Diacritical marks and special letters
Although each of these three languages use what is called the Latin alphabet, French and German use diacritical marks on certain letters to change the sound of the letter and one extra letter, so they have a slightly enlarged version of the alphabet. English is the only one of the major languages which normally does not use diacritical marks except for some loanwords drawn from another language.
The diacritical marks used in French include the grave accent placed above the vowel letter, eg è, which changes the sound of the e, the acute accent above the vowel, eg é, which changes the sound, the circumflex over the vowel, eg ê, which changes the sound, the diaresis above the vowel, eg ë, which causes a brief break between the letter and the preceding letter, forcing an extra syllable, and the cedilla placed below the letter, eg ç, which causes c to have the soft s sound instead of the harsh k sound before an a, o or u.
The marks used in German include the umlaut placed above the vowel, eg ü, which changes the sound and the additional letter eszett which stands for ss, eg ẞ. German also has the glottal stop sound, which isn’t in English. All nouns in German are spelt with capital initial letters, whereas nouns in English and French are only capitalised if they are proper nouns like ‘God’ and ‘London’. In all three languages spelling includes silent letters and double consonants, any of which do nothing for phonetics.
In each of these three languages, nouns and pronouns for living organisms have either masculine or feminine gender as they refer to the sex of the animal, which is either male or female. However, while English assigns neuter gender to all inanimate objects because they have no sex, French arbitrarily assigns masculine or feminine gender to all inanimate objects (so a chair has masculine gender and a door has feminine gender) and German arbitrarily assigns masculine, feminine or neuter gender to inanimate objects. So, in French and German, the gender of inanimate objects has to be learnt by heart.
Whereas in English there is no need for adjectives or articles qualifying a noun or pronoun to have to agree with the gender of the noun or pronoun, in French, each adjective or article has two forms, one for each of the two genders so their form has to agree with the gender of the word they qualify; and in German, adjectives and articles have three forms to agree with the gender of the item they describe. Therefore gender forms of adjectives and articles in French and German have to be learnt by heart.
In each language there are different ways of forming plurals from singular nouns, although some methods are common to all three. Some English words derived from French or German retain their specific French or German rules for plurals.
All three languages have what each calls regular verbs and irregular verbs; however the definitions of what is regular and what is not vary among the languages. English is perhaps the simplest for its regular verbs, as they are all grouped in one category, the members of which follow a common set of rules when forming different tenses, including participles and infinitives from the base or stem. English also has what are called reflexive verbs and prefix verbs, most of which are also regular in their behaviour.
German also has one class called regular verbs, which behave under common rules. German also has reflexive verbs and prefix verbs which generally behave regularly. French has three (or four, if ‘oir’ verbs are separated from ‘ir’ verbs) classes of regular verbs, and members of each class follow its rules in forming the various tenses.
However, all three languages have irregular verbs which have a multitude of ways in which they depart from the so-called regular patterns. Basically, everyone speaking or writing in any of these languages has to learn all the specific rules for each irregular verb by heart, and there are lots of them! Current English has about 550 of them and the other two languages have several of them too. Sometimes what is irregular in English may be regular in German, which is where these words came from centuries ago. What is common among these languages is that the most irregular verbs are also the most frequently used, such as the verbs be, have and do in English and the equivalent verbs in the other languages. All of the points in this blog are discussed more fully in my book ‘Nu-English’, along with many other points.