The German alphabet uses 26 Latin characters which can also be found in English. In addition, there are four special characters, including the so-called Umlaute (ä, ö, ü), and Eszett (ß) that is also known as scharfes s (sharp s in English). While the letters ä, ö and ü are commonly found in many other languages, the letter ß is today only used in German. The Eszett is a ligature of s and z and is normally used in place of a voiced double-s following a long vowel or a gliding vowel called diphthong (whereas the double-s is used when the preceding vowel is short). The Umlaut signifies a vowel plus e and on the Internet (e.g., in German discussion forums, blog comments, etc.) words are often written this way (i.e., ae, oe, ue instead of ä, ö, ü). In very old text, these letters were printed with a very small e above them instead of the two dots (diaeresis mark).
Font Type and Script
From about 1530 up to 1941, German was printed in a very different font (type face) than it is today. This old script is called Fraktur (meaning “fractured”) and is still used occasionally in Germany today for fancy titles and signs, just like Old English black-letter script is in Britain. Fraktur evolved from Schwabacher (and replaced it in the 16th century) but some people still refer to all old German scripts as Schwabacher. German handwriting called Sütterlin was also very different. German school boys in the 1930s sometimes called Sütterlin “Zickzack Schrift” (Zigzag script). Today, German print and handwriting is much like English, but you may find old books printed in Fraktur in libraries. It is easy enough to read once you get used to it.
German Punctuation Marks
In many cases, German and English punctuation are quite similar, if not identical. However, comma can be used differently in German when linking two independent clauses, or when writing numbers as decimal points and commas are reversed in German (1.000 is one thousand while 1,5 is one point five or one and a half). Also, German uses different quotation marks than English („…“). Moreover, with few exceptions, German does not use apostrophe for genitive possession (e.g., Roberts Fahrrad – Robert’s bike). For additional examples of differences between German and English punctuation see this summary from StackExchange.
In modern German, all nouns, as well as proper names, are capitalized (as they once were in English several hundred years ago). This makes the nouns easy to spot when parsing (determining the grammatical structure of) a sentence. But, this sometimes makes it difficult to determine whether a word beginning with a capital letter is a common noun or a proper name. Thus, for example, Schneider could refer to a tailor or to a person named Schneider. Adjectives and verbals that function as nouns are also capitalized. However, there are a couple of nouns that can function as uninflected adjectives (ein paar meaning “a pair of…” or ein bißchen meaning “a little bit of…”) which are not capitalized when so used. Furthermore, unlike English, adjectives which refer to nationality are not capitalized. Thus, die indische Küche (the Indian cuisine). The German counterpart for English “I” (ich) is not capitalized, but the polite counterpart for English “you” (Sie) is (as is the accompanying possessive pronoun “your” Ihr as well as Ihnen).
Spelling versus Pronunciation
In German there are generally precise rules for spelling and pronunciation of words and, therefore, spelling is a good indicator of how the words ought to be pronounced. For instance, long vowels are usually either doubled (e.g., leer), or followed by a single consonant (e.g., mal) or silent h (e.g., mehr), whereas short vowels are typically followed by a double consonant (e.g., schnell). Check the section on German pronunciation for a complete guide.
German Spelling Reform
The aim of the controversial German spelling reform (Rechtschreibreform) of 1996 (revised in 2004, 2006 and 2011) was to simplify the spelling and punctuation rules but critics object that it made certain things yet more complicated. As a result, you can now find composite words with triple identical consonants such as the words Sperrrad (ratchet wheel), Schifffahrt (shipping) and even Flussschifffahrt (river transport with triple-s and triple-f), or with triple identical vowels like the word Kafeeernte (coffee harvest) and that certainly looks weird. So, do not be surprised when you find recently published German texts that do not obey all these new spelling rules. However, since you are learning German today learn the new rules. Below you will find links to resources providing further details on the latest German orthography reform:
- German Orthography Reform of 1996 from Wikipedia describes the history of the German spelling and punctuation reform, discusses its controversial points and provides explanations of the most important changes it introduced.
- Neue Rechtschreibung: What has changed? from StackExchange is a comprehensive overview of the major changes introduced by the Rechtschreibung reform.
- The German Spelling Reform from Michigan State University is yet another brief summary of the most important changes resulting from the new German spelling reform.
- Rechtschreibreform: Die neuen Regeln der Rechtschreibung from canoo.net is a complete overview of all new spelling and punctuation rules, but it is written in German.
- Die 20 wichtigsten Regeln zur Rechtschreibung from neue-rechtschreibung.de is a list of the twenty most important rules that have changed as a result of the new spelling reform. It is written in German. At the bottom of the page you can find a downloadable PDF file that contains all Rechtschreibung rules.
- Dokumente zu den Inhalten der Rechtschreibreform from Institut für Deutsche Sprache in Mannheim includes all new spelling rules (the latest revision from 2011) in German language that you can download in PDF format.
For complete spelling rules you may also wish to check these resources (all are in German):
To correct the spelling of your German text you can use this free German spell checker:
Free Online Exercises for Practicing German Spelling Skills
As they say in Germany “Übung macht den Meister” (practice makes perfect), so here are a few links to sites where you can practice your German spelling skills for free:
German spelling is phonetic. Therefore, if you are pronouncing the words correctly, you should be able to spell them correctly too. German spelling and punctuation are unlikely to be your biggest enemy when learning German as your text editor, such as Word, will correct most of your mistakes automatically. And, if in doubt, you can always refer to an online dictionary or use a free online German spell checker, such as canoo.net (see the link above), to iron out the remaining imperfections.