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12 Languages

12.7 German

12.7.1 Accents and special sorts

German uses the diacritics Ä, Ö, Ü, ä, ö, ü, and the special sort Eszett (ß) (see 12.7.2): Eszett differs from a Greek beta (β), which should not be substituted for it.

12.7.2 Orthographic reform

A new orthography agreed by the German-speaking countries came into force on 1 August 1998. The seven-year transitional period, during which both systems were official, ended on 31 July 2005, and the older orthographic forms are now considered incorrect, although they are still widely used. The reform’s main tendency is to eliminate irregularities that caused difficulty for the native speaker. At the same time, more variations are permitted than under the old rules, though these options are restricted: it is not acceptable to mix and match old and new spellings at will.

Under the new orthography, certain words were adjusted to resemble related words, so that, for instance, the verbs numerieren and plazieren become nummerieren and platzieren to coincide with the related nouns Nummer (‘number’) and Platz (‘place’).

In verbal compounds, nouns and adjectives regarded as retaining their normal functions are written separately:

radfahrenRad fahren ‘to ride a bicycle’
irreführen (‘to mislead’) and wahrsagen (‘to predict’)
Long-established loanwords have been Germanized (TipTipp, ‘tip’), and ее substituted for é in such words as Varietee for Varieté (‘music hall’).

The optional use of f for ph is extended: Delfin (‘dolphin’), Orthografie (‘orthography’), but not to words deemed more learned: Philosophie (‘philosophy’), Physik (‘physics’).

The Eszett was traditionally used in place of a double s at the end of a syllable, before a consonant (whatever the vowel), and after long vowels and diphthongs. The new rules allow the ß only after a long vowel (including ie) or diphthong:

Fuß, Füße ‘foot, feet’
after a short vowel ss is to be used:
Kuss, Küsse ‘kiss, kisses’
ihr esst, ihr aßt ‘you [pl.] eat, ate’
wir essen, wir aßen ‘we eat, ate’

The Eszett is considered an archaism in Swiss German, ss being preferred in all circumstances. No corresponding capital and small capital letters exist for ß, and SS and ss are used instead; in alphabetical order ß counts as ss and not sz.

In the absence of specific instructions to the contrary, or of evidence from the nature of the text itself, the new rules should be applied in all matter not by native speakers of German. Quotations from matter published in the old spelling should follow the old style (except in respect of word division), but new editions will normally modernize.

The new orthography’s effects in other areas are mentioned under the headings below.

12.7.3 Abbreviations

Use a full point:

  • • after an abbreviation that would be read out in full; a space after any points within it is optional (but usual in formal writing):

d. h. (das heißt, ‘that is’)
Dr. (Doktor, ‘Dr’)
Prof. (Professor, ‘Prof.’)
usw. (und so weiter, ‘and so on’)
z. В. (zum Beispiel, ‘for example’)
  • • after numerals used for days of the month and ordinal numbers:

Montag, den 12. August ‘Monday, 12 August’
der 2. Weltkrieg (der Zweite Weltkrieg, ‘the Second World War’)

Do not use points in abbreviations that are pronounced as such:

DM (die Deutsche Mark, ‘the German mark’)
KG (Kommanditgesellschaft, ‘limited partnership’)

Some common examples of abbreviations in German:

a. a. O.

am angeführten Ort











Bd., Bde.

Band, Bände





d. h.

das heißt

d. i.

das ist


ebenda, ebendaselbst

Erg. Bd.








Hs., Hss.

Handschrift, Handschriften



m. E.

meines Erachtens

m. W.

meines Wissens





o. Ä.

oder Ähnliche(s)

o. O.

ohne Ort







s. a.

siehe auch

s. o.

siehe oben



s. u.

siehe unten

u. a.

unter anderem

u. ä.

und ähnliches

usf., u. s. f.

und so fort

usw., u. s. w.

und so weiter



Verf., Vf.




z. B.

zum Beispiel

z. T.

zum Teil

12.7.4 Capitalization

All nouns in German are written with initial capital letters, as are other words (adjectives, numerals, and infinitives) that are used as nouns:

Gutes und Böses ‘good and evil’
Die Drei ist eine heilige Zahl ‘Three is a sacred number’

The basic rule of capitalizing nouns remains untouched by the orthographic reform, but whereas all nouns used as adverbs were previously lower case, some changes have been implemented: for example, heute abend (‘tonight’) is now heute Abend, morgen abend (‘tomorrow evening’) becomes morgen Abend, and gestern morgen (‘yesterday morning’) becomes gestern Morgen.

Adjectives used as nouns are capitalized with fewer exceptions than before: alles übrige becomes alles Übrige (‘everything else’).

In the new rules the familiar forms of the second person pronouns du, dich, dir, dein, ihr, euch, euer are not (as they formerly were) capitalized in letters and the like. The old rule remains that pronouns given a special sense in polite address are capitalized to distinguish them from their normal value: these are (in medieval and Swiss contexts) Ihr addressed to a single person; (in early modern contexts) Er and Sie (feminine singular); and (nowadays) Sie (plural). In all of the above the capital is used also in the oblique cases and in the possessive, but not in the reflexive sich.

Capitalize adjectives that form part of a geographical name (or are formed from a place name), the names of historic events or eras, monuments, institutions, titles, special days and feast days. Otherwise do not capitalize adjectives denoting nationality:

das deutsche Volk ‘the German nation’
or the names of languages in expressions where their use is considered adverbial:
italienisch sprechen ‘to speak Italian’
Traditionally, adjectives derived from personal names were capitalized in certain contexts, but according to the new rules all adjectives derived from personal names are to be lower case, except when the name is marked off with an apostrophe:
das ohmsche Gesetz or das Ohm’sche Gesetz ‘Ohm’s Law’

In work titles the first word and all nouns are capitalized, with all other words having a lower-case initial.

12.7.5 Punctuation

There are very specific rules about the placing of commas in German. Do not interfere in the punctuation of quoted matter without reference to the author or the source.

Sentences containing an imperative normally end in an exclamation mark. The traditional practice of ending the salutation in a letter with an exclamation mark—Sehr geehrter Herr Schmidt! (‘Dear Herr Schmidt’)—has largely given way to the use of a comma, after which the letter proper does not begin with a capital unless one is otherwise required.

German rarely employs the en rule in compounds in the way that it is used in English, preferring a hyphen between words:

die Berlin-Bagdad-Eisenbahn ‘the Berlin–Baghdad railway’

The en rule is used for page and date ranges (S.348–349, 1749–1832): do not elide such ranges. It is also used, with a word space on each side, as a dash.

Quotation marks

German quotation marks (Anführungszeichen) take the form of two commas at the beginning of the quotation, and two opening quotation marks (turned commas) at the end („“), or reversed guillemets are used (»…«). Mark quotations within quotations by a single comma at the beginning and a single opening quotation mark at the end (, ‘). No space separates the quotation marks from the quotation.

Expect a colon to introduce direct speech. Commas following a quotation fall after the closing quotation mark, but full points go inside if they belong to the quotation.


The apostrophe is used to mark the elision of e to render colloquial usage:

Wie geht’s? ‘How are things?’/‘How are you?’

When the apostrophe occurs at the beginning of a sentence, the following letter does not become a capital:

’s brennt! ‘Fire!’ (not ’S brennt)

The apostrophe is also used to mark the suppression of the possessive s (for reasons of euphony) after names ending in s, ß, x, z:

Aristoteles’ Werke

Horaz’ Oden


Traditionally, a noun after a hyphen begins with an initial capital:

das Schiller-Museum ‘the Schiller Museum’
but the new orthography allows words to be run together:
das Schillermuseum

The hyphen was used to avoid the double repetition of a vowel (Kaffee-Ersatz, ‘coffee substitute’) but not to avoid the similar repetition of a consonant (stickstofffrei, ‘nitrogen-free’). The new rules no longer require a hyphen—groups of three identical consonants are written out even before a vowel and when sss results from the abolition of β after a short vowel:



Schlußsatz → Schlusssatz

It is permissible to make such compounds clearer by using a hyphen:




12.7.6 Word division

For the purpose of division, distinguish between simple and compound words.

Simple words

Do not divide words of one syllable. Divide other simple words by syllables, either between consonants or after a vowel followed by a single consonant. This applies even to x and mute h: Bo-xer, verge-hen.

Do not separate ch, ph, sch, ß, and th (representing single sounds). Correct examples are spre-chen, wa-schen, So-phie, ka-tholisch, wech-seln, Wechs-ler. Traditionally st was included in this group, but under the new rules it is no longer, and should be divided: Las-ten, Meis-ter, Fens-ter.

At the ends of lines, take over ß: hei-ßen, genie-ßen.

Take over as an entity ss if used instead of ß, but divide ss when it is not standing for ß: las-sen.

Traditionally, if a word was broken at the combination ck it was represented as though spelled with kk: Zucker but Zuk-ker, Glocken but Glok-ken. According to the new orthography, the combination ck is taken over whole, as it was traditionally after a consonant in proper nouns or their derivatives: Zu-cker, Glo-cken, Fran-cke, bismar-ckisch.

Treat words with suffixes as simple words and divide in accordance with the rules above: Bäcke-rei, le-bend, Liefe-rung.

Compound words

Divide a compound word by its etymological constituents (Bildungs-roman, Kriminal-polizei, strom-auf) or within one of its elements: Bundes-tag or Bun-destag. Divide prefixes from the root word: be-klagen, emp-fehlen, er-obern, aus-trinken.

12.7.7 Numerals

Separate numbers of more than four figures with thin spaces by thousands: 6 580 340.

A full point after a numeral shows that it represents an ordinal number:

14. Auflage (14th edition)
Mittwoch, den 19. Juli 1995 (Wednesday, 19 July 1995)

The full point also marks the separation of hours from minutes: 14.30

Uhr or 1430 Uhr.

Germans use Roman numerals rarely: even when citing Roman page numbers, they often convert them into Arabic and add an asterisk: S. 78* (p. lxxviii). Distinguish this from 1*, denoting the first page of an article that is in fact (say) the third or fifth page of a pamphlet.

12.7.8 Historical and specialist setting

The traditional black-letter German types such as Fraktur and Schwabacher were replaced by the Roman Antiqua in 1941. They are now found only to a limited extent in German-speaking countries, mostly in decorative or historical contexts, or in approximating earlier typography. Any matter to be set in them should be deemed a quotation. Word division should follow the pre-1998 rules, not the new; in particular the st ligature should be taken over. The long s () in Fraktur type is used at the beginnings of words, and within them except at the ends of syllables. The short final s () is generally put at the ends of syllables and words, except before p (Knospe).

Table 12.2 German Fraktur alphabet

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