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German and Swedish: Language Similarities and Differences

Swedish and German are both Germanic languages. More precisely, linguists classify Swedish as a North Germanic language, and German as a West Germanic language.

Because of their common origin, Swedish and German share a number of interesting similarities which we will point out. Each of these languages also has some differences which make it unique.

German and Swedish: similarities and differences in vocabulary

Here is a list of vocabulary words that are similar in German and Swedish (and quite different from their English equivalents):

  • “language” is « Sprache » in German and « språk » in Swedish.
  • “art” is « Kunst » in German and « konst » in Swedish.
  • “work” is « Arbeit » in German and « arbete » in Swedish.
  • “power” is « Macht » in German and « makt » in Swedish.
  • “air” is « Luft » in German and « luft » in Swedish.
  • “war” is « Krieg » in German and « krig » in Swedish.
  • “force” is « Kraft » in German and « kraft » in Swedish.
  • “eye” is « Auge » in German and « öga » in Swedish.
  • “country” is « Land » in German and « land » in Swedish.
  • “game” is « Spiel » in German and « spel » in Swedish.
  • “others” is « andere » in German and « andra » in Swedish.
  • “teacher” is « Lehrer » in German and « lärare » in Swedish.
  • “bird” is « Vogel » in German and « fågel » in Swedish.

Naturally, as Swedish and German are different languages, not all their vocabulary is the same. A few examples of words that are significantly different are:

English
German
Swedish
thought
Gedanke
trodde
story
Geschichte
berättelse
fact
Tatsache
faktum
goal
Ziel
mål
growth
Wachstum
tillväxt
meat
Fleisch
kött
two
zwei
två
history
Geschichte
historia
thing
Ding
sak

By the way, if you want to learn German or Swedish online, check out this German course or this Swedish course.

German-Swedish vocabulary false friends

There are some vocabulary words that have identical (or nearly identical) spelling in German and Swedish, yet have completely different meanings.

In the context of language learning, these vocabulary words are referred to as "false friends".

  • In German, « Öl » means "oil ".
    But in Swedish « Öl » means "beer"
  • « Gift » means "poison" in German
    But in Swedish « Gift » means "married"
  • In German, « Semester » means the same thing as in English
    But in Swedish « Semester » means "vacation"
  • « Bögen » means "sheets" in German
    In Swedish, « Bögen » means "gay people"
  • « Schal » means "scarf" in German
    « Schal » means "shawl" in Swedish
  • « Kind » means "child" in German
    « Kind » means "cheek" in Swedish
  • « fast » means "almost" in German
    « fast » means "fixed" in Swedish
  • « Fahrt » means "a travel" in German
    « fart » means "speed" in Swedish
  • « Bord » means "board" in German
    « Bord » means "table" in Swedish
  • In German, « Gosse » means "gutter"
    But in Swedish, « Gosse » means "boy"
  • « Enkel » means "grandchild" in German
    « Enkel » means "easy" in Swedish
  • « ledig » means "unmarried/single" in German
    « ledig » means "free" (as in freedom) in Swedish
  • In German, « Mutter » means "mother"
    But in Swedish, « Mutter » means "screw nut"
  • « Igel » means "a hedgehog" in German
    But in Swedish, « Igel » means "a leech"
    (interestingly, the Swedish word for "hedgehog" is «igelkott» which is similar)
  • « ungefährlich » means "harmless/safe" in German
    « ungefärlig » means "approximate" in Swedish

For those who know either German or Swedish and are learning the other one, it is important to be mindful of these vocabulary false friends, so as not to be tricked by them.

Is Swedish or German easier to learn?

According to the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), Swedish is a Category I language. This category contains the languages which are the easiest for English speakers to learn.

Other languages in this category include Spanish, French, Italian, and a few others. It is estimated that it takes approximately 600-750 class hours to reach proficiency in one of those languages.

German on the other hand is a Category II language. It is estimated that languages in that category require approximately 900 class hours in order to reach proficiency.

Basically, Swedish is easier than German for English speakers to learn. In spite of that, German and Swedish are both relatively accessible languages for English speakers to learn.

In contrast, Category III languages (such as Russian) and Category IV languages (such as Chinese and Japanese) present a harder learning curve for English speakers.

Swedish and German: word order differences

Swedish and German use different sentence structures. Basically, the word order in a Swedish sentence will often differ from that of a German sentence.

A compound verb is made up of one or more words. When using compound verbs in German, the second part of the verb goes last.

  • [EN] He wants to play soccer
  • [SE] Han vill spela fotboll
  • [DE] Er will fußball spielen

In this example, the Swedish sentence has exactly the same word order as the English one: the dependent object ('soccer'/'fotboll') is at the end of the sentence. In contrast, the German sentence places the second part of the verb ('spielen') at the end.

The same pattern holds true in the following example:

  • [EN]I have to go to work
  • [SE]Jag måste till jobbet
  • [DE]Ich muss zur Arbeit gehen

Here is an example of a more complex sentence that contains a subordinate clause:

  • [EN]I know because I see it
  • [SE]Jag vet för jag ser det
  • [DE]Ich weiß es, weil ich es sehe

In this example, the Swedish sentence has exactly the same word order as the English one. This contrasts with the German sentence in which the conjugated verb ("sehe") is placed at the end of the subordinate clause.

Swedish or German: which one should I learn?

Swedish is very similar to Norwegian, in addition, Swedish is also similar to Danish. For this reason, learning Swedish gives access to these other Scandinavian languages.

Germany is one of the world's largest economies, so learning German may lead to some career opportunities.

Another advantage of becoming fluent in German is being able to read some famous philosophers in the original text: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kant, and Hegel for example.

For those interested in psychology, learning German can give access to reading Jung and Freud in the original text.

Being a West Germanic language, German is similar to Dutch, so learning German makes it relatively easier to learn Dutch later on.

For both Swedish and German, there is no shortage of native speakers to practice the language with. Still, it should be pointed out that there are roughly 10 times more native speakers of German than there are of Swedish:

  • German is the official language (or one of the official languages) in six different countries: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein. German has roughly 100 million native speakers.
  • Swedish is the official language of Sweden and is one of the official languages in Finland (the other being Finnish). Swedish has 10 million native speakers.

More on Swedish vs. German grammar

On a grammatical level, Swedish and German are similar in that nouns in those languages have a gender. But Swedish differs from German by having only 2 grammatical genders, while German has 3.

Every German noun has one of three possible grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, or neuter.

In the past, Swedish had 3 grammatical genders (just like German), but then masculine and feminine were merged into a common grammatical gender. Today in Swedish, nouns have one of two possible grammatical genders: common (utrum) and neuter (neutrum).

For listening comprehension or reading, one can get by without knowing the genders of nouns. But in order to speak correctly, one must have memorized the gender of the nouns.

This is because in German and in Swedish, the gender of a noun determines the declension of its adjectives and the form of the definite/indefinite article.

To illustrate this, consider the following two examples:

  • [EN] a large cat
  • [SE] en stor katt
  • [DE] eine große Katze
  • [EN] a large tree
  • [SE] ett stort träd
  • [DE] ein großer Baum

In German, "Katze" (cat) is a feminine noun, while "Baum" (tree) is a masculine noun. The German adjective "große" (large) is inflected according to the gender of the noun that it qualifies.

This is why it changes to "großer" in the second example when it modifies the masculine noun. The form of the indefinite article also depends on the gender of the noun that it qualifies.

In Swedish, the grammatical gender of "katt" (cat) is utrum, while the gender of "träd" (tree) is neutrum. The Swedish adjective "stor" (large) is inflected and becomes "stort" in the second example.

Verb conjugations in Swedish vs. German

Unlike German, English, and many other European languages, Swedish verbs do not conjugate according to number and person. In Swedish, the same form is used for all subject pronouns.

For example, here is the verb "to be" and its conjugation tables in Swedish and German:

In English:
I
am
you
are
he/she/it
is
we
are
they
are
In Swedish:
jag
är
du
är
han/hon/det
är
vi
är
dom
är
In German:
ich
bin
du
bist
er/sie/es
is
wir
sind
Sie
sind

German vs Swedish: alphabet and pronunciation

Although most letters in Swedish and German are the same as those in English, some of these are pronounced differently. Here are a few examples:

The German letter 'w' is pronounced like our letter 'v' in English. For example: "Wasser" (water) or "warum" (why). In this case Swedish is similar to German: the Swedish letter 'w' is also pronounced the like our English 'v'.

The German 'j' sounds like our 'y' sound in English. For example "Ja" (yes) or "jemand" (someone). In this case as well, Swedish is similar to German: the Swedish letter 'j' is also pronounced like the English 'y' sound.

The German letter 'v' is pronounced like our 'f' sound in English. For example: "Vogel" (bird) or "Vater" (father). In contrast to German, the Swedish letter 'v' is pronounced as in English.

Conclusion

As they are both Germanic languages, there are many similarities between Swedish and German, but there are also differences between them that make each of these languages unique.

In another article, which discusses the similarities between Norwegian and German, we explain a linguistic phenomenon called the High German consonant shift.

We recommend having a look at that article because it is relevant to understanding some of the patterns in the differences between German and other Germanic languages (such as Swedish and Norwegian).

To continue learning about the similarities and differences between Swedish and German, have a look at these lists of the 1000 most common Swedish words, and the 1000 most common German words.