Memorize German using historical sound changes

In this article, I’ll explain how you can use a basic knowledge of historical linguistics to more easily memorize German words, and I’ll provide some of the more common correspondences between English and German to get you started.

Taking advantage of language families

Languages don’t just exist in a vacuum – they’re related to other languages, which have all descended from a common ancestor. This means that in most cases, languages tend to have languages that are related that are still spoken today. For example, English is related to almost all the other languages spoken in Europe (with the notable exceptions of Finnish and Hungarian).

As a result, whenever you’re learning a European language, you’ll encounter many similarities, both in grammar and vocabulary (and pronunciation, to some extent). Some languages are more closely related to each other than others. For instance, English is closer to German than to Spanish, but it is related to both.

You can use these relationships to “hack” the word memorization process and make use of your existing knowledge of English (or any other Indo-European languages you may speak) to learn others, especially closely related languages like German.

This article will focus on using this idea for learning German, but the same type of thought process works when learning other related languages like Swedish or Dutch, and also works for non-English languages, like if you’re learning French from Spanish or Uzbek from Turkish.

I’ll start with demonstrating the sound change laws involved in describing how “wish” /wɪʃ/ in English is related to “Wunsch” /vʊnʃ/ in German.

These both descend from a common ancestor word “*wunskijaną” In Proto-West Germanic (spoken roughly 2000 years ago). If you focus on the first part of that word, “wunsk” /wunsk/ (the rest of the word has been completely or almost completely dropped out in modern Germanic languages), it becomes pretty simple to apply some relevant sound changes to get to the modern forms in both languages:

For English:

  1. Absorption of nasals (/n/, /m/, etc.) before fricatives (/s/, /ʃ/, /f/, etc.) leads to /wusk/
  2. Palatalization of /sk/ leads to /wuʃ/
  3. I-mutation (see also this article) leads to /wiʃ/, or /wɪʃ/ (/i/ generally tenses to /ɪ/ in closed syllables in Germanic languages)

For German:

  1. /w/ -> /v/ shift leads to /vunsk/
  2. /sk/ > /ʃ/ shift leads to /vunʃ/ or /vʊnʃ/ (/u/ generally tenses to /ʊ/ in closed syllables in Germanic languages)

As you can see, the two words are just a few sound changes away from each other. This may seem very theoretical and abstract, so a more practical take-away from this example would be:

  • English /w/ corresponds to German /v/
  • English /ʃ/ often (but not always) corresponds to German /ʃ/
  • English /i/ or /ɪ/ often correspond to German /u/ or /ʊ/
  • German might have an /s/ or /ʃ/ sound before nasals when English doesn’t

Example #2: “sleep” and “schlafen”

Another example is “sleep” /sliːp/ and German “schlafen” /ʃlaːfən/. These words are actually related, despite looking pretty different when written down. Ignoring the German verb ending “-en”, which no longer has an equivalent in English, the parts worth comparing are /sliːp/ and /ʃlaːf/. The main differences are:

  1. The /s/ in English is /ʃ/ in German. This can be explained by /s/ shifting to /ʃ/ before another consonant in the initial position of a word. This also explains pairs like English “stand” /stænd/ vs. German “Stand” /ʃtant/.
  2. The /p/ in English is /f/ in German. This is because of a series of sound changes called the “High German consonant shift”, which dramatically changed German voiceless consonants, especially between vowels.
  3. The /i/ in English is /a/ in German. This is a good example of how vowel correspondences are usually much less predictable and therefore less useful when applying this method. At least for English in German, I recommend focusing on consonant correspondences, as those tend to be more practical.

These two examples are meant to demonstrate that being familiar with historical sound changes in the two languages can be a very helpful tool to more easily memorize words in German. Where previously, “street” /striːt/ and “Straße” /ʃtraːsə/ may have seemed very different, if you’re aware of how they’re related, “Straße” becomes much easier to memorize.


The below table summarizes the most common correspondences between English and German.

/sk//ʃ/“flask” and “Flasche”
/sC//ʃC/“snow” and “Schnee”
/p//f/, /pf/“apple” and “Apfel”, “sleep” and “Schlaf”
/t//ts/, /s/“cat” and “Katze”, “eat” and “essen”
/k//x/“make” and “machen”
/d//t/“day” and “Tag”
/θ//d/“brother” and “Bruder”
/f/ or /v//b/“give” and “geben”, “wife” and “Weib”
/s//ns/“us” and “uns”, “goose” and “Gans”, “five” and “fünf”

The main take-away from this article is to make you aware that there are often systematic correspondences between English and German (and other related languages), and if you keep an eye open for them and perhaps read about the phonological history of the two languages, you’ll be able to spot these relationships and use them to make German words stick better in your mind.

Further reading:

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