English and German. A Comparison of Phonological and Inflectional Properties

Seminar Paper, 2013

18 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background information on English and German

3. Phoneme inventory
3.1 General description
3.2 Interference

4. Inflection
4.1 Inflectional suffixes in English
4.2 Inflectional suffixes in German
4.3 Comparison of inflectional suffixes in English and German

5. English and German from a learners’ perspective

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography


Eidesstattliche Erklärung

1. Introduction

This paper aims at providing a comparison of phonological as well as inflectional properties of English and German. It presents an overview of how major differences between both languages correlate with potential problems in language learning.

Furthermore, the problems in language learning of two languages of similar historical origin will be examined, in particular German native-speakers in learning English and vice versa. In addition, it might be significant to see how both languages are differently hard to learn. However, it has to be considered that the degree of difficulty in learning one of these languages differs for every individual person.

Each section will concentrate on the question whether major differences between English and German correlate with potential problems in language learning, in particular sections 3.2, 4.3 and 5.

At first, some background information on these languages will be given. Afterwards, by presenting the phoneme inventory, particularly focusing on interference, this paper takes a specific look at the pronunciation difficulties of second language learners. Additionally, a short definition of the term ‘suffixation’ will be given in order to introduce the topic ‘inflection’. Selected inflectional suffixes in English and German, with focus on nouns and pronouns, will be investigated separately with examples in order to give an overview about this morphologic process in both languages. What is also presented in this section is an extensive comparison of inflectional suffixes. Furthermore, a survey was conducted in which students and people with less English and/or German knowledge were questioned. The survey is concerned with difficulties in learning English and German.

2. Background information on English and German

English on the one hand, a world language[1] with approximately 360 million native speakers, is spoken in nearly 50 countries such as the USA, Australia, Canada, Ireland etc (cf. Vistawide 2004). German on the other hand, a language with only about 100 million native speakers, is the official language of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and some other countries (cf. Vistawide 2004).

Having a look at the genetic relation, both languages, English and German, belong to the Indo-European language family and are members of the Western branch of the Germanic language family (cf. Barbour/Stevenson 1990: 24). While English is a sub-branche of the Anglo-Frisian language family, German is divided into High German and Low German. Considering the fact that both languages are “closely related genetically” (König/Gast 2012: 4), this paper will only refer to the recognized Standard varieties: Standard English and Standard High German. One example of such genetically decisive similarities is the “two-term tense distinction” (ibid.: 4) which is a common characteristic of Germanic languages, e.g. present vs. past in terms of inflection as he loves - he loved in English and er liebt – er liebte in German.

The subsequent chapter will introduce the linguistic field ‘phonology’ in order to investigate the difference between English and German sounds.

3. Phoneme inventory

This section aims at providing a comprehensive description of the major contrasts in the phonology of English and German. Firstly, a general description of the phoneme inventory of both languages will be given. Afterwards, the chapter ‘interference’ will present pronunciation problems for Germans learning English and vice versa.

3.1 General description

A phoneme is the smallest meaning-distinguishing unit of a language (cf. Richards/Platt/Weber 1985: 214), e.g. the minimal pairs pan and ban vary only in their initial sound: pan begins with /p/, whereas ban begins with /b/.

Both English and German have rich vowel inventories compared to other languages,[2] but this chapter only takes a look at the consonant inventories. Table 1 (see Appendix: Number 1) provides an overview of all consonants of English and German regarding the most important standard varieties, i.e. Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA) for English, and the standard pronunciation for German (cf. König/Gast 2012: 14). The highlighted cells show contrasts between both languages. English has 44 phonemes, 24 consonants and 20 vowels (cf. Richards/Platt/Weber 1985: 214), whereas German has 46 phonemes, in particular 24 consonants and 22 vowels (cf. Sojka/Kopecek/Pala 2002: 175). Because the consonant systems are structured in similar ways, the focus will be laid on selected consonant phonemes. Therefore the following chapter will demonstrate the difficulties of learning English and/or German.

3.2 Interference

First of all, it is important to know where the term ‘interference’ comes from. Taking the basic theory of ‘language transfer’ into account, in which it is stated that “the effect of one language on the learning of another” (Richards/Platt/Weber 1985: 160) occurs in two types of language transfer: positive transfer and negative transfer. Positive transfer “makes learning easier” (ibid.) and occurs when both the native language and the target/second language have the same form. In contrast, negative transfer, which is also known as ‘interference’, is the use of a native language pattern/rule “which leads to an ERROR or inappropriate form” (ibid.) in the target language.

Regarding the phoneme inventory of both languages, this paragraph will demonstrate how major phonetic differences correlate with problems in second language learning. As can be seen from Table 1, /θ/ and /ð/ do not exist in German. Many students and/or second language learners may replace them by /s/ and /z/ because these phonemes sound similar in their pronunciation. This can cause misunderstandings, if a minimal pair is concerned, as is the case in example (1) (cf. Swan/Smith 2001: 39).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten3

Moreover, many people, in particular Germans, mispronounce the phonemes /v/ and /w/ because the phoneme /w/ in German is always pronounced [v] in English, which is shown in (2) (cf. ibid.).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

In addition, the phonemes /ʒ/ and /dʒ/ are rare in German, therefore German speakers often identify them as /ʃ/ and /tʃ/ in English, as can be seen in (3) (cf. Swan/Smith 2001: 39).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Otherwise, the phoneme /pf/ does not exist in English, whereas German words can begin with /pf/ as Pfennig. Such words always begin with /p/ in English as penny. Thus, this can confuse English speakers. Another contrast is seen between /t/ and /ts/, the pronunciation /ts/ does partly exist in English, whereas it is part of the German phoneme inventory such as the word zehn ([ze:n]). English speakers use the phoneme /t/ instead of /ts/ as in ten ([ten]) . The sequence /ts/ in English is found in plural forms such as cats ([kæts]) (cf. König/Gast 2012: 12), i.e. the affricate /ts/ can appear at the end of words, but never in word initially.[4] A further problem to note is that the German fricatives /ç/ and /x/ “were still part of the sound inventory of Middle English” (König/Gast 2012: 11), but they have either changed into other sounds or have disappeared completely. To mention examples for both, the fricative /ç/ occurs in the German word Licht ([lıçt]) and the fricative /x/ occurs in the German word suchen ([‘zu:xən]). To mention another major source for pronunciation problems, the pronunciation of /kn/ in German such as Knorr causes major difficulties for second language learners. The basic reason is that the first letter of /kn/ in English is not pronounced, e.g. know is pronounced [nəʊ], whereas Knorr would be pronounced [nɔ : r] instead of [knɔ : r].

The examples above are only a fraction of the pronunciation difficulties concerning both languages. In order to investigate another linguistic field that also focuses on how major differences in English and German correlate with potential problems in language learning, the following section will present inflectional suffixes of both languages.


[1] A world language is defined as a language that is spoken internationally and which is learned by a variety of people as a second language.

[2] E.g. the Spanish language has only five vowel phonemes (cf. Hualde 2005: 54).

[3] The term wizard is written in the British Phonetic Alphabet, whereas the term w ithered is written in the American Phonetic Alphabet.

[4] The English phoneme /ts/ as well as other (stop + fricative) sequences like /ps/ or /ks/, occur only in syllable-final position (cf. Ewen/Van der Hulst 2001: 3).

Excerpt out of 18 pages


English and German. A Comparison of Phonological and Inflectional Properties
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglophone Studies)
Languages around the world
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English and German, Englisch, Deutsch, Seminararbeit, Vergleich, Sprache, Linguistik, comparison, phonology, inflection, properties, Phonologie, Inflektion
Quote paper
Hülya Atasoyi (Author), 2013, English and German. A Comparison of Phonological and Inflectional Properties, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/313281


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