The German writing system is based on the Latin alphabet with a few odd differences that make looking at German text a little unusual for non German speakers. The Latin alphabet is one of the main alphabet systems used worldwide. It is used in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages
Germany’s Latin Alphabet Compared with other World Writing Systems
Although readers of this blog will be very familiar with the Latin alphabet – after all, it is written in Latin characters! – they may be aware that many people around the world get on just fine with other forms of writing.
Close to Europe, there is the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Russia and some other Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and the Ukraine. Some of the letters used are the same as Latin ones, but many are not. It would be almost impossible trying to pronounce a Russian word written in Cyrillic, even if the word when pronounced sounded the same as in English, or German for that matter! That’s because it is easier for a language to ‘borrow’ new words from other languages and absorb them into its own language while it is impossible to mix two different alphabets.
Also, in Europe, there is Greek. Many people have come across Greek letters before in mathematics classes when they were in school. The Greek alphabet is basically different from the Latin one, but again like Cyrillic, many new words in Greek actually sound like those that have been borrowed from other languages. It works both ways. There are many Greek words that have become part of the languages of Western Europe but are written in Latin script.
Further away from Europe, there is Arabic script, written from right to left (the opposite of German writing). Arabic was once much more widespread. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the old Arabic writing was used for both Malay and modern Indonesian, but it is rarely used today, supplanted by the Latin alphabet.
In Asia there is a plethora of scripts. Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Thai, Burmese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese all use very different forms of writing to either Latin or Cyrillic. The East Asian writing systems use pictograms, rather than individual letters, making learning any of these languages doubly difficult for Western Europeans – and vice versa!
German Alphabetic Idiosyncracies
While German writing is definitely based on the Latin script, developed during the Roman Empire, it also has four peculiarities of its own. These are the three ‘umlauted’ vowels and the Eszett – known as a ligature. Otherwise, all five Latin vowels (a, e, i, o and u) and the 21 consonants are used in German, although several consonants are very rarely used except in loan words from other languages. More of that later.
Introducing the Umlauts
The umlauts are a slight variation of three common vowels: a, e and u. The umlaut itself is a couple of dots placed over the vowel, giving it a different German alphabet pronunciation. German itself as a modern language has evolved over the last few centuries and there have been changes in which some words and letters have been modified to make their use more standardised across the German speaking world. The umlauted vowels are ä, ö and ü. Funnily enough, these vowels, although written with the umlaut are not actually considered different letters from a, o and u!
The Eszett, written as ß, is like a more pronounced ‘s’ sound. There have been attempts to replace it with just an ‘s’ or a double ‘s,’ i.e. ‘ss,’ so maybe the Eszett is on its way out, although it is still used today and despite the fact that it looks like a capital letter, it is actually only used as a lower case letter, i.e. it is never found at the start of a word.
Capital Letters for Common Nouns
Generally speaking, the use of lower case and upper case follows other Latin script languages. German sentences start with a capital letter. Abbreviations that in other Latin script languages like French or English are written in capital letters are also in capital letters in German. The only variation on this usage is the use of capital letters at the start of every common noun in German, even if the word is found in the middle of a sentence. For example, “Bitte gib mir ein Glas Wasser” contains the two nouns “Glas” (meaning glass) and ‘Wasser,’ both of which start with an upper case letter (water). To a native English speaker, who wishes to know how to learn the German language, reading German writing almost seems that you are reading something that hasn’t been proofread!
Rarely used Letters
There are rarely used letters in most languages, but in German, the letters ‘x’, ‘y, ‘c, and ‘q’ are only really found in so-called ‘loan’ words that have been borrowed from other languages.
Translating from German to other Languages and Vice Versa
There is a tremendous demand for translating documents and other texts from and into German. Partly this is because Germany itself is such an economic powerhouse and very influential politically in the European Union that communication with German speakers is very important. Basic German grammar, although a little different from other European languages, is generally one of the easiest grammars to switch to. German language basics may be challenging for the Korean translator, because of German writing, but not for many Europeans! German translators today are very much sought after and because of the German diaspora in the earlier part of the twentieth century and the enthusiasm for world travel that many native German speakers have, German is still heard all around the world.