Understanding unfamiliar German words

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German (general) By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: German » German (general)
Last updated: 16/05/2015
Tags: deducing meaning, german language, logical language

School pupils, impressed that you have been able to answer their ‘try to catch the teacher out by asking after a random piece of vocabulary completely unrelated to the topic’ question (every MFL teacher will know this strategy well) will then ask in awe: ‘Miss, do you know every single word in German?’ To this, I will firstly reply: ‘No, but neither do I in English. Do you?’ And then I will add: ‘But if I see a difficult word in German, it’s much easier for me to work out its meaning than it would be if I came across an unfamiliar word in English’. Disbelief.

 I remember, for example, reading a Dickens novel whilst in Germany when I came across the word ‘pecuniary’. Only having access to an English / German dictionary I looked it up there and found the prefix ‘Geld-‘ (money) and the word ‘finanziell’. Problem solved, thanks to my ‘Wörter-buch’ (words book)!

And how would an English learner be able to work out what a ‘glove’ a ‘square’ or a ‘torch’ was from the word alone, when in German the words ‘Hand-schuh’ (hand shoe), ‘Vier-eck’ (four corners) and ‘Taschen-lampe’ (pocket lamp) are easily deduced with very basic language skills. 

There is something quite satisfying  - and fun – about working out these words. What job might a ‘Tier-arzt’ (animal doctor) carry out? What might you suffer from if you had ‘Platz-angst’ (space fear) or what would you be wearing if you pulled on a ‘Strumpf-hose’ (stocking trousers) under your ‘Schlaf-anzug’ (sleep suit) and your ‘Gummi-stiefel’ (rubber boots). And, finally, every school pupil’s favourite, if you suffer from too much ‘Durch-fall’ (through fall) it might have you running for the ‘Kranken-haus’ (patients’ house)? In comparison with the English, again, very easily worked out.

Yes, German has difficulties – the case system can prove bamboozling at first and the word order takes some getting used to (or takes some used to getting) – but it also offers us a rich vocabulary (and one that is constantly reinventing itself). I, for one, enjoy a language that is both interesting and challenging! 


Elaine McNamee German (general) Tutor (Newcastle upon Tyne)

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