German and English: Language Similarities & Differences

German and English belong to the same family of languages, a family known as the Germanic languages, which also includes Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish, among others.

During the early Middle Ages, Old English and Old German shared several grammatical features which later disappeared from Modern English. As a result, there are some rather significant grammatical differences between English and German.

Grammatical gender

Each German noun has a grammatical gender, even nouns that refer to inanimate objects or concepts.

In the case of inanimate objects and abstract concepts, the meaning of a word provides very little help in determining its grammatical gender. Take silverware, for instance: in German, “fork” is feminine (die Gabel), “knife” is neuter ​(das Messer), and “spoon” is masculine (der Löffel).

Even more surprising, the German word for “feminism” is masculine (der Feminismus), while the word for “masculinity” (die Männlichkeit) is feminine.

There are, however, some patterns that can help predict the gender of a German noun based on the ending of that word.

Grammatical gender is a feature that is common in ancient Indo-European languages. Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit have three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). In the early Middle Ages, Old English had them too. They have disappeared from modern English but remain present in German.

Grammatical cases

Grammatical cases are another feature that is common in ancient Indo-European languages. Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit have them. During the Early Middle Ages, Old English had them too. They have largely disappeared from Modern English, but German has preserved them.

Grammatical cases usually involve changes in word endings that indicate the grammatical function (subject, object, etc. ) of those words in a sentence.

For example, the English pronoun “he” becomes “him”, when used as an object rather than a subject. In German, it's not just pronouns that change according to grammatical function; words such as articles and adjectives change too.

The high German consonant shift

German and English share many cognates which are words that originate from a common etymological ancestor.

Some of the spelling differences between these similar vocabulary words can be explained by a linguistic phenomenon called the High German consonant shift. Between the 3rd and the 8th century, some pronunciation changes occurred in the German language but not in other Germanic languages such as English and Dutch.

The three main high German consonant shifts are the following:

Some English and German vocabulary words that illustrate the (d→t) consonant shift:
English German
cold kalt
day Tag
word Wort
good gut
door Tür
red rot
blood Blut
daughter Tochter
Some English and German vocabulary words that illustrate the (t→z) consonant shift:
English German
heart Herz
train Zug
salt Salz
ten zehn
two zwei
Some English and German vocabulary words that illustrate the (k→ch) consonant shift:
English German
make machen
milk Milch
speak sprechen
cook kochen
book Buch

There are fewer Latin-based words in German than in English.

German and English are Germanic languages so they do not evolve from Latin like the Romance languages (Spanish, French, etc) did.

Despite this, both German and English contain quite a few words of Latin origin. But the difference is that English contains a larger proportion of Latin-derived vocabulary words than German does.

There are several historical reasons for this. The most significant one is the Norman conquest of England which took place in 1066 and caused Old Norman (which is a dialect of French) to become the language of the Anglo-Norman government in England. For several centuries this French dialect became widely used in the royal court as well as in the church and the justice system of England.

During this period, many French vocabulary words (which came from Latin) displaced the corresponding English words which were of Germanic origin. Because this phenomenon did not occur in German, it led to a divergence between English and German vocabulary.

English Latin German
language lingua Sprache
art artem Kunst
opinion opīniō Meinung
color color Farbe
face faciēs Gesicht
motion motio Bewegung
society societās Gesellschaft
victory victōria Sieg
cause causa Ursache
direction dīrēctiō Richtung
air āēr Luft
village villāticus Dorf
visit vīsitō Besuch
century centuria Jahrhundert
voice vōx Stimme
dictionary dictiōnārium Wörterbuch

Compound words

English uses compound words, for example “toothpaste”, “bookshelf”, and “moonlight”. German also uses compound words and often to a greater extent than English. Here are some examples:

English German
freedom of speech Redefreiheit
quality of life Lebensqualität
point of view Standpunkt
rule of law Rechtsstaatlichkeit
speed of light Lichtgeschwindigkeit
cost of living Lebenshaltungskosten
state of mind Geisteszustand
sphere of influence Sphere of influence
head of state Staatsoberhaupt
piece of advice Ratschlag
declaration of love Liebeserklärung

Word Order in German Compared to English

Word order in the main clause

In German, the main clause of a declarative sentence follows a specific word order known as V2 word order. This means that the finite verb - the verb that agrees with the subject in person and number - is always placed in the second position in the clause.

English sentences are generally constructed according to the SVO (subject-verb-object) pattern. For example, in the sentence “She never makes grammar mistakes”, the subject comes first, followed by the verb and then the object. In contrast, the corresponding German sentence “Grammatikfehler macht sie nie” uses the V2 (verb-second) pattern where the finite verb “macht” occupies the second position in the sentence. It is preceded by the object “Grammatikfehler” and followed by the subject “sie”.

Another example: the English sentence “He always reads novels” can be translated to German as “Er liest immer Romane”. Notice in this German sentence how the adverb has been moved (compared to the English sentence), so that the verb is in 2nd position.

Word order in a subordinate clause

In English, the word order in a subordinate clause generally follows the same pattern as in an independent clause. This is not the case in German: in subordinate clauses, the verb is positioned at the end of the clause.

For example, consider the sentence “Ich gehe ins Kino, weil ich einen Film sehen möchte” (I'm going to the cinema because I want to watch a movie). Here, the main clause follows the V2 word order pattern with the finite verb “gehe” in the second position. However, the subordinate clause “weil ich einen Film sehen möchte” (because I want to watch a movie) has the finite verb “möchte” at the end.


To learn some more German vocabulary, have a look at this list of the 1000 most common German words.