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Latin vs. German

Hey! As a former Latin and current German student, I noticed several similarities between the two languages. For example, sentence structure in Latin and German are similar. Both also have nouns in three grammatical genders, whereas most other modern Western European languages have nouns in only two.

I understand the historical and linguistic(?) relation between Latin and German. Both are Indo-European languages, the Roman Empire (sort of) reigned over Germanic lands, and so on.

But why doesn't Latin share its qualities with its more "closely related" descendants, like Spanish, French, or Italian? Why does German have three genders, while they have only two?

I'm an amateur in this subject, so do correct me if my thoughts misguided. And if not, please discuss this and enlighten me. Thanks!

December 26, 2015



I'm not sure how much direct influence Latin had on German, as the people back then didn't speak the German that is spoken nowadays? The German that people are learning now, has pretty much nothing to do with the German people spoke when the Romans conquered half of Germany. E.g. that are the Merseburger Zaubersprüche from the 9th/10th century https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KH2F08Cxst0

It's hard to impossible to read the text without extra teaching in old standard German, and kind of closer to English than Latin with words like suister (sister). Germany is quite central so they got vocabulary from all over Europe especially Latin/Romance Langauges or Greek (educated people who could write also usually knew Greek/Latin/French).
It also merged from many German dialects, the Luther bible was the first bible translation that has kind of a merged German and is an early form of what is spoken today.

Being a native German speaker and having had Latin, French and Spanish in secondary school I cannot relate to German being close to Latin like at all :'D You always get told that the langauges are coming from completely different places.

The genders are somehow similar, they're also having three, even though they're used differently, like I think Templum was neuter(?), but in German Templum is male etc. Or our sun is female, but in all romance languages it's male, but our moon is male and it's female in romance languages :D German has the same cases except the ablativ, that was similar as well. Alas the vocabulry isn't very similar, so getting the vocabulary is pretty hard, despite for a few words that have its roots in Latin...Even without the genders are Latin and the other roman languages much much closer related than Latin and German.

My school's approach was "getting Roman languages through the mother Latin", so we started with Latin in grade 7 and then got French in grade 9 and I also chose Spanish in grade 11. The actual goal was to make us able to get vocabulry pretty easy as we know the roots e.g. Latin venire=to come and French/Spanish venir which kind of worked, at least I can do it from French to Spanish nowadays.


I am a native English speaker but I am a language enthusiast, and I'm learning German and Latin. For some reason I see many extremely striking similarities between the two that shouldn't be there if there is no connection between the two languages. German seems to have many Latin roots embedded in the language. For example, German on the left, Latin on the right: Ist. Est.
In. In. / Nacht. Nocte. /
Käse. Caseus. / Wind. Ventus. / Seine. Suus. / Du. Tu./ This is my favourite: Haben, habe: habere, habeo / Mir, mich: me/ Fenster, Fenestra / Nein. Non. / Vater. Pater. / Unter. Inter. / Familie. Familia / Perfekt. Perfectus. /

I have found these and many more cognates that are Latin built into the German language. It is also not just these, there are many traces of Latin grammar principles that have lived on in German. If anyone can explain this, please do! Or correct me on my mistakes, but I think we can agree that German was heavily influenced by Latin!


German and Latin have fundamental similarities because they both derive from the same root: Proto-Indo-European. As do Russian, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Hindi, Lithuanian and scores of other languages.


These languages share all manner of similarities in terms of grammar (gender, case) and basic vocabulary (family members, anatomy, food, time etc).


Hi, I am a linguist and although this is a bit late (=P), you should remember that Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European language tree. A language tree doesn't necessarily mean same root but it can also be that the similarities are so deep in the past that we can not recover for some cases. That is what we call "Language Isolates" even if some of them are inside a large language family as the Indo-European one. That is true for Greek or Basque to mention some.


It sounds like our DNA. Sometime I think how we must have learned to speak. Maybe the similarity in sounds/words are more coincidental. Since we are all the same species, same chances of coming up with stuff. Trying to give it an origin, it's in our human nature


Sandy_0309 Thank you for this look into the German school system, at least when it comes to languages. I would have loved to be introduced in Latin, then French and Spanish! I was in the 9th grade in Texas, USA, when we had to choose a language (Latin was not an option, heck) - Just French or Spanish (LOL) one semester only. Learning languages was out of my financial reach until I discovered Duolingo in September 2017, now I will study all the languages offered.. And by studying, Catalan, which is for Spanish speakers only, ( I studied Spanish on Duolingo first.) Knowing I can study a language with instructions other than English, has opened up the possibility of learning all languages Duolingo has to offer regardless of the instructional language (once I study the instructional language first of course)!


I think that what many people "key" on, myself included, is how Latin and German both have three genders, Latin and German still have a multitude of "cases," and how some sentence structure seems similar (such as forcing verbs to the end).

That said, you being the native German speaker, and with much education in the other languages, I would have to defer to you when it comes to a matter of expertise.

That said, to many of us, including the originator of this thread, there are some strange and unavoidable similarities.


Who's the German speaker? Sorry, you might not be talking to me, but if you are, I'm not a native German speaker


It was sandy_0309 above. Her comments are amazing.

While to-the-subject of similarities between Latin and German, she makes it quite clear that the similarities are more accidental than we’d like to think.


I was just saying that:) (about similarities been more accidental)


Thank you for telling us about the place of Latin in the German school system, Sandy. I was fascinated to learn your school taught Latin as groundwork for learning Romance Languages.

When I was at school in Scotland half a century ago the studying of Latin was considered to help us with our native language, English. Every child who was in the least academically inclined was started on Latin on arriving at secondary school at the age of 12. It was believed, firstly, that the drilling in grammar involved in ancient languages - some pupils took Ancient Greek as well as Latin - would help us with English grammar and, secondly, that since so many words in English are derived from Latin the study of Latin would expand our English vocabulary. Thirdly, it was considered that a knowledge of Latin vocabulary would help us learn the vocabulary of foreign languages. German, French and Spanish were taught at local secondary schools.

I took Latin, French and German and soon came to doubt the last of those suppositions. Words can change quite a bit between languages and, even worse, can flip their gender. Remembering the gender of nouns has always given me a headache. Even within what i think is called "der deutsche Sprachraum" gender can flip between areas.

I remember having a mental block about the German noun "die Mauer" ("the wall"). My teacher pointing out the word comes from the Latin word "murus" only muddled my mind more, as the Latin word is masculine and the German feminine.

On the other hand, there's the Spanish noun "la mano" ("the hand") - feminine but with an "-o" ending. It helps me to remember that it is derived from the feminine Latin noun "manus", which does not belong to the second declension of masculine and neuter nouns, though it looks as if it should.

I wonder how far Latin studies really do help learners of modern languages. I'm not sure.


Oh, I'm sure the real answer is terribly complicated, but as to gender, I could float a hypothesis. Languages tend to change most rapidly when they're adopted by speakers of other languages, and they tend to lose features that are unfamiliar to the new speakers. In Western Europe the new speakers switching over to Latin would have mostly been Celtic speakers, with a two-gender system already in place. So they would tend to drop the neuter and keep the two genders they were familiar with. But German, in East and Central Europe, was being adopted mostly by speakers of Slavic languages, which also had three genders. They would tend to keep all three genders, because they had them in their own native languages. (I'm sure a real linguist would laugh at the simplicity of this explanation! But something kinda sorta like that.)


Where a Romance language formed by Slavic speakers adopting Latin (i.e. Romanian), you do get a three-gender system. (I just looked that up :->)


Were the local people of Dacia (today's Romania) Slavic when the Romans invaded??? (I may be remembering my history wrong)


No, they weren't. They were Thracians, Indo-Germanic. But the Romans occupied the are for a mere one hundred sixty years, not enough for the formation of the language. Probably the core of the current Romanian population came from further south, current Bulgaria which was under Roman rule for a longer time. And which is Slavic today.

But there is not one accepted theory on the origin of the Romanians.


That's quite likely, as the ancient Dacian population was nearly entirely slaughtered by the Romans.


And probably their original language is mostly guessed at by trying to reverse-engineer Romanian. I don't think my argument is going to stand up in court :-)


Another interesting question is why the western Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan) merged the masculine and neuter genders, whereas the two-gender Germanic languages (Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian) merged the masculine and feminine genders.


Norwegian still knows three genders. Danish has different dialects with one to three genders (but two is standard).


Of course you are right about Norwegian. I should have said that the masculine and feminine genders are only semi-merged, as for most feminine nouns you can choose to treat them as feminine ("boka mi") or masculine ("boken min").

Apparently the Bergen dialect never uses the feminine forms, so only has two genders.



In the dative and genetive case, there is no difference in german between masculine and neuter genders. Perhaps the reason is close to this.


Interesting you should point that out, that for male and other nouns, dative and genitive cases are the same. On the other hand, female, other, and plural nouns do not show accusative case, making them the same in nominative and accusative cases. Not that this helps anything, I suppose, but it is a curious pattern.


I'm not a linguist either, but I've done some wikipedia reading, and I guess I can throw in some my input. Don't know if this is right or not.

Compare german's neuter/masculine declinsion (singular)

| Case | Neuter | Masculine |

| --- | --- | --- |

| Nom | Das | Der |

Acc | Das | Den

Gen | Des | Des

Dat | Dem | Dem

Though the genitive and dative are the same, most sentences have some part of nominative and accusative so if any noun is in those forms, you can tell the gender.

Latin's second singular declension: (masc, neut)

Nom: -us, -um Acc: -um, -um Gen: -i, -i Dat: -o, -o Abl: -o, -o

The only difference is in the nominative (well, it does differ in the vocative, but I'll ignore that).

The plural declension for second declension neuters is also similar to the first declension nouns, which are usually female.

M was lost when it was the final letter, eventually evolving -um into -o, which explains all those masculine -o words in Spanish and Italian and Portuguese. (I don't know about french though...French is weird.) It became harder to distinguish words through case, and prepositions were used more often instead. Eventually the case system was lost.

When the cases merged, and so did the genders.

It's more complicated than that, but I hope this answers your question.


Does anyone know how to format tables?


I think that it uses MarkDown, so for a table, insert a blank line, then divide the elements of the table with the "|" vertical stroke character, and then to divide the heading of the table from the rest, put in horizontal marks "---".

So your table would become:

Case Neuter Masculine
Nom Das Der
Acc Das Den
Gen Des Des
Dat Dem Dem


But I would think having added the feminine and plural would have helped complete the pattern. For what it’s worth.


Latin lost much of its declension in a later form called Vulgar Latin which split into the Romance languages. German however is in an odd position of having preserved a lot more of the conjugation of the earlier Proto-Germanic languages. This is why German bears similarities with older Latin that the Romance languages do not have. This is however simplified a bit, because each language has a different level of declension. Some languages like Romanian do have some of the preserved declension of Latin.


Fair enough! I think some Italian nouns (like l'uovo) have traces of the neuter as well. In addition, some colloquial dialects of two-gender languages still retain three-gender distinctions. Perhaps the assimilation of older Latin declensions does vary. Thank you!


I remember that some Spanish nouns change gender in the plural, and all these cases they were neuter nouns in Latin.


Spanish nouns do have constant gender. Neuter Latin nouns just usually become masculine.


As usual, the default choice!


Vulgar Latin was a colloquial form that existed alongside Classical Latin, not after it.

Think of them as the language of the common man and the language of the elite.


I never said that it is a simple timeline of first Latin then Vulgar Latin, language evolution and evolution in general does not this way. However, considering that the vulgar colloquial form exited in native use a bit after Classical Latin lost (native) use, I would still call it a "successory form" despite of the overlap in timeline.


Ah. When you said a 'later form of Latin', I took you literally. My mistake!


Sorry, it was also my fault for not explaining what I meant very well ^^


first paragraph wikipedia god right here


There's a general historical trend in Indo-European (IE) languages toward simplifying the originally complex IE grammar, which included more verb tenses and noun cases and so on than almost any descendant language today. They have not all evolved at the same rates, though, either in the initial breakup of IE into its various main branches, or in the later diversification of each branch into its descendants, the modern IE languages. So, for example, modern Russian grammar is more complex than even Latin.

Thus, it's important to remember that, amongst the Germanic languages, German is an unusually conservative language. In other words, German retains many features that all Germanic languages had as recently as a thousand years ago (long after Latin was no longer spoken by the general public). In fact the English of the year 1000 had even more inflections than the German of today. English is easily the least conservative of the Germanic languages: it has changed the most from the common language that it and German both derived from.

It might be worth noting that the most-widely-spoken North Germanic languages, including the three currently (April 2018) available on Duolingo, are in between German and English in terms of how much they have changed from their common ancestor. And Icelandic is easily the most conservative Germanic language, such that people fluent in Icelandic can read the Norse sagas written 800 years ago with little difficulty.

The Romance languages, meanwhile, are also in between English and German in terms of how much of their ancestral complexity their respective grammars have retained. An example of this is, as you pointed out, that they still have grammatical gender, but they've reduced the number of them to two, while German has retained the gender system intact and English has lost it entirely. Dutch and Swedish are parallel cases, in which each has reduced the number of genders to two (albeit in a different way from the Romance languages). And they're parallel to each other; they each still had three genders long after they had become different languages from one another.

The reasons for this are difficult to generalise, but English in particular has had a long history of extended contact with various languages (in particular first Norse and then Old French) that have eroded a lot of the features that it once had in common with Latin.


I would think it's because Rome wasn;t as much of an influence over those Germanic countries as over those that eventually spoke the Romance languages, but i may be wrong.


As far as I know, the Latin declensions were introduced into German by Luther when he translated the Bible into German. Luther who was a religious Catholic scholar mastered Latin...


The Luther Bible established High German as the prestige dialect throughout Germany but didn't introduce 'Latin declensions' into the language. The declensions of High German are inherited from Proto-Indo-European, via Old High German and its other historical antecedents. German, Latin, Icelandic, Latvian, Russian, Sanskrit etc derive their case systems from the same historical source.


Thanks, I like this connection. I like the 3 genders and we should have a neuter!I'm trying to use it more, even if some of my fellow Brits have forgotten it's grammatical meaning and they think it's for "things and animals" only. Or I'm wrong? Too much info...I get confused. Although I'm an Italian Native speaker, Latin wasn't thought anymore in generic schools when I was a child. So I can't enlighten you, instead I'm trying to learn from you. Since 4 years have gone, you must have learned so much more... I'm a Spanish student (not as easy as I thought, but still... it sounds so beautiful.) Although English give 30% of his words to the French(Latin man, a solid 60%), many "Latin" words seems to be spelled as the Spanish do(too many Spanish Queens?) What do you think, can I use "illud" as a noun with my fellow Italians?


For what it's worth, re: Latin vs. German:

Historically, much of what is Germany today was the Holy Roman Empire. Hence, likely, there was some effort to preserve Latin.

But, as with other commentators on this page, it's still curious how Latin grammar landed in German, while Latin words migrated off to the western European languages.


I'm not sure I understand you there. I would think that languages evolve and change, with time and our eternal mixing. Romans they spread their Latin language, as Germans(Prussian) spread on land they conquered at their time. As the British Empire did few century ago. So that's why Latin is all over. If one wants to expand, there are similarity with the Indo languages, so Mesopotamia(now Iran/Iraq) is very likely the Big Daddy, the cradle of the world, most of it at least

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