence and in the dative case.
Genitive case in German is the possessive case, expressed as “The sister of my father….”
Of my father would be in the genitive case in German.
*Subordinating conjunction: http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/parts-of-speech/conjunctions/subordinating-conjunctions.html
In America, many of our everyday expressions revolve around baseball. “Can you give me a ballpark figure?” “Wow, Laura really struck out with that guy” or “Ryan hit that one out of the park!” are phrases that can be heard from the office to a teenage slumber party. As America’s favorite past time, it makes sense that the sport’s vocabulary is seen in our speech. But baseball isn’t very popular in the German-speaking world. Which leads to the question…what do the Germans love as much as we Americans love baseball?
Sausage. They love sausage.
Sausage, or “Wurst” as it’s known in German, is such a part of the culture in Germany and Austria that the food has found it’s way through to many phrases and idioms. How many different ways can you possibly use the word sausage, you ask? Take a look at the German sausage sayings below to find out…
- “Es ist mir wurst” – “It’s sausage to me”: In German, something is sausage to you if you just don’t care. While we use the phrase “It doesn’t matter to me” in English, the Germans like to use the word sausage as often as possible. And if you want to really sound like a local, shorten it to “Mir wurst” (To me, sausage.) “What do you want to do Friday night, Hans?” “To me, sausage, but thanks for asking”.
- “Jetzt geht’s um die Wurst!” – “Now it’s about the sausage!”: What’s about the sausage, you ask? An important moment. This phrase is used during a race, a game, a big presentation, etc., to emphasize that this is the time where one wins or loses, succeeds or fails. The final game of the Stanley Cup, for instance, is “about the sausage.” Obviously. .
3. “sich durchwursteln” – “to sausage yourself through”: If that sounds a little uncomfortable, don’t worry. “To sausage yourself through” simply means “to get through something, to scrape by”. So next time your best friend is stressed out, give her a little pat on the shoulder and tell her all she has to do is sausage herself through. She’ll make it in the end.
4. “Spiel nicht die beleidigte Leberwurst” – “Don’t act like an insulted liverwurst!”: Really, you don’t want to do that. To act like an insulted liverwurst means “to sulk or to pout”. So cheer up, little liverwurst, nobody likes a sulking sausage.
5. “Verwurstelt” – “All sausaged up”: What could this mean, you wonder? Well, “tangled up,” of course. In my German-speaking household, my Austrian husband often gets a little miffed (there should be a sausage expression for that one) if I forget to turn both my shirt sleeves right-side out before putting the clothes in the washer. A common saying when hanging up wet clothes in our house is “Ah, these shirts are all verwurstelt! Why do you do this? Why?” A sausaged-up T-shirt apparently does not fit with the German concept of order and organization.
6. “Jemandem eine Extrawurst braten” – “To fry someone an extra sausage”: If you fry someone an extra sausage, you are giving them special treatment. Everyone else only got one sausage. Why did she get two? So, if you are an “Extrawurst” yourself, you are someone who expects to be treated better or to get more of something. The Austrians, at least, make this sound a little bit cuter, adding in a nice “l” at the end and calling those divas “Extrawurstl” (“little extra sausage”).
7. “Armes Würstchen” – “Poor little sausage”: Exactly what it sounds like. Being called a “poor little sausage” could mean that the speaker feels sorry for you, but more often than not it means you’re complaining too much. Picture it in a sarcastic, fake-sweet voice “Aw, you poor little sausage!” Just make sure not to act like an insulted liverwurst if it happens.
8. “sich die Wurst vom Brot nehmen lassen” -“To let someone take the sausage from your bread”: The horror! Then you really would be a poor little sausage. “To let someone take the sausage from your bread” means to be taken advantage of. So, stand up for yourself, guard your sausage and you will be sure to sausage through.
9. “herumwursteln” – “to sausage around”: In America, we fiddle around or tinker about, but in this meat-loving language, they sausage around. Why not?
10. “Es hat alles ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei” – “Everything has an end; only a sausage has two (ends)”: A good sausage to end on. Thank you, logical Germans. They kindly (and, of course, rationally) let us know that everything will come to end, but the sausage never will. Long live the sausage!
*For more information about translating your German tourism/travel texts, and for additional cultural and language posts, check out my sister site: SK Translations: Travel and Tourism.*
“That was one of the most senseful lessons we’ve ever had, thank you!”
Despite my student’s Denglisch use of the word “senseful” (coming from “sinnvoll”), this compliment after one of my English lessons in Austria meant a great deal to me. What was the lesson? Well, after three years of hearing German-speaking students and teachers alike making the same mistakes in English over and over again, I decided to spend an hour letting them know what these common mistakes were, as well as the correct way to say the phrase in English. Below, I’ve summarized some of these (sometimes rather funny) mistakes for you, in hopes that they will help you in your English teaching or English speaking endeavors, or simply provide you with a little chuckle if you are neither an English teacher nor an English student. And if you would like English or German lessons of your own, don’t hesitate to contact me here.
1. “I drove with the bus.” (or with the bike, the train, etc.). In German, you would say “Ich bin mit dem Bus gefahren” which literally translates to “I drove with the bus.” However, in English, if you drive with the bus, it sounds like you are driving your car and the bus is sitting in your passenger seat, perhaps ever so kindly helping you to find your destination. The correct English translation for this phrase is “I took the bus.” If you “drove with the train”, it becomes “I took the train” whereas if you “drove with your bike”, we say “I ride my bike.”
2. “I’ll eat the menu.” If you say this in America or England, you may get some strange looks from your fellow diners, as wanting to eat the cardboard or plastic list of food available (Speisekarte) is rather strange in our countries. Confused? In English, the menu is not the cheaper option of the day, as Menü is in German. While it may not always be cheaper in America, the word for food that is only there for that day is the special.
3. “We made a party on Friday.” Even though the German is “Party machen” , in English, the literal translation “to make a party” sounds like you built a party out of paper and glue. The correct English phrase is “to have a party.”
4. “She’s going to get a baby in January.” I think this is my favorite mistake of all. Even though the German literally translates to the above phrase (Sie bekommt im Januar ein Kind), if you say “getting a baby” in English, it sounds like you are going to go to the store, find a nice baby sitting on the shelf, and buy it (after checking out all the available babies, of course). Therefore, if you don’t want to sound like you’re in the baby-buying business, use the English phrase “She is going to have a baby.” (Getting a baby can be used in cases of adoption, however.)
5. “I have to do my homework until Monday.” This mistake is made by foreign English teachers and students alike. As you don’t differentiate between the words “until” and “by” in German (both translated with the word “bis”), this is a very common mistake. What’s the difference in English? “By” is used when you are talking about a deadline (I have to do my homework by Monday) and “until” means that you start doing something now and don’t stop until that point (If today is Thursday, I have to do my homework until Monday – meaning five days of doing homework non-stop!). Not the most fun way to spend a weekend.
6. “I started playing tennis with ten years.” Here, it sounds like “ten years” is the name of a nice little friend of yours, although “Ten Years” would be a rather strange name for both an American and a German. Even though you use the phrase “mit zehn Jahren” in German, in English we say “when I was ten.”7. “I have studied English since seven years.” What’s wrong with this phrase? Present perfect tense is error-free, so you should be good to go, right? Almost, but not quite. Here, the good old word “since” is giving you away as a non-native speaker. Even though you always use “seit” in German, there are two translations for this word in English (as you can see, with two words for “bis” and two words for “seit”, it’s no wonder English has almost 40,000 more words than German)*. “For” is used when you are talking about a period/length of time (for seven years), while “since” is used with a specific point of time in the past (I have studied English since 2007. I have been in Germany since Monday).
8. “I had dinner at my aunt’s house and I became a piece of cake.” In English, you do not want to simply become a piece of cake while eating a nice meal with your family. This would likely disturb the evening your aunt had planned. The English phrase “to become a piece of cake” does not mean that you received (bekommen) a piece of cake, but rather that you turned into one (du bist ein Stück Kuchen geworden!). Not the most ideal situation if you are sitting with your loved ones and all the sudden they want to eat you. Here, English speakers would say “I got/received a piece of cake.”
9. “I learned for my test.” What’s wrong with this phrase? In German, you would say “Ich habe für die Prüfung gelernt.” But in English, you can’t say “learn here” – you need to say “study”. “Learn” is used when you receive new information (I learned that Americans celebrate Christmas on December 25. I learned that London is the capital of England), while “study” is when you prepare for a test or a quiz.
10. “I sink we are going to play the wiolin.” Last but not least, pronunciation is key in English. However, it can be quite tricky for those who didn’t grow up speaking the language themselves. The two hardest sounds for German-speakers seem to be “th” and “v” vs. “w”. As you can see from this video, “th” pronunciation is important – after all, you don’t want your friends to drown! A good trick to saying the “th” is making sure your tongue is sticking out of your mouth, all the way between your teeth. Don’t be shy, stick that tongue out! For more practice, check out this site. As for the “v” vs. “w”, this is another very important sound distinction in the English language. English speakers may find it funny if you say “I live in a small willage” instead of “I l live in a small village.” What’s the difference? The “v” is the sound you have in German, pronounced in “Wasser”, “Wien”, etc. For this sound, your teeth actually touch your top lip, making a vibrating sound come out of your mouth. With the English “w”, on the other hand”, the teeth do not ever touch the lips. Here is a great video explaining the difference between the two sounds.
And there you have it! Next time you speak English, if you don’t want to eat a menu or become a piece of cake, pay attention to these common mistakes and you will be well on your way to perfecting your English. And if you would like my help with your English or German language goals, write me an e-mail here – I’d love to work with you.
*Based on the number of words in the dictionary.
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