“Mutterseelenallein” is a word used to describe a state of complete and utter loneliness.
Whilst the word “allein” can have positive connotations – picture a winter evening spent alone with a hot chocolate and a good book – “mutterseelenallein” refers to an isolation so extreme it causes nothing but despair and anguish.
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“Mutterseelenallein” can be broken down into three German words: “die Mutter” (mother), “die Seelen” (souls) and “allein” (alone).
A direct translation into English would be “mother’s souls alone”. When taken literally, this makes little sense to English speakers, but the story of the word’s origins provides the key to its true meaning.
The term actually comes from a French idiom popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, “moi tout seul” (just me). During this time, a group of French Protestants known as the Huguenots were forced to flee to Berlin to escape religious persecution in their home country, and they used the term “moi tout seul” to express the immense isolation they felt as a result.
Berliners heard the idiom so often that they assimilated it into their daily language. However, they interpreted the phrase as “Mutterseelen” (mother’s souls) rather than “moi tout seul”, and therefore added “allein” to ensure the phrase made sense in German, eventually yielding the word “Mutterseelenallein” used by Germans today.
Although the reference to “mother’s souls” occurred largely by misunderstanding, it ties in surprisingly well with the feeling the word seeks to describe. When you are “mother’s souls alone”, you feel as though there is not a single person in the world you can turn to (not even your mother).
It became so widely used in the 19th century that it even appeared in the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm (see the example below).
Nowadays, however, the word has lost some of its emotive value and is often used more casually in everyday speech.
“Nun war das arme Kind in dem großen Wald mutterseelenallein.”
And so the poor child (Snow White) was completely alone in the huge forest.
“Ich war mutterseelenallein zu Hause.”
I was totally alone at home.