Tag Archives: german

Latin, German, and English: break it down, now.

One of the more common responses I get when I tell people that I study Latin (after “I didn’t know people still do that”) is “That’s great; it must be so much easier for you to learn other Romance languages.” Indeed, the ease with which one can pick up Spanish, French, or Italian (and also Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan) after gaining a firm footing in Latin is one of the more compelling arguments for keeping Latin programs in schools. I’ve also found that knowing Latin has made the study of German, which is not a Romance language, far easier for me than it would have been otherwise.

One skill that learners of Latin gain is to break down a new, confusing word (in Latin or in English) into components that might be more easily understood. This becomes an unconscious reflex and is very useful in studying German, which likes to make a single compound word where we would use an entire phrase in English. Flipping through my dictionary, I see die Suppenwürfelreklame, “an advertisement for soup-cubes” (die Suppe, “soup” + der Würfel, “cube” + die Reklame, “advertisement”). Perhaps a slightly more useful example is der Paarungsplatz, “mating ground,” or more literally, a “pairing-place.”

eine Suppenwürfelreklame- an advertisement for Knorr vegetable bouillon.

eine Suppenwürfelreklame

Beyond this skill, Latin vocabulary has also been extremely useful for memorizing German verbs, especially those with prefixes. Even though the German components typically do not resemble their Latin equivalent, the English translation of the German word is often composed of Latin derivatives. Confusing? I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to explain the relationship, and I thought a chart might help:

German word
English translation of German, given by dictionary German components Latin components of English translation Literal meaning of both German and English
übertragen transfer über (“over”) + tragen (“to carry”) trans (“over”) + ferre (“to carry”) “to carry over”
ausschließen exclude aus (“out”) + schließen (“to close”) ex (“out”) + claudere (“to close”) “to close out”
mitarbeiten collaborate mit (“with”) + arbeiten (“to work”) cum (“with”) + laborare (“to work”) “to work with”

It’s true, as they say, that the more languages a person knows, the easier it is to learn even more of them. The more connections our brains have between different words and ideas, the easier it is to recall that information. Latin provides a network of connections that exist alongside and behind our knowledge of English, making new language acquisition that much easier, even if the new language is not derived from Latin.