Why German can sound funny to English speakers

In English when you talk about scientific, technical, legal or medical topics, you tend to use a lot more words of Latin, Greek and French origin. However in everyday conversation words of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse origin are much more common. Therefore you could say that English has two distinct registers – a higher register used in academic and other formal settings, and a lower register used elsewhere. New scientific terms are usually coined from Latin and/or Greek roots. Mixing the registers or using one where the other would normal be used can a source of humour.

In other languages, such as German, new words tend to be coined from native roots. This gives you words like Wasserstoff (water material/stuff), for hydrogen, Sauerstoff (sour/acidic stuff) for oxygen, and Stickstoff (close/stuffy stuff) for nitrogen.

According to this post, such words can sound funny to English speakers because they are made from words similar to lower register English ones which are not normally associated with serious vocabulary like this.

There have been suggestions and proposals that new English be coined from native Old English / Anglo-Saxon roots, none of which have really caught on. For example, in a text on atomic theory, Uncleftish Beholding by Poul Anderson, almost all the words are of Anglo-Saxon origin and there are many newly coined words, including beholding for theory, waterstuff for oxygen, ymirstuff for uranium, bulkbits for molecules, and worldken for physics.

There is even a group of people called The Anglish Moot, who aim to create a version of English free of loanwords from other languages.

10 thoughts on “Why German can sound funny to English speakers

  1. Yes, the German are quite strickt in this (germanising). In Dutch loanwords are more common. But both versions of the examples you showed are used: zuurstof, oxygen (O2 too), stikstof, etc. Docters and nurses tend to use the latin/greek versions.

  2. That’s interesting, I didn’t know German did that. That’s how most new terms are coined in Chinese. As a native-Chinese speaker, I find it easy to learn new terms as it’s not just “random sounds” but the new terms actually mean something to me. It also helps me to decipher new terms I run into.

  3. That is really interesting. Funnily enough there are quite a few German scientific terms in English which I encountered when studying Materials Science. An example is Bremsstrahlung which is a type of braking x-ray. I think that German is sometimes retained for its cachet just like French terms are used in cuisine, ballet and so many other areas. Perhaps foreign terms just have a snob value that is lost when we translate them back to anglo-saxon words. I must admit to being shocked that Fernsehen was the German for tv, it sounded so weird being so attuned to the muffling of the meaning endowed by Latin and Greek origin words in English

  4. Very nice blog post!

    It’s also amusing to me what Weili has posted since it points out something interesting about Chinese and Japanese’s relationship that is somewhat similar to Latin and English’s relationship.

    In Japanese, most of the high register words come from Chinese. For most everyday conversation, however, many more words are from Japanese roots. So, in a similar way it’s like how English uses Latin. Although, in this case, Japanese has no real brother language like English has German. Korean would be the closest case, yet in Korean, as well, most of the high register words come from Chinese.

    It’s interesting that German still favors using its own root words for high register vocabulary over loan words from, say, Latin.


  5. True some “basic” elements are changing from one language to another and not only German, but most of the elements in the periodic table as far as I know are the same in mostly all the languages, and maybe the only difference is the spelling used.
    My indian friend says that they do follow some patterns like that, like calling the TV in a native pure indian name (Germans do so too). The thing is, changing the names in English would be quite disturbing. First, because most of the scientific literature is taught in English worldwide, secondly, a huge number of these scientifc terms are coined by native English speakers in the first place. Isaac Newton did not write his books in English or Old English, but in Latin since it was the lingua franca of science at that time.
    Yet, the worlds of Physics and Mathematics seem a bit less influenced than Chemistry is from such “original naming” thing, because the terms used in these 2 are already changing by the change of the language and got less Latin and Greek terms in it.

  6. As for me, the German tendency to use its native roots everywhere makes it more difficult to understand than English which is full of Latinate terms and loanwords from Romance languages.

    And I’m always rather surprised when I see in German an obvious loan like Café. In a way it doesn’t fit there.

    Polish has tons of such loanwords, too, and I’ve noticed that it often makes it very easy for me to pick up Spanish words.
    E.g. I see the Spanish word lucro “profit”, and it’s easy to notice that it’s related to Polish lukratywny “profitable”, which must have been once taken from a Romance language. I don’t need to look up such words several times like in case of German where the words somehow can’t stick in my memory.

    On the other hands, German won’t sound that funny to people whose L1 isn’t Germanic (though there might be a few cases like “Flasche”; into Polish it’s been borrowed as “flaszka”, which is a very low register word, comparable – in the register & connotations, not in its strict meaning – to booze; the neutral equivalent would be “butelka”).

  7. Hello.
    I found this post really interesting, as German is one of the languages I currently deal with more often.
    Having a romance native language, I often tend to “coin” latin-lilke “neologisms” whenever I fail to know a specific German word or expression.
    Many times, this “creativity” of mine results in funny questions and observations from the German native speakers.
    I have already “learned” how to stick to the stricktly-German version of words when it comes to specific domains like Science, Chemistry and Physics. Somehow I managed to learn and memorize the more commonly used roots and from there I could just start making sense of new words that came along in the referred contexts.
    In other contexts such as music, philosophy or literature I do really find it quite hard not to stick to the latin roots and expressions.
    Just some weeks ago I found myself having a conversation in German with a music teacher who was also a romance native speaker.
    We were discussing a piece which had just been played by a violin player, or “Violinist” as I kept on saying… the music teacher could perfectly understand what I meant when I said “Violin” and “Violinist”, but she kept on saying “Geige” and “Geiger”.
    Although I could understand the words she used corresponded exactly to the ones I used, I was simply unable to fit them in my German sentences.
    For some reason I was unable to link the sound of the word “Geige” with “Violin” although I knew they were just the same in meaning.
    “Geige” did actually sound too “hard” for “Violin”, which sounded much “lighter” and “harmonious”.
    In other situations, native speakers of German have told me things like “you use such beautiful words when you speak our language; t sounds as if we are reading them from a book.”
    So I guess, latin roots eventually make appearences in the German language as well, but they might have some specific connotation, not necessary the one of “serious” language, but rather one of “poetic”, “posh” or even “pretensious” language…
    Can any native speaker of German shed some light on the subject?


  8. Czech language is in many respect similar to German in its policy towards borrowed words. In fact, the Czech language revival movement in 19th century was inspired by similar efforts in German, and resulted in replacing borrowed terms (a bit ironically most of them were borrowed from German) by Slavic equivalents. E.g. the chemical elements’ names are often calques from German, like kyslík (oxygen) from kyselý = sour (calque of Sauerstoff), vodík (hydrogen) from voda = water (Wasserstoff) etc. Some of these neologisms survived, some were replaced by Latin terms in course of time.

    The tendency of coining new terms from “domestic” resources vs. borrowing from foreign languages can be quite different even for closely related languages. I think Serbian vs. Croatian is a typical example (Croatian being more purist), also Czech is more purist than Polish. And as far as I know it also sounds funny to Poles for this reason.

  9. Interesting post.
    I speak native English and I have always found it strange that I seem to learn and understand romance languages (French, Catalan, Spanish) easier than I can understand/speak German, as English is a germanic language and not romance.

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