September 26, 2000
Similarities and Differences
All human communications involve language, and its use as such implies that there must be certain similarities. All languages have an alphabet, a lexicon, and a set of rules establishing how sentences are constructed. While there are differences in the alphabet, and lexicons of the various languages, the most important difference involving syntax are those found in the construction rules.
English and German because of their shared root have many similarities, but through time they have developed substantial differences. The single most profound individual difference in German is the declension of case and gender. To decline case German changes the form of the noun and the corresponding pronoun to show the relationship the noun has to the verb.
Das M?dchen i?t den Fisch
The girl eats the fish
‘The girl eats the fish’
Den Fisch i?t Das M?dchen
The fish eats the girl
‘The girl eats the fish’
Both ways of writing the sentence in German are and understandable. The determiner das declines M?dchen as the subject of the sentence while the determiner den declines Fisch as the direct object. In the English translations the meaning is derived by the word order, the first noun is the subject and the second is the direct object. In many cases the noun will change its form as well as the determiner, as with the noun der student, which becomes den studenten when it is used as the direct object.
Wir suchen zu baldm?glichem Antritt eine freundliche Apothekerin (Vollzeit). Wir bieten eine
‘We are looking for a friendly female pharmacist to begin as soon as possible. (Fulltime)
eigenst?ndinge und verantwortungsvolle Arbeit in einem kleinen, freundlichen team.
Own / permanent and responsible position in a small friendly team.
Were offering a permanent and responsible position in a small, friendly team.’
The gender is shown within the determiner and the noun in the German sentence, while in the English sentence an additional word is required to convey female preference. The proceeding example also shows the declension of case in the last phrase ‘…in einem kleinen, freundlichen team.’ The phrase is in the dative case, which is indicated by the word einem, meaning it is the indirect object.
A second difference between English and German lies in the use of the formal pronoun and verb form. The formal case is used to address those which one does not know well, or when one wants to be polite. Germans have the ability to conjugate their verbs as in the following example:
Du hast – Familiar
Sie Haben – Formal
Old English used the pronoun ‘you’ as the formal version of the verb, and the pronoun ‘thou’ as the familiar pronoun as in:
Thou hast – Old English Familiar
You have – Current English Formal and Familiar
German and English share a striking similarity in how they deal with multiple negations. In the romance languages it is possible to use multiple negations such as in the following phrases in English and German:
Not one person has not seen it.
Kein Mensch nicht hat es gesehen.
The example is not proper English although a similar phrase in French would be. The same phrase in German would also a violation of the language’s grammar. The proper way to say the proceeding in English and German is
Not one person has seen it
Kein Mensch hat es gesehen
English and German are odd amongst European languages in that they do not allow multiple negations within a single sentence. English’s Germanic structural roots have more than likely given English its rules regarding negation.
Although there are many similarities between the languages, the extensive use of declensions in German make it a much different language syntactically. Declensions allow German speakers to interchange the subject and direct object in sentences such as the one found in the first example. Gender declension adds a layer of complexity to German, which English does not have. Possibly because of their shared roots, neither language allows double negation as in the Romantic languages. So, while German and English share so much, the relatively small difference of declension, changes English from German in many far reaching ways.