German Language Fun Facts

From the Haus’s German Language Committee

Cognate Lesson

Cognates are words in two different languages that have a common origin from a common parent language. English, being a Germanic language, has many cognates it shares with the modern German language. Sometimes they are obvious. Words like the hand and die Hand, and the finger and der Finger, and the house and das Haus are all obvious cognates and their meanings are exactly (with some small shades of difference sometimes) the same.

Cognates can be helpful in learning your German vocabulary. The German word der Apfel is apple in English. Blau is blue. Das Buch is the book. Die Nase is the nose (now you know why it is “nasal spray”). Denken is to think. Trinken is to drink. Fallen is to fall. You’ve heard the expression “Don’t Tread on Me.” Do you ever use the word to tread? Rarely. Germans use the word treten, to step, much more often. My wife regularly calls me Arsch. I didn’t have to think too hard to understand her the first time she used that on me.

Sometimes, though, you need a little imagination. In the German word for girl, das Mädchen, you can see the English word maiden. The German word der Knecht means servant, farmhand, in an old-fashioned Middle Ages sense. It is related to the English word knight, the knight being a servant to the king. And now you know why we spell knight with a “k”. The German word das Weib is related to the English word wife. In German, though, the word has a negative connotation, more like broad or dame. Das Fleisch is not flesh but rather meat. But der Fisch is in fact the fish. The list of German/English cognates could go on and on.

Cognates are not “loan words” which are usually more recently adopted words from a foreign language. English words like kindergarten, kaput, ersatz, and blitzkrieg are words borrowed from German rather than true cognates. Modern German is chock full of words borrowed from English probably because so many Germans learn English in school. Das Event, das Know How, die Talk Show, das Selfie and der Boostershot are all now “German” words. Many German words around a computer are borrowed from English: upgraden, downloaden, die Software. Wir müssen unser technisches Know How einsetzen, um die Software downzuloaden. Perfectly correct German.

Be warned, though, about “false friends” which are words that look like they might be cognates but are not. Der Fahrt is not a fart in spite of the laughs it brings in a high school German class. It is a ride or a trip. A lecture is eine Vorlesung; die Lektüre is reading material. American travelers in Germany are often surprised when they ask for the menu. What they wanted was die Speisekarte. The waiter heard das Menü, which is a set specific meal of three or more courses. Das Kittchen is a slang word for jail, not where you prepare food. That is die Küche. Also is not also (it’s “so” or “hence”). Arm is not arm (poor). Die Kaution is not caution; it’s a deposit. The list of false friends can get quite long, too. My favorite is the slogan from a certain whiskey made north of the border: Canadian Mist, the Perfect Gift. That looks to a German like “Canadian Manure, the perfect Poison.” Der Mist is what farmers use to fertilize their fields. Das Gift is what you use to get rid of pests like mice and rats. So be careful if a German offers you a gift. It might be something you don’t want.