German Travel Phrases

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Willkommen! Welcome to the Fodors German Language Page, brought to you by the language experts at Living Language. Here you'll find over 150 essential phrases for your trip.

For more German language and cultural tips, visit the Living Language German Blog.

General

German is spoken by about 95,000,000 people, and it's the official language of Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein, as well as one of the four official languages of Switzerland. Most Swiss speakers actually speak a variety of German called Schwyzerdtsch, so the standard German you'll hear here is really a second language to them.

Pronunciation

German is a very close relative of English, so pronunciation isn't too terribly difficult. Just keep in mind that vowels are crisp and clear, so the German o is really one simple sound, not like the oh-oo-wuh of English!

Some important vowel sounds to remember are: ei as in line, ie as in lean, ö as in worm, but without the r, ü as in tea, but with the lips rounded, ä as in get, and eu or äu as in boy. The consonant combination sch is pronounced as in shoe, and sp and st are pronounced as shp and sht. You'll sometimes see ß, which is pronounced like boss. Finally, z is pronounced like cats.

Vocabulary

A lot of basic German vocabulary will look familiar to you: das Haus (the house), der Hund (the dog/hound), die Strasse (the street), ein Mann (a/one man), machen (to make), sprechen (to speak) and so on. (Notice, by the way, that all nouns in German are capitalized!) That's because English is a Germanic language. But, English became heavily influenced by Latin through the Norman Conquest, so an awful lot of the English lexicon tends to look more like French than like German. Take for instance to compare, which is comparer in French, but vergleichen in German. In some ways, German vocabulary will look more foreign to you than French or Spanish!

Grammar

If you want to learn to speak German, you're going to have to deal with a few issues that we don't have in English.

  • German nouns have three genders, masculine (der), feminine (die), and neuter (das), and it's usually the case that you just have to memorize the gender of each new noun. Plurals are unpredictable, unlike the simple -(e)s of English.
  • German is a language with four noun cases. What this boils down to is that determiners, or words like the, a, my, and this, change form depending on the gender, number, and role of the noun in a sentence. In a simplified nutshell, subjects are in the nominative case (der Mann, the man), direct objects are in the accusative case (den Mann), indirect objects are in the dative case (dem Mann), and possessives are in the genitive case (des Mannes).
  • Adjectives agree with the nouns they modify not only in gender and number, but also in case, and there are two sets of them for reasons that go beyond our little introduction!
  • German verbs are similar to English verbs. You have similar tenses, and both regular and irregular verbs. But there are a lot more forms in German, since German verbs have a richer conjugation than English verbs, with the pretty simple -s ending of the he/she/it form. Another thing to know about German verbs is that they sometimes come at the end of sentences or clauses, again for reasons that go beyond this introduction.

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