Basic structural differences within a linguistic comparison of English and German grammar

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Morphologically based differences
2.1 The inflection of the verb
2.2 Case marking

3 Word order structures in contrast

4 Basic grammatical relations
4.1 Objects
4.2 Subjects

5 Verb-first structures

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Since German and English both belong to the same family of languages, i.e. West Germanic, they are - at least, from an historical point of view - closely related languages. By investigating their respective grammatical structures it is to be discussed whether the existing structural contrasts between English and German grammar are related as well.

Within this paper the most general and basic of the occurring differences will be summarised and analysed by taking John Hawkins’ A Comparative Typology of English and German. Unifying the Contrasts as a basic source. Hawkins argues that where German and English contrast the latter tends to show less correspondence between form and meaning.[1] This is due to his central hypothesis which says that it is possible to establish general principles which unite the major contrasts between both languages (cf. 4). Hawkins assumes that the differences within the grammatical structures are not accidental ones; they are rather systematic and can be traced back to one “ultimate trigger “ (5) in the history of the English language - phonological changes which caused all further structural differences as either direct or indirect consequences of this process (cf. 5-7). The attempt of this paper is to draw conclusions from this knowledge of the common historical background and apply it to the modern “versions” of the German and English language and the major patterns of variation.

To get a descriptive and lucid image of the contrasts between the two languages, we first start on the level of individual words by considering their morphological structure, i.e. we will examine the inflection of the verb and the case marking of noun phrases. This will lead us directly to questions concerning word order and basic grammatical relations on the syntactical level. Finally, a short analysis of verb-first-structures in English and German will round off the discussion.

2 Morphologically based differences

On the paradigmatic level we find several forms of morphological deviations among the two languages. It has to be considered - as Hawkins argues - that in this context all phenomena of inflectional morphology which exist in English also exist in German whereas this does not apply in the reverse case. (Cf. 11)

2.1 The inflection of the verb

One of the most noticeable differences can be found in the system of complex inflectional distinctions of the German verb forms in contrast to an almost constant uniformity of the English verb forms relating to number and person.

(2.1) German (a) and English (b) verb forms in present tense, indicative and imperative mode

a) renne, rennst, rennt, rennen, renn, rennen Sie
b) run, runs

As we see in (2.1), number and person markings are very explicit in the German verb, in contrast to the English verb which just indicates person and number with the third person ‘s’ in the present tense. Furthermore, indicative, subjunctive, and imperative forms are clearly distinguishable in the German verb by their various markings whereas we have one form for all of them in English within the respective tenses (apart from some rare exceptions, e.g. he is [indicative], he be [subjunctive]). (cf. 11f.)

In example (2.2) we can recognise that the German verb forms in subjunctive and indicative mode are explicitly marked whereas in English these modes are formally not distinguishable.

(2.2) German (a) and English (b) verb forms in subjunctive/indicative mode

(a) Er behauptet, wir kämen zu spät.

Wir kamen gestern zu spät zu Peters Party

(b) He claimed, we came too late.

We came too late to Peter’s party yesterday.

In general, we can postulate that the English verb carries less inflectional endings than the German verb. The very similar inflectional systems of Old English and Old German developed in such a way that the morphology of German verbs almost remained the same whereas the English verb underwent “syncretism” (12), a process which in linguistics generally means the fusion of originally different morphological forms.

2.2 Case marking

A much more unequivocal result of the aforementioned process is manifest in the loss of case marking in English. The “drift towards the invariable word” (26) has two major consequences: First, on the syntactic level case syncretism, the merging of individual case markings into one form, results in a fixed word order in the English language (cf. chapter 3). Second, the loss of case marking has considerable effects on the semantic level, i.e. when linguistic forms such as morphological structures diminish (which can be a result of case syncretism) they need to cover a wider range of semantic expressions (cf. 28).

Keeping this in mind, we will continue considering the differences between German and English by examining case marking in the noun phrase. For the analysis of inflectional markings in German noun phrases, we have to take into account four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive), three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) as well as number (plural and singular). Within German noun phrases case markings can be carried by adjectives, determiners, and rather reduced with nouns. The noun carries obvious number markings (apart from zero-morph markings [Ø]) whereas determiners and adjective endings indicate gender but also number of the noun. The inflection of the components of a noun phrase including an adjective depends on the existence and the definiteness resp. the indefiniteness of the determiner, thus we can state three forms of adjective declension; a weak, a strong, and a mixed adjective declension (see example [2.3]). (cf. 13)

(2.3) Weak, strong, and mixed adjective declension in German (singular, masculine + feminine), selected examples

Weak declension Strong declension Mixed declension

acc d en kalt en Winter frisch en Salat ein en schön en Tag

gen d es kalt en Winter s frisch en Salat s ein es schön en Tag es

acc d ie eisig e Kälte rein e Luft ein e dumm e Gans

gen d er eisig en Kälte rein er Luft ein er dumm en Gans

Basically, we have a rather complex and compehensive system of case marking in German. By comparing English and German structures, we find a system of a more precise and overt case distinction only in the inflection of English pronouns (e.g. he, him, his - er, ihm, ihn, sein). Within other English noun phrases we can identify genitive marking (e.g. Peter’ s party) but nominative, accusative, and dative are not marked in individual words like determiners, nouns and adjectives. (cf. 17)

(2.4) German (a) and English (b) case markings within noun phrases (definite article + noun)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The invariability of the English definite article the and the English adjective in combination with the unmarked noun (see table [2.4]) causes a great uniformity within English noun phrases, and therefore a greater vagueness concerning syntactical functions (cf. 28). Thus, the syntactic role of the noun phrase is not represented by explicit inflectional endings. The development of the English accusative and dative case from the status of being two individual cases to a kind of “blended” object case or common case is an explicit indicator of case syncretism. In German, for example, the dative case is used to express location (e.g. auf dem Tisch) and the accusative case to express direction (e.g. auf den Tisch) whereas English makes no distinction (e.g. The book was on the table. - She put the book on the table.). (cf. 27)


[1] Cf. John A. Hawkins, A Comparative Typology of English and German: Unifying the Contrasts, (London/Sydney: Groom Helm, 1986.) xiii. All page references within the text belong to this edition.

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Basic structural differences within a linguistic comparison of English and German grammar
College  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
HpS Contrastive Linguistics
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morphology, german english contrast, grammar, word order, case marking, inflection, verb-first structures, objects, subjects
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M.A. Theresa Schmidt (Author), 2006, Basic structural differences within a linguistic comparison of English and German grammar, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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