Sunday, 30 July 2017

German and English

     Was ist das? (What is that?)    Salz und Pfeffer. (Salt and pepper.)
     I had finally managed to persuade my wife to go to Europe so, with only a month to spare, I dug out my old textbooks and swatted up on the German language, which I hadn't used for more than twenty years. Many of you will be aware that Anglo-Saxon, the language from which modern English evolved, was a Germanic tongue. In other words, German and English are related, having separated more than sixteen centuries ago. While the Norman invasion brought French words into English - indeed, the majority of our vocabulary consists of loan words - the bedrock of the language, the words most commonly used every day - is Anglo-Saxon. Therefore, a strong resemblance exists between German words and English.
     Sometimes the words are identical, at least as spelled, such as "Hand" and "Finger". (All German vowels are capitalised.)
     Others are clearly variations on a theme. Take, for instance, the terms for family relationships: Vater, Mutter, Bruder, Schwester, Sohn, Tochter, where you can easily see the resemblance to our own "father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter."
     Or the points of the compass: Norden, Süden, Osten, Westen.
     Or the numbers from one to ten: eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn.
     Anybody learning German, who is at all astute, will soon recognize that the variations are consistent. Thus, the English long "o" turns into ei in German: home/Heim, stone/Stein. Apart from Icelandic, English is the only Germanic language which retains the "th" sound. In German and Dutch it becomes a d. On the other hand, the English "d" normally becomes t, while "t" changes, according to its position in the word, to z (pronounced "ts"), tz, or ss (ß), or sometimes stays the same. Meanwhile, a "p" tends to change to f.
     These are changes specific to German; they took place after German split off from the common Germanic tongue. However, there are some consonants in which German is more conservative, and it is English which has altered. For example, in the middle ages English lost the first letter in the initial "kn",  although it is still written, and it lost the "gh" sound. Originally, it was pronounced the same as the German ch, and virtually every English word with "gh" has a cognate German one with ch e.g. high/hoch, light/Licht, eight/acht. Incidentally, although I have not studied Dutch, I assumed that the same rule applied, and I said so to a Dutch companion. I then listed a few English words and asked him the Dutch equivalent, which proved the supposition correct. He was so impressed, he immediately told one of his compatriots. I am surprised he hadn't noticed it when he was learning English.
     But there are a whole lot of changed which go back to Anglo-Saxon. Thus, when a Germanic "b" comes in the middle of a word, it turns into a v in English: sieben/seven, Silber/silver.
    In Anglo-Saxon, the Germanic "k" sound was palatalised ie it became a ch or tch when next to the front vowels "i", "e" or "æ".
     After "o" or a consonant, the Germanic "g" becomes a w e.g. bogen/bow, folgen/follow. After "i" or "e" it turns into dge, but before either of these letters it becomes a y e.g. gestern/yesterday, gellen/yell. Indeed, when a "g" comes after a front vowel, it tends to merge into a diphthong:
     German Tag, Anglo-Saxon dæg, modern English day.
     German Nagel, Anglo-Saxon nægel, modern English nail.
     Once the rules are recognized, it becomes clear that some words have changed meaning in one of the languages. For example, the German word for "tree" is Baum, and the Dutch boom. The English equivalent is beam. The easiest method of producing the beam of a roof is to cut down an entire tree. Once this meaning had been established, a new word had to be found for the living beam, and for that Anglo-Saxon went back to an older Indo-European root and got "tree". On the other hand, the German word for the room of a house is Zimmer, which is cognate with the English "timber".
     German infinitives end in "-en". Thus, rennen means "to run", and is cognate with the similar English term. However, the most common German word for "run". laufen, is cognate with the English "lope" and "leap".
     Two of the most drastic changes exist in the German words, drehen (turn) and werfen (throw). The English equivalents are "throw" and "warp" respectively. It will be noted, however, that all of them imply movement in a circular manner.
     The German selig means "blessed", and similar forms exist in other Germanic languages. The English equivalent is "silly". Apparently, the meaning changed from "blessed" to "innocent" to "naive", and finally to its current meaning.
     Below are a few examples of altered meaning. In each case, the German word is given first, followed by its translation in square brackets, and then its English equivalent.
     Bein [leg]    - bone
     Dach [roof] - thatch
     fechten [to fence] - fight
     Herbst  [autumn]  - harvest
     Knabe [boy]  - knave
     Knecht [lad, servant] - knight
     Knöchel [bone] - knuckle
     Rauch [smoke]  - reek
     schwarz [black] - swarthy
     sterben [to die]  - starve
     Strafe [punishment] - strife
     Teich [pond] - dyke, ditch

    The Danish invasion introduced Norse words into English, and Norse belongs to a different branch of the Germanic language tree, with a somewhat different vocabulary. In some cases, the Norse term displaced an Anglo-Saxon word, which was closer to German.
    Norse leaf, Anglo-Saxon blade, German Blatt.
    Norse skin, Anglo-Saxon hide, German Haut.
    Likewise, German  teilen means "to divide", which is a loan word from Latin. The original English terms "dole" and "deal" are cognate with the German term.
     Occasionally, an older Anglo-Saxon word has been completely replaced. Thus, the French term, "village" translates as Dorf in German and dorp in Dutch. Both are cognate with the English "thorpe", which now occurs only in place names and related surnames.
     "Valley" is a French word, which translates as Tal in German, but the English equivalents are still around as "dell" and "dale".
     The German word for "forest" is Wald, whose English equivalent, "wold" now also occurs only in place names. The Anglo-Saxons possessed a heavy plough, which was best used ploughing in long, straight lines. They thus eschewed the valleys, and settled in the uplands, where they chopped down all the trees. "Wold" thus ceased to mean forest, and took on the meaning of upland. They then had to find a new word for areas covered with trees, and had to make do with "wood" until the Normans introduced the word, "forest". Initially, the word meant simply a royal hunting reserve, and Exmoor Forest even today is more moor than forest.
     Perhaps the most interesting is the word for prayer, Gebet, the equivalent to the English "bead", itself related to the word, "bid". With the introduction of the rosary, the English word took on a new meaning, leaving the French term, "prayer" to take its place.
    Indeed, the more you delve into these two related languages, the more you find. But enough of that. In view of my latest European experience, it looks like I might now have to learn Italian.

(Mark Twain wrote an amusing - but accurate - essay on the way German is constructed.)