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GERMAN LANGUAGE

‘Alter Schwede!’: the surprising role of old Swedes in the German language

Every language has common sayings which, when directly translated, seem to make absolutely no sense, and the German phrase "alter Schwede", meaning "old Swede" is a perfect example.

'Alter Schwede!': the surprising role of old Swedes in the German language
Photo: DPA

“Old Swede, you've gotten so tall,” seems like an odd thing to say to a twelve-year-old German boy, but to Germans, “alter Schwede, bist du groß geworden,” makes total sense.

“Alter Schwede” is used as a term of surprise in Germany.

According to Dr. Anatol Stefanowitsch, a linguistics professor at the Free University in Berlin, the phrase is not definitively used by one particular age group, but you are more likely to hear an adult than a teenager or child exclaiming “Alter Schwede!”

While it is a term of surprise though, it is by no means a swearword.

“The phrase has no negative connotations,” Dr. Stefanowitsch told The Local. “Words like 'wow' or 'gosh' would be the closest English equivalents.”

In fact before “alter Schwede” became an expression of shock, it was widely used in the 19th and early 20th century as a term of respect and endearment.

Dr Stefanowitsch gives an example of an account from the 1800s of a man arriving at a guest house only to be greeted by the words, “Hallo, alter Schwede”. The man replied, “I am neither old nor a Swede!”, but he was quickly reassured that it meant “my good friend” or “dear fellow”.

Nowadays, you wouldn't exactly go around calling your mates old Swedes, but traces of the friendly and respectful nature of the phrase still remain. This means that, while you could use it to express surprise at something going wrong, the phrase itself holds no negative connotations.

But why an old Swede? Why not an old Norwegian or an old Dane?

There is speculation that the phrase emerged around the time of the 30 Years' War from 1618 to 1648. While Dr Stefaniwitsch warns that there's little way of knowing if this theory is strictly true, it makes for an interesting story.

During the 30 Years' War, Electorate Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg recruited experienced Swedish soldiers as instructors to the Prussian army.

These men were seasoned fighters and supposedly became well respected and liked by the German troops, earning the nickname 'alter Schwede'. After that it is speculated that the term trickled down into everyday civilian speech, evolving into a friendly and respectful way to address someone.

While this is a satisfyingly neat way for the phrase to have been born, it is also a possibility that the phrase emerged organically out of a fondness of the Swedish culture in Germany.

In other words, maybe Germans have just always really liked Sweden.

The two countries have a rich history of trade which has led to strong economic, political and cultural links between them. Even today Germany is Sweden's most significant trading partner, accounting for 17 percent of total Swedish imports and 10 percent of the Scandinavian county's total exports.

What's more, according to the German Foreign Office, until the Second World War, “Sweden looked to the German-speaking world culturally and linguistically,” meaning for a long time the most common second language in Sweden was actually German.

How “alter Schwede” developed from a way to address a friend to a term of surprise remains a mystery. But perhaps someday in response, the phrase “gamla tysk” (You old German) may catch on in Sweden.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

10 words to help you enjoy the German summer

Summer has arrived in Germany, so we’ve put together a list of ten words to help you navigate the hottest season.

10 words to help you enjoy the German summer

1. (die) Sommersprossen

A close-up of a woman with prominent freckles.

A close-up of a woman with prominent freckles. Photo: pa/obs/myBody / Shutterstock | Irina Bg

The German word for ‘freckles’, translates literally as “summer sprouts”, as these little spots start to appear on many people’s faces as soon as the sun begins to shine in spring and summer.

2. eincremen

A woman applies sun lotion on a summer's day.

A woman applies sun lotion on a summer’s day. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

To help protect against sunburn, it’s important to use a lot of sunscreen during warm summer days in Germany. Thanks to the magic of German separable verbs, there is a specific word for applying creme to the skin – eincremen – which can also be used to talk about applying sun lotion.

Examples:

Den gesamten Körper vor dem Aufenthalt in der Sonne eincremen

Apply creme to the entire body before sun exposure.

Einmal eincremen reicht nicht, um die Haut einen ganzen Tag lang vor Sonne zu schützen.

It’s not enough to apply sun cream just once to protect the skin from the sun for a whole day.

3. (die) Hundstage

A dog lies exhausted on the stones of a terrace in summer temperatures.

A dog lies exhausted on the stones of a terrace in summer temperatures. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Gerten

‘Dog days’ are colloquially referred to in Europe as the hottest period in summer from July 23rd to August 23rd.

The term ‘dog days’ dates back to the 14th century and was originally associated with the first appearance of the star Sirius of the “Great Dog” constellation. However, due to the changing position of the Earth’s axis, the time period has shifted by about four weeks.

Nevertheless, you’ll still hear people all over Germany referring to the “Hundstage.”

4. eisgekühlt

A glass of mineral water with ice and lemon.

A glass of mineral water with ice and lemon. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

There’s nothing better than cooling off with a refreshing, ice-cold drink on a hot summer day, so make sure to use this word at the beach bar to specify that you want your drinks at a near-zero temperature!

Examples:

Das Kokoswasser schmeckt am besten eisgekühlt.

The coconut water tastes best ice-cold.

5. (die) Waldbrandstufe

A sign on a forest path indicates forest fire level five.

A sign on a forest path indicates forest fire level five. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-centralpicture | Soeren Stache

The Waldbrandstufe – meaning forest fire level – is a warning system that has been used in all German states since 2014 to indicate the level of forest fire risk, based on the local heat and dryness levels.

Level 1 stands for very low fire risk in forests and level 5 for very high risk. When the Stufe (level) is above 3 or 4, certain measures – such as banning barbecues – will come into force locally.

You will often see the Waldbrandstufe sign in woodland areas, near beaches, or on weather reports over the summer.

Example:

Lagerfeuer werden aufgrund der hohen Waldbrandstufe nicht geduldet.
 
Due to the danger of forest fires campfires will not be tolerated.

6. (der) Strandkorb

Beach chairs stand in sunny weather on the beach in the Baltic resort of Binz on the island of Rügen.

Beach chairs on the beach in the Baltic resort of Binz on the island of Rügen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

The “Strandkorb”, literally meaning beach basket, is a special type of beach chair that you will find on almost every German beach. The traditional beach chair was invented in 1882 by German basket maker Wilhelm Bartelmann in Rostock.

Example:

Hier kannst du in der Ostsee baden oder dich in einem Strandkorb entspannen.

Here you can swim in the Baltic Sea or relax in a beach chair.

7. (die) Radtour

A man and a woman cycle through Lüneburg Heath.

A man and a woman cycle through Lüneburg Heath. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/HeideRegion Uelzen e.V. | Jürgen Clauß, HeideRegion Uelz

Germans love biking, so it’s no surprise that a specific word exists for the summer phenomenon of going on a Radtour – bike tour.

READ ALSO: 10 things to consider for a bike trip in Germany

Example: 

Der gesamte Rundweg ist eine leichte Radtour.
 
The entire circular route is an easy bike ride.

8. Sonne tanken

A man on an air mattress sunbathing on a lake while a model boat passes him by.

A man on an air mattress sunbathing on a lake while a model boat passes him by. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

If you love summer, then you probably like to lie in the sun and soak up the rays. In German, you would call this “Sonne tanken” – literally to fuel up on sun.

Example:

Ich will einfach nur Sonne tanken!

I just want to soak up the sun!

9. (die) Sommergewitter

Lightning striking in the Hanover region in June 2021.

Lightning striking in the Hanover region in June 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

Another very specific word, this term is used to describe the phenomenon of summer thunderstorms.

Example:

Die ersten Sommergewitter rollen quer durch Deutschland.

The first summer thunderstorms are rolling across Germany.

10. (die) Eisdiele

A scoop of strawberry ice cream is placed on top of another scoop in a waffle cone at the "Eiskultur" ice cream parlor in Schöneweide.

A scoop of strawberry ice cream is placed on top of another scoop in a waffle cone at the “Eiskultur” ice cream parlor in Schöneweide. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Finally, no summer would be complete without a generous helping of ice cream. In German, the most common name for an ice-creme parlour is “Eisdiele”. 

The word seems to have joined the German language when the very first ice-creme parlour was opened in Hamburg in 1799.

READ ALSO: Spaghetti ice cream to Wobbly Peter: Why we love Germany’s sweet summer snacks

Example:

Es gibt eine sehr gute Eisdiele an der Promenade.

There is a really good ice-creme parlour on the promenade.

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