For members


These things about the German language still make no sense to me

For a language so famously logical, why does German make these simple things so confusing?

These things about the German language still make no sense to me
Photo: DPA

Having spoken German for several years now, I think I’ve reached the position where I can give the language an overall grade. If I’m generous, I’d give it a B+. It gets the overall point across well enough, even if it tends to add in extra words where they aren’t necessary. But while German is good at the high-minded philosophical stuff, it’s a bit muddled when it comes to the more mundane things.

These are my main grievances.

Walking the walk

Perhaps I’m just slow (no pun intended), but I’m always amazed at what a terrible job German does of distinguishing between walking and running. After several years of speaking the language, I still come a cropper when I try to explain to someone that I want to pick up the pace.

English (and no doubt every other language that has ever existed) differentiates pretty clearly here – if I say “let’s walk over the street” I’m indicating to you in unequivocal terms that at every point in the forthcoming journey at least one foot will be planted on the ground.

But in German it seems much less clear. Generally when talking about walking you use the word laufen, but this could just as well mean run. If you clearly want to say run you can use the word rennen, but that seems to imply a race and as far as I can tell, is little used.

Perhaps a German will read this and think “idiot, we just say ‘schnell laufen’” – but how schnell is the laufen when it breaks the critical barrier between walking and running? If Germans and the language they call their own are so famously precise, how come nobody has noticed this black hole in its logic?

I like to drive my bicycle

The German language’s difficulties with motion don’t stop there either. The next hopelessly unspecific verb is fahren – which can be applied to riding a bike, driving a car or travelling on the train.

If you are discussing how to get across the city, by bike or by train, all hell breaks loose in my head. Germans meanwhile seem to just be able to intuit by what type of fahren is about to happen without needing to ask.

Me: “Fahren wir U-Bahn oder Fahrrad?”

German: “Es wäre besser wenn wir fahren, es ist schneller.”

Me: “So that means we are taking the train?”

German “Ja, klar.”

The word fahren is so general that it is almost exasperatingly useless. My best effort at translating it is “to sit in or steer a propulsion-based vehicle.” But even this isn’t accurate, as “in Urlaub fahren” just means to go on holiday (don’t even get me started on when fahren turns into reisen.)

The only silver lining to this cloud of confusion is when you get to laugh at Germans suggesting a “bike drive” when they speak English.

Bist du Bahnhof?

As this rant goes on it is becoming increasingly clear that the main problems in the German language revolve around movement. My next gripe is with words relating to trains and stations.

To misquote the great German crooner Herbert Grönemeyer, wann ist ein Zug ein Zug? Apparently you don’t qualify as a Zug (train) if you just travel around the city, then you are just a Bahn. As far as I understand, you only become a Zug if you make it out of the city. Those humble trains travelling around the city are simply referred to as die Bahn. 

If someone were to ask me for a translation for the simple word bahn, I’d honestly be stumped. In common usage it seems to be a nebulous thing which includes inner city trains, the act of travelling on said trains and the stations that they stop at. To add to the mess, Germans use the word Bahn to refer to Deutsche Bahn, the company that runs the intercity rail lines. So someone who tells you they are travelling with the Bahn could be somewhere under your feet or between Munich and Hamburg.

Then there is the word Gleis, which refers to both the platform and train track (just in case you were wondering, Bahn can also mean track). These are clearly two interconnected concepts that perform very different functions – it is like us failing to make a distinction between the words car and road. Can you not see how confusing (and potentially dangerous) this is, Germans?

The oversupply of words implying direction

Here is English: He goes out. He’s outside. He goes in. He is inside.


I am not even going to try the German because I will end up messing it up. All I have figured out over the past four years is this. There are the words drinnen and draußen, and hinein and hinaus. Then there are the words rein and raus and herein and heraus. And let’s not forget the prefixes ein- and aus-.

I’ve probably forgotten a few, but they all basically mean one of the four English words mentioned above. And of course the same goes for forwards and backwards, up and down. A German will no doubt tell you each has their own important use. Don’t believe them. We could happily cut half of them out and nobody would be any worse off for it.

Saving lives

Changing the German language is a very delicate matter. Germans are understandably rather attached to it – even basic spelling reforms in the 1990s were met by people threatening to storm the Burg.

But, in my opinion, changing these obvious deficiencies in the language could do a lot of good. And with immigrants like myself struggling to understand whether we agreed to meet on the tracks or the platform, it might even save some lives.

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For members


10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.