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Some germane facts about German

Sven Töniges
September 28, 2020

Over 15 million people worldwide currently learn German, a language undergoing change — both in meaning and grammar. Here are some interesting facts.

Deutsches school in Kazakhstan
These students in Kazakhstan are hoping to perfect their German skillsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Grimm

Every year in late September, the European Day of Languages salutes Europe's linguistic diversity and highlights the value of learning a foreign language — especially to foster intercultural understanding. 

It's a time when attention is drawn to less common languages as well as those brought to Europe by migrants — or to major languages, like German, which are seen as a foreign language. 

Let’s look at some statistics to see how German performs around the world.

Some towering numbers

According to the portal deutschland.de, approximately 130 million people around the world speak German as their mother tongue or functional second language. 

Adult German class
Many migrants and refugees in Germany spend years learning the language Image: Imago Images/G. Alabiso

In a 2019 study, German studies expert Ulrich Ammon even put the total number of people who have learned at least some German at 289 million. 

With regard to native speakers, German ranks 11th worldwide on the list of most spoken languages.

German is the most widely spoken native language within the European Union. Apart from Germany, it is an official language in five other European countries, and was one of four official and working languages back in the early days of the EU.

German as a foreign language

A survey conducted by the German Foreign Office together with the Goethe Institute and Deutsche Welle indicates that there are about 15.4 million people learning German in 2020.

Namibia Windhoek Goethe Institut
It might be located on Fidel Castro Street, but the Goethe-Institut in Windhoek, Namibia is in fact in the business of teaching GermanImage: picture-alliance/imagebroker/O. Gerhard

Most are based in Europe, but the African continent is catching up: In countries like Egypt, the Ivory Coast and Algeria, the number of German learners has recently increased by 50%.

In China, too, there is an increasing interest in learning the German language. 

In the US, on the other hand, the number of people learning German lately shrunk by about 15%.

The Goethe Institute offers German courses abroad, but there are also numerous online resources, including Deutsche Welle's German courses.

Rolls right off the tongue 

German is famous for its composite words, which means that you can string an infinite number of nouns together — as long as it makes sense. It's a phenomenon often observed in legal writings and in industries prone to jargon.

Duden, the best-known German dictionary, lists these record-breakers:

1. Rinderkennzeichnungsfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz — with a whopping 79 letters, this term translates as “task transfer law concerning the supervision of the labeling of beef as meat on sale tags."

2. Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung — weighing in at 67 letters, this hulk of a word denotes the "task transfer decree governing the applicable jurisdiction concerned with granting permits for vehicular traffic on non-public property."

3. Straßenentwässerungsinvestitionskostenschuldendienstumlage — coming in third at 58 letters, we are looking at the "reallocation of the debt management of costs associated with public investments in road drainage." 

Speer-Azurjungfer ist Libelle des Jahres 2020
They might be scared of the little insects, but kids in Germany find that the German word for Dragonfly - "Libelle" - is their favorite wordImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Post

The alpha and the omega

While the German alphabet, like most Latin alphabets, starts with "a" and ends in "z," the most common letter used in the German language is "e." You only need to take a quick look at a computer keyboard in Germany to see how worn down this letter is; the average frequency of the letter "e" in German words is around 17.5%.  Almost no sentence can pass German lips without this letter.

The "Q" takes last place, with a frequency of just 0.02%.

Beauty in the eye of the linguistic beholder

Polling German learners from 48 countries, Gemütlichkeit — which roughly translates as "coziness" — was voted the most beautiful German word in 2019 by the language magazine Deutsch perfekt. The words Schmetterling (butterfly) and Eichhörnchen (squirrel) took second and third place.

In 2004, the German Language Council launched a more comprehensive competition for the "Most Beautiful German Word." People from 111 countries submitted nearly 23,000 suggestions, and the top-5 winners were:

1. Habseligkeiten (treasured belongings)

2. Geborgenheit (emotional security)

3. lieben (to love)

4. Augenblick (fleeting moment)

5. Rhabarbermarmelade (rhubarb jam)

Meanwhile, a children's jury voted for the favorite word among kids, and Libelle (dragonfly) came out on top.

A millionaire’s language

In the 19th century, Johann Christoph Adelung wrote the first German dictionary. His "Grammatically Critical Dictionary of the High German Dialect" had close to 60,000 entries. 

The Grimm Dictionary, begun in 1838 and finished posthumously 123 years later, has 319,295 entries. These are incidentally the same brothers Grimm who wrote fairy tales, but that subject matter obviously accounts for only a tiny portion of the Grimm Dictionary content.

Deutschland Neuer Duden erscheint
The latest edition of the Duden (seen here) features hundreds of new words, including many pertaining to the novel coronavirus pandemicImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Duden comes in various versions — for grammar, for German words with foreign sources, and for style for example. The Duden dictionary for proper spelling has around 148,000 word entries. Among the 3,000 words recently added are Mikroplastik (microplastics) and COVID-19, making the 2020 edition the most comprehensive ever.

However, this is merely the printed edition of the Duden. The Dudenkorpus, a database that has been digitally combing through German-language texts since the late 1990s, reached a total count of 18 million existing words in spring 2020. And these are just "basic" words. Add composites and rarely used terms, and the total number of words swells to 5.6 billion.

But you don’t have to learn all of them to use German — even in the most literary circles. Besides, as Mark Twain famously said: “Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.”

Adapted by Sertan Sanderson