German has words for things that don't exist in other languages. That's why, as you learn German, you may come across terms you know from English, French or Russian – because they use some German terms. Ersatz (replacement), Kindergarten (nursery school), Leitmotiv (guiding theme) or Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) are German terms which are used in the English language, for example. In Sweden, people recently started using the German term Fingerspitzengefühl to describe a tactful or sensitive way of dealing with people and things. People in Russia use the term Zeitnot if they do not have enough time. And in Japan, student jobs are called arubaito (Japanese pronunciation of Arbeit, or work).
In some language, German words have been given new meanings. In France, the word vasistas refers to skylight windows. This is because Napoleon's soldiers are said to have exclaimed "Was ist das?" (what is that?) when they saw skylights for the first time.
In turn, foreign words are used in the German language, too. According to the Duden, the most renowned dictionary of the German language, about 21 percent of German nouns are actually foreign words. These have enriched the German language, and people use them so naturally that they do not recognise them as foreign words anymore.
Almost four percent of German words are from English, such as Fairness, Wellness or Trainer. Quite a few French words have transcended the border too, especially in the areas of fashion, politics, law and food. In court, the prosecutor delivers a "Plädoyer" (plaidoirie) as he or she addresses the court in favour of a sentence. The head of government composes a "Kabinett" (cabinet), i.e. his or her group of ministers. Everyday words like "Balkon"(balcon), "Adresse" (adresse) or "Annonce" (annonce) also came to Germany from France.
It is a lesser known fact that German also uses words from the Slavic languages. "Gurke" (gherkin or cucumber), for example, comes from the Polish wordogórek, and a number of animal names such as the "Nerz" (mink, from the Ukrainian word noryca) have become integral part of the German language.
About 100 million people in Europe have grown up with German as their mother tongue. It is the official language of Germany and Austria, and one of four official languages in Switzerland. In addition, it's a regional official language in Italy (Alto Adige), Luxemburg and Belgium. As a result, German can be seen as the most important language in Western Europe. Globally, there are about 120 million native speakers of German.
Especially in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, but also in Eastern Europe, many people know some German. In Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Estonia and Croatia, between 20 and 55 percent of the overall population has some knowledge of German.
Globally, more than 15 million people are currently learning German as a foreign language, most of whom are Europeans. In Central and Eastern Europe and in the Commonwealth of Independent States, interest is higher than in Western Europe. At 2.3 million, the largest number of people learning German in 2010 were from Poland, followed by the Russian Federation (1.5 million), Great Britain (1.5 million) and France (1 million). Additional information about the number of learners of German is available at the Goethe-Institut.
German is the language of famous authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Franz Kafka and Günter Grass. According to the Goethe-Institut, twelve percent of all books produced worldwide are published in German. This means that German comes third after English books (28 percent) and books in Chinese (13 percent). At a European level, German ranks second after Britain for the number of published titles.
For 200 years, what is known as the Muhlenberg legend has had it that the US almost adopted German as its official language. As with many legends, there is some truth in this story. On 9 January 1794, a group of German immigrants from Virginia filed a petition at the US House of Representatives, asking for some laws to be translated into German. However, the petition failed with 42 to 41 votes, as Frederick Muhlenberg (see photo), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, himself of German descent, did not participate in the vote.
German is composed of about 300,000 words. According to the Duden, 46 percent of nouns are feminine, so they take the article "die". Only 34 percent take the masculine article "der", and 20 percent take the neutral "das".
In 2004, the Deutsche Sprachrat, or Council of the German language, held a competition to find "the most beautiful German word". A total of 22,838 words were submitted by people from 111 countries who gave reasons why they thought their word was worthy of the title. In the end, Habseligkeiten (a person's belongings) came first, followed by Geborgenheit (feeling of security), lieben (to love), Augenblick (moment) – and Rhabarbermarmelade (rhubarb jam). Additional information on the competition can be found on the Deutscher Sprachrat website.
In 2008, the Goethe-Institut initiated a competition on "words of immigrant descent". Several thousand words from 42 languages were submitted, and in the end, the Hungarian term Tollpatsch, describing a goofy or clumsy person, was chosen as the "best immigrant word". Additional winners included Currywurst (sausage with curry sauce) and Engel (angel). Additional information about the competition is available on the Goethe-Institut website.
About four percent of German words come from Greek, while almost four percent are of English origin, and more than five percent are from Latin.
Many languages contain traces of the German language. This is the result of an international competition on "expat words" held by the Deutscher Sprachrat. Several thousand words were submitted, and in the end the jury chose the Finnish word Kaffepaussi as the "most beautiful expat word". In Finnish, Kaffepaussi means "break" or "currently out of order". The words most frequently submitted were vasistas/was ist das? (French for skylight window), followed by Kindergarten, Butterbrot, kaputt and Schadenfreude. Additional information on the competition can be found on the Deutscher Sprachrat website.