Welcome back, friends! Today, we’re going to learn how to make adjectives in German. One of the coolest features of German is that we can often make the words we need to say whatever we want. Adjectives give even verbs a run for their money when it comes to just how many different ways we can transform, combine, or build them.

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So, what does it actually mean to "make an adjective" in German? Aren’t adjectives just words that someone made up to describe nouns? Well, yes… some of them. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • grün (green)
  • trocken (dry) 
  • weise (wise)


These adjectives aren’t made from other kinds of words — not from verbs, nouns, or anything else. They're just simple adjectives. If we look at some other adjectives, though, we can see that's not always true:

  • hungrig (hungry)
  • vergessen (forgotten)
  • brennend (burning)


A word like “hungrig” (hungry) isn’t as simple. In both German and English, it’s made from the same noun: Hunger. Let’s find out how it works!


How to turn nouns into adjectives

Making adjectives out of other parts of speech is all about using the correct word endings (suffixes). When we’re turning nouns into adjectives, that means using -en, -ern, -haft, -lich, -isch, -ig, -los, and -mäßig

Some of these are more general, while others add very specific bits of meaning to the new adjective. Let's go over them: 

-en and -ern can change nouns for materials (like wood, iron, stone, etc…) into adjectives. They tell us that something is made of that material (not always literally, though). Let’s look at examples for “Holz” (wood), “Eisen” (iron) and “Gold” (gold):

  • Holz (wood) - hölzern (wooden): Das hölzerne Geländer ist kalt.* (The wooden railing is cold.)
  • Eisen (iron) - eisern (iron): Bobbi hat einen eisernen Willen. (Bobbi has an iron will.)
  • Gold (gold) - golden (golden): Katie genießt einen goldenen Sonnenaufgang. (Katie is enjoying the golden sunrise.)


*Notice also that we also add an umlaut where possible (on a, o, and u) when -ern is used.

-haft is used for adjectives that capture the quality or character of the source noun. For example:

  • Dauer (duration) - dauerhaft (long-term): Sie hat eine dauerhafte Lösung gefunden. (She found a long-term solution)
  • Ehre (honor) - ehrenhaft (honorable): Er ist ein ehrenhafter Mann. (He is an honorable man.)
  • Herz (heart) - herzhaft (hearty): Sie isst ein herzhaftes Frühstück. (She eats a hearty breakfast.)


-lich (+umlaut) works for more than just nouns, but when we’re turning nouns into adjectives, it tells us that the adjective describes something that is “like” the noun. Something that is noun-like, you might say. For example:

  • Ehre (honor) - ehrlich (honest) (Der Mechaniker ist ehrlich. (The mechanic is honest.)
  • Herr (lord) - herrlich (wonderful) Das Essen riecht herrlich. (The food smells wonderful.)
  • Hof (court) - höflich (polite [lit. courtly])]Das Kind ist sehr höflich. (The child is very polite.)


-isch is a very general ending that turns nouns into adjectives. It works very much like -ish in English. We mostly use it to make adjectives out of proper nouns (names of places, people, etc...), as well as many common nouns. Here are a few examples:

  • Kind (child) - kindisch (childish): Gogo ist manchmal ziemlich kindisch. (Gogo is pretty childish sometimes.)
  • Australien (Australia) - australisch (Australian): Katies Koala ist Australisch. (Katie’s Koala is Australian.)
  • Philosophie (philosophy) - philosophisch (philosophical): Bobbi mag keine philosophischen Gespräche. (Bobbi doesn’t like philosophical conversations.)


-ig is also a very generic ending that simply transforms nouns into a general adjective form. It describes things that “have” the noun, or that have a quality of that noun.

  • Sand (sand) - sandig (sandy): Der Strand an der Ostsee ist sehr sandig. (The beach at the Baltic Sea is very sandy.)
  • Kleber (glue) - klebrig (sticky): Die Finger des kleinen Kindes sind klebrig. (The child’s fingers are sticky.)
  • Wasser (water) - wässrig (watery): Der Tee ist wässrig. (The tea is watery.)


-los describes things that are missing whatever the noun is. We use it the same way as the ending -less in English. For instance:

  • Atem (breath) - atemlos (breathless): Gogo ist nach dem laufen atemlos. (Gogo is breathless after running.)
  • Hoffnung (hope) - hoffnungslos (hopeless): Der alte Mann ist hoffnungslos. (The old man is hopeless.)
  • Ende (end) - endlos (endless): Arbeit ist endlos. (Work is endless.)


-mäßig is a very specific ending that tells us that something is “referring to” or “with respect to” the original noun. Confusing, right? Let me show you:

  • Plan (plan) - planmäßig (according to plan): Katie geht planmäßig immer zur gleichen Zeit schlafen. (Katie always goes to sleep at the same time, according to her schedule.)
  • Zwang (compulsion) - zwangsmäßig (compulsory): Gogo muss morgen zwangsmäßig früh aufstehen. (Gogo necessarily has to get up early tomorrow.)
  • Recht (right) - rechtmäßig (lawful): Bobbi fährt immer rechtmäßig unter der Geschwindigkeitsgrenze. (Bobbi always drives lawfully under the speed limit.)


Alright, so you might have noticed that those 3 examples were a little different than the others. If you're curious, you can learn what adverbial adjectives are all about here.

-sam is an adjective ending that we no longer use to make new words, but we still have it attached to lots of existing adjectives. Its parallel in English is -some (like in handsome). For example:

  • Mühe (effort) - mühsam (tedious): Die Arbeit ist hart und mühsam. (The work is hard and tedious.)
  • Acht (regard) - achtsam (mindful): Gogo ist nicht immer achtsam. (Gogo is not always mindful.)
  • Ein (one) - einsam (lonely, lonesome): Er ist nie einsam. (He is never lonely.)


Whew! That was a lot of endings! Fortunately, other parts of speech don't use so many endings. Let’s move on to verbs!


How to turn verbs into adjectives

Now, when we are making adjectives out of verbs, the endings often carry much more specific meanings than the ones we use for nouns. These are -bar -end, -lich, and -sam.

-bar creates adjectives for utility (explaining how something can be used). You can use it exactly the same way as the endings -able and -ible are used in English.

  • Kalter Kaffee ist kaum trinkbar. (Cold coffee is barely drinkable.)
  • Gogo isst alles, was essbar ist. (Gogo will eat anything that’s edible.)
  • Die Schrift ist gut lesbar. (The writing is very legible.)


-lich works just like -bar, and describes utility when it’s used on a verb to make an adjective. However, we don’t use -lich to make new adjectives out of verbs anymore.  

  • Die Miete ist nicht erschwinglich. (The rent isn’t affordable.)
  • Der Text ist nicht verständlich. (The text isn’t understandable.)
  • Alles ist möglich. (Anything is possible.)


-sam is used to make adjectives that describe abilities or tendencies.

  • Katie ist sparsam mit ihrem Geld. (Katie is frugal with her money.)
  • Kaffee ist immer gut wirksam. (Coffee is always very effective.)
  • Der Hund ist sehr wachsam. (The dog is very alert.)


-end transforms verbs in the present participle. This means that it makes adjectives that describe ongoing activities or active states of being. It works like the -ing ending in English:

  • Katie mag ihren Tee am liebsten kochend heiß. (Katie prefers her tea boiling hot.)
  • Sie ruft dem laufenden Hund zu. (She calls to the running dog.)
  • Gogo will zu der Party, aber hat keine passende Kleidung. (Gogo wants to go to the party, bud doesn’t have any appropriate clothes.)


-(e)t and -en transforms verbs in the past participle (the e sometimes disappears because of pronunciation rules, but it’s not important in terms of grammar). This means that it makes adjectives that incorporate past activities or passive states of being. 

  • Gogo, Katie, und Bobbi warten auf die S-Bahn, welche wieder mal verspätet ist. (Gogo, Katie, and Bobbi are waiting for the S-Bahn, which is once again delayed.)
  • Das frisch geladene Handy ist schon wieder auf 20%. (The freshly charged phone is already at 20% again.)
  • Der Politiker ist gekauft. (The politician is bought.)


Adjective endings for verbs have clear meanings, and often also clear parallels to English endings. That makes it especially easy to use them to make new words. If you want to learn how to make your own words in German, this is a good place to start.


How to turn adjectives into adjectives

Lastly, it wouldn’t be German if we couldn’t also transform adjectives into adjectives. Yup, you read that right. And no, this is not just a way to modify adjectives – that’s coming next! Here we’re adding an adjective ending to an adjective to make a new and different adjective.

So... which ending?

Yup, you guessed it. It’s -lich again.

-lich (+ umlaut) is an ending we can add on to adjectives in order to make them weaker or more vague. Weird, right? Or maybe not. In English we use -ish the exact same way. Check it out!

  • Beim Sonnenuntergang sehen die Wolken oft rötlich aus. (At sunset, the clouds often look reddish.)
  • Die Katze ist dicklich. (The cat is chubby.)
  • Das Getränk riecht süßlich. (The drink smells somewhat sweet.)


A neat trick to notice here: -lich will give us an adjective that can be used metaphorically, if the original adjective can be used that way. 


How to Modify German adjectives

Now that we know how to make adjectives in German, let’s talk about how to modify them to mean exactly what we want. The clearest difference here is that modifications are always added to the beginning of the word. We do that with prefixes, or by adding other words in front of the adjective. The main adjective always comes fashionably late.

The modifications let us change the meanings of adjectives in a lot of ways. That might sound kind of scary, but stay with me. As an English speaker, you’ll find a lot of familiar stuff here.


Compounding with other adjectives

Combining two adjectives lets us make them more specific. For example, we can combine “hell” (bright) and “wach” (awake) to make “hellwach” (wide awake). The main adjective is “wach”, and “hell” gives us additional details about it.

  • Nachts ist Gogo immer hellwach. (Gogo is always wide awake at night.)
  • Die Schuhe sind altmodisch. (The shoes are old-fashioned.)
  • Das Wetter ist bitterkalt. (The weather is bitterly cold.)


Compounding with nouns

Just as with adjectives, we can also attach nouns to help make an adjective more specific, or to add imagery. Again, the additional word is going to be added in front of the main adjective. 

  • Katie kauft sich eine eiskalte Limonade. (Katie buys herself an ice cold lemonade.)
  • Sie hat heute ein grasgrünes T-Shirt an. (She is wearing a grass-green t-shirt today.)
  • Das farbenfrohe T-Shirt war ein Geschenk. (The colorful t-shirt was a gift.)


As you might have noticed, this is almost the same process as in English, except that here we can combine the words into a single new word instead of using a hyphen.


Negation

Negation is when we attach the concept of “not” to a word.

In English for example, we use the prefixes un-, in-, and dis- to turn “cooked” into “uncooked”, “correct” into “incorrect”, and “interested” into “disinterested”. In German, on the other hand, we use the prefixes un-, in-, and des- . Yup, it’s almost exactly the same.

  • Katies Mutter hat Angst vor Parasiten in dem ungekochten Fisch im Sushi. (Katie’s mom is afraid of parasites in the uncooked fish in sushi.)
  • Katie hat die ganze Küche geputzt und desinfiziert. (Katie cleaned and disinfected the entire kitchen.)
  • Gogo findet diese Einstellung den Fischen gegenüber intolerant. (Gogo thinks this attitude is intolerant toward the fish.)


Easy, right? Don't worry, though, there's always something to watch out for.


Things to Watch out for

Okay, we're almost done, but just a few more things! German lets us use adjective endings, prefixes, and other words we talked about here to make new adjectives. Actually making them, is still pretty difficult, though.

Mostly, knowing learning about how adjectives are made helps you to recognize the meanings words you haven't seen before. Just keep in mind, there's always more to learn!


There are always more modifiers

Today we went over the main ways that we form adjectives in German, but the modifiers (especially the prefixes) that we covered here are not even close to all of them. There are many more specialized prefixes out there, some of which we also have in English.

Many of these are borrowed from Greek and Latin, such as pre-, quasi-, mono-, multi- and many others. For example:

  • Der Philosoph denkt, das Leben is prädestiniert. (The philosopher things, life is predestined.)
  • Katie wohnt in einer multikulturellen Stadt. (Katie lives in a multicultural city.)
  • Der Professor hat eine monotone Stimme. (The professor has a monotone voice.)


Some of these also mean the same thing as older German modifiers. For example prä- and vor- (pre- as in precooked in English) basically mean the same thing.

Which one we use depends on where the main adjective came from (German, Latin, or another language). 

All that means, though, is that there is always more to discover and learn!

You made it! I know, I know, we were just getting started with the fun stuff, but you need your rest. In our next post on adjectives, we’ll finally get to the fun part: adjective endings.

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