SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Easy.

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.

For all The Local’s guides to learning German CLICK HERE

For members

LEARNING GERMAN

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

The German word 'Wanderlust' means "the desire to travel" and is used even in other languages. Here are some of the other words commonly used in Germany to describe the nation's love affair with travelling.

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

Germans are very connected to nature and a lot of the activities they routinely do, even in winter, involve staying outdoors. So it’s no wonder the language also reflects that passion for walking, travelling, and spending time in nature.

Some of the German words that are most famous to speakers of other languages reference this passion. Perhaps most notably, the term “Wanderlust” which has made its way to other dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, with the definition “a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering”.

The word is composed of “wandern“, which means to hike or roam about and “lust“, meaning “pleasure or delight”.

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

This is not the only unique expression the German language has related to travelling. Another of the hard to translate ones is “Fernweh“. It comes from “fern“, meaning “far”, and “Weh“, meaning “pain”. It is used to describe the longing for far-off places – in contrast to “Heimweh”, a feeling many immigrants might be very attuned to and could be translated to homesickness.

The German language also has several interesting and even funny expressions for walkers and travellers alike. The Local talked with German teacher and travel enthusiast Lutz Michaelis to collect a few of the best expressions.

“So weit dich deine/mich meine Füße tragen”

It literally means “as far as my feet will take me” (or alternatively, “as far as your feet will take you”). It is often said as an answer to the question, “where are you going?”.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

“Die Sieben-Meilen-Stiefel anhaben”

“To wear the seven-league boots”. This means being able to walk long distances fast. Lutz explains that it was actually based on a trope in French mythology, in which magical boots could help the wearer cover long distances in a short amount of time. Having been used in The Little Thumb by Charles Perrault, the term was brought into the German language by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Wer rastet, der rostet”

The translation would be “he who rests, rusts”. It is used in the German language to say that being in motion is a good thing, not only with travelling but also to incentivise people to keep learning new things.

“Das Reisen kost’t Geld, Doch sieht man die Welt.”

It’s a very common rhyme used to show the downsides and benefits of travelling: “travelling costs money, but one sees the world”.

“Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.”

It literally means that “travellers shouldn’t be stopped”. However, Lutz explains that the expression is not only used to refer to travellers but also to anyone that might be going through a transitional situation – such as someone wanting to change their jobs, for example.

Rhododendren park Bremen

Rhododendrons bloom in the Rhododendron Park in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

“der Weg ist das Ziel.”

One of the most beautiful ones, and many languages have their own version of it. It translates to “the road is the destination”.

Of course, coming back home, especially for those suffering from Heimweh, can also be something beautiful. One common saying is “Wiedersehen macht Freude“, which means that to meet again brings happiness, used among those looking forward to seeing someone again after a long trip.

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

And one more…

In Germany, there is a common joke about finding German people abroad. The rhyme goes “Hüte dich vor Sturm und Wind, und Deutschen, die im Ausland sind“, which could be translated as “Be on your guard for storm and wind, and Germans in a foreign land”.

“It refers both to the bad behaviour of Germans on holidays or travels and a dark joke and a funny nod to the fact that German troops have invaded other countries”, Lutz, who is a German himself, explains.

SHOW COMMENTS