Alter is a word with multiple meanings: it can be used informally to greet a friend or close colleague, to interject in a friendly conversation or to express surprise. Due to its colloquial nature, the phrase tends to only be used by the younger German generation.
The word is said to have derived from the phrase Alter Schwede, which directly translates to old Swedish man. Alter Schwede also connotes a sense of surprise and is a common interjection in German.
An English equivalent to the phrase would be the word “Gosh”. Across the decades, however, Alter Schwede has been shortened by the youth, leaving us with Alter.
This idiomatic expression is now used throughout Germany. In one sense, the word equates to phrases used by the youth throughout various Westernized, English-speaking societies as a greeting: “mate” in England, “dude” in America, “lad” in Ireland and “pal” in Scotland are just a few examples.
Additionally, the phrase can be used to depict surprise or disbelief from the speaker. For example, “Alter! Rat' mal, was ich gerade gesehen habe!” which means “Man! Guess what I just saw!”
Alter is also used as an interjection in conversation; say your friend has been complaining about how expensive their drink was for a little too long – and they also picked the bar – you could say, “Alter! Hör mir zu…” which means “Oh man! Listen to me…”
If you want to expand your Jungensprache even further, then it is good to know that Alter is even sometimes shortened as a word itself, sometimes pronounced “Alta” or even “Alda”.
As a greeting:
Alter, was geht ab?
Dude, what’s up?
Ich muss dir wat erzäln, Alter!
I’ve gotta tell you something, man
As an interjection:
Alter! Hör mir zu…
Man! Listen to me…
As a surprise:
Alter! Nein, wirklich, wie alt bist du?
Man! No, really, how old are you?