I am in my first year studying German, and I couldn't not notice that some adjectives form from nouns with -ig (e.g. salzig, vorsichtig), others with -lich (monatlich, sommerlich etc.), and others with -isch (typisch, telefonisch). Is there a rule defining which ending to use when?


2 Answers 2


There is no clear-cut rule. Any rule I am about to lay out now has a dozen exceptions to it. But a few similarities do stike me once I try to think about the suffixes.

First, -isch is the only element in your list that can be added to geographical places:

türkisch, italienisch, europäisch, wienerisch, hessisch, …

-isch is also used to detonate the means of doing something:

postalisch, telefonisch, technisch, lautmalerisch

and that probably also sums up adjectives from scientific disciplines, although I can't pinpoint it directly:

medizinisch, chemisch, geographisch, altphilologisch

-lich, according to the etymologies linked in the comments under the question, derives from an old and obsolete word for body and shares a common root with Leiche (corpse). So it originally meant something, whose body/shape was of kind x.

sommerlich (as in summer), merklich (can be realised), deutlich (can be heard), willentlich (made of free will), männlich (like a man), …

The suffix can also be used much like the English -ish but not with many adjectives:

gräulich, bläulich, ärmlich, …

because with others it will create a new word with a different meaning:


It's also productive to give every <timeframe>:

täglich, monatlich, wöchentlich, zweiwöchentlich, stündlich, jährlich, augenblicklich

But note that these can also be connected with -ig:


The difference is: Something that is zweiwöchig will take two weeks and then be finished; e.g. an internship. Something that is zweiwöchentlich happens every other week, e.g. a football team's home match.

-ig is probably the most productive of the three (unless you count every single geographic entity on earth, in which case -isch might win), because it was used as a suffix in very early Germanic times. It is the suffix to turn a word into an adjective meaning of this type:

rosig, glasig, farbig, wässrig, grasig, lausig, gängig, sonnig, schnittig, putzig, witzig, schokoladig, teilweisig, …

If you want to create a new word, your best bet is -ig. It is also the only one that can turn adverbs into adjectives (usually -weise-adverbs).

And here is where it gets complicated. You can get pairs of adjectives with different suffixes:

geschäftlichgeschäftlicher Besuch is a visitor from a company who's probably going to try and sell you something.
geschäftiggeschäftiger Besuch is a visitor who just can't stop doing stuff; whatever "stuff" is.

telefonisch – by telephone
telefonig – something that looks like a telephone, but is not.


The answer by Jan is already very good. For the sake of completeness, I’d like to translate / summarize / quote what the Duden has to say on this exact topic (Adjektive auf -ig, -isch, -lich):

The ending -ig means that the denoted characteristic is present:

nebelig = there is actual fog

The ending -isch is often used to build adjectives from living things / people, and then means “in the fashion of an x”:

diebisch / künstlerisch = in the fashion of a thief / artist

But -isch is also used to form adjectives from other nouns and then means that something “belongs to x”:

grammatisch / griechisch = belongs to the realm of grammar / Greece

Words ending in -lich are the most neutral and tend to just mean has something to do with X:

ärztlich = has to do with a physician.

Jan already pointed out that the same base noun can have different adjectival suffixes to denote different attributes. In addition to his elaboration, Duden has the following:

If two adjectives are built from the same noun, one with -lich and one with -isch, then -lich usually just denotes that something belongs to x, whereas -isch has a pejorative connotation:

All Bauern are bäuerlich, because they pertain to the category of peasants, but not all of them are bäurisch, because they are not necessarily country bumpkins.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.