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These eight words show just how different German and Austrian Deutsch can be

Germany and Austria may share a common language - but often with a very different vocabulary. Here are eight of the most common terms which sound completely different if you're in Vienna versus Berlin.

These eight words show just how different German and Austrian Deutsch can be
Archive photo shows tomatoes growing in Osterweddingen, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: DPA

Austria and Germany — it’s a love-hate relationship really. They share a language (for the most part), a similar culture at least with Bavaria), and an intertwined history.

However, there are some regional differences — and they are especially present in language. While Bavarians and Austrians understand each other well, people from other German regions might get lost in translation. 

In order to never be confused again, here’s eight things which go by very different names in Austria. Spoiler: A lot of them are related to food.

READ ALSO: Top 12: The best words in Austrian German

Paradeiser – Tomaten

Eating a good, sun-ripened, juicy tomato (perhaps with some mozzarella, olive oil and basil) really does taste like a glimpse of paradise. So naturally, tomatoes are not called die Tomaten in Austria, but der Paradeiser.

That’s exactly where the word comes from. When tomatoes first became known in Europe, the juicy red fruit was called der Paradiesapfel, apple of paradise. While the term die Tomate, adopted from the Mexican indigenous language Nahuatl, later became more prevalent in Germany, Austrians have kept the more lyrical term Paradeiser.

Melanzani – Auberginen 

Let’s stay with Mediterranean food a bit longer. It tastes exceptionally good with tomatoes, is nutritious and immediately invokes the feeling of a warm summer evening on an Italian patio: the eggplant in American English, or aubergine in British English. 

The name of this versatile vegetable takes us around the whole Mediterranean Sea. In Germany, it is also called die Aubergine, derived from the French l’aubergine. However, Austrians call it Melanzani, from the Italien le melanzane. Both words do however share the same origin. 

L’aubergine, the French term, was actually taken from the Catalan word albergínia. 

Grilled veggies at a restaurant in Cologne, including the Aubergine/Melanzani. Photo: DPA

The Catalan term however stems from the Arabic al-badenjan. In the 8th century, Catalonia for a short period became a part of Al-Andalus, the Muslim dynasty that ruled great parts of Spain during the time. It is however unknown if the word became incorporated in Catalan language during this period.  

READ ALSO: Seven German words which stem from Arabic

Funny enough, Melanzani is also derived from al-badenjan, but somewhere along history became mixed up with the greek word melanós, which means black or dark. The word was established in Italy during the 16th century and eventually made its way to Austria. 

Erdäpfel – Kartoffel

We already established that der Paradeiser stems from Paradiesapfel. Austrians really seem to love the term der Apfel (apple), `cause guess how potatoes are called? Yes, you guessed it: der Erdapfel. Apple that comes from the earth. Pretty logical, right? 

In this case, it wasn’t the looks of the potato that reminded people of an apple, but rather an etymological reason. In Latin, all vegetables and fruits that grow in or on the floor were called malum terrae — fruit of the earth. Which explains why potatoes are called pretty much the same in France: Pomme de Terre

The German word die Kartoffel, stems from tartufolo, which is Italian and — of course — eventually came from the Latin terrae tuber (tuber from the earth). Whether it’s an apple or a tuber — the most important point is: It came out of the earth. 

READ ALSO: 10 German words which come from Italian

Marille – Aprikose

In Germany, apricots are called die Aprikose, which sounds quite similar to English. Both words stem from the same Latin expression: Persicum praecoquum, which literally means unripe peach. Through various transformations in different languages around the Mediterranean Sea, it turned into the French l’apricot, where both the German and the English term stem from. 

Funny enough, die Marille is also derived from a Latin expression: Armenicum pomum — the Armenian apple. Apparently the old Romans were unable to decide what an apricot resembled better — peach or apple? Again, through various transformations the Armenian apple became die Marille. Interestingly, until the 17th century Marille was also used in Germany, and the term changed only with increasing French influence. 

Jänner – Januar

Moving on from food, but staying with terms of Latin origin: der Januar, as the Germans say, or der Jänner, as the Austrians say. 

Both terms come from the Latin word Ianuarius, which refers to a month in the Roman Julian calendar. Legend has it, that the month was named after the ancient Roman good Janus, who is often portrayed with two faces sharing one head and staring in opposite directions.

He is said to be the god of endings and new beginnings. When the Julian calendar was reformed and replaced by the Gregorian calendar that we still follow today, January became the first month of the new year.

Both terms mean the same thing and stem from the same origin. So where does the difference stem from? 

The history of how der Januar came together is quickly recalled: The Latin suffix -us was common in German until the 18th century, before it was dropped in order to make the word sound more German. 

The history of der Jänner is a little more complicated: 

Latin, like any other language changed throughout history. In spoken Latin, contrary to written Latin, Ianuarius turned into Ienuarius. Speakers of Medieval German borrowed that form and turned it into Jenner, which in the 18th century turned into Jänner. However, Januar became more common in most of Germany, perhaps because it sounded more Latin and therefore more sophisticated. But Austria, and some parts of Bavaria stood by the older form der Jänner, and keep using it until today. 

Jammern – sudern

Archive photo of the Berlin Marathon shows a sign reading, ‘Don’t complain/nag, believe in yourself.’ Photo: DPA

What is — according to the world — a common stereotype about German people? They are said to take every little inconvenience quite seriously. A red light, when they’re late for work? Catastrophe. Someone skipping the line at the grocery store? Train wreck. And when that happens: It’s time to get naggy, or as the Germans say jammern, or as the Austrians say sudern.

Jammern comes form the medieval German word der Jammer (misery) and probably stems from the literal sound of someone wailing. Sudern however comes from der Sud, which describes a boiling liquid, like a broth.

So when Austrians are nagging they’re boiling of anger, but when Germans are nagging they’re wailing.

READ ALSO: 10 German words with simply hilarious literal translations

Spital – Krankenhaus 

After Germans, as well as Austrians, have spent some time nagging (see above), they might be very exhausted and need some rest. Das Spital is derived from das Hospital, (like l’hospital, the hospital, el hospital…), which stems from the old Latin word hospitalium meaning guest room. That’s a bit of a stretch — from welcoming guests to welcoming the sick, but language after all is an adaptable thing. 

Quite contrary, the German das Krankenhaus is as literal as a word can be. It is a composed word of das Haus (house) and krank (sick). So, yep, it means exactly what you think it does. 

Häf’n – Gefängnis

Attention: der Häf’n (prison) is not used everywhere in Austria, but mostly in Vienna. 

It stems from the old German word haven, which meant harbor, but also vessel. In modern German, haven changed into der Hafen, which still means harbor, but no longer vessel. 

It is not entirely clear how haven became Häf’n. Legend has it, that the inside of a pot might might feel like the inside of a prison, and the word Häf’n therefore became a figure of speech. 

In Germany, people will probably just give you a very confused look if you use Häf’n. They rather speak of das Gefängnis. The term is derived from gefangen (captive) and is used in the sense of prison since the 15th century.

By Lisa Schneider 

Were you surprised about some of these words? Leave us a comment below!

Member comments

  1. Let us not forget that most important difference. Schlagobers/Schlagsahne.

    When our daughter was born in Vienna at the Rudolfinerhaus in 1973 she was so white, plump, and sweet the nurses nicked named her Schlagobers. She is still known as Schlag in the family just as sweet but less plump.

  2. I really enjoy these Austrian vocabulary/language articles! Thank you. Next week we’ll be traveling to Austria for 10 weeks and I would love to buy an Austrian/English or Austrian/German dictionary while I’m there. Can someone make a suggestion?

  3. I just saw the Osterreichisches Worterbuch in another article. (Sorry, I don’t know how to do umlauts on my computer).
    Other dictionary suggestions?

  4. I asked kindly for the Mistkübel many times when I moved to Germany from Austria and most Germans told me their English was too weak and didn’t know that word. It wasn’t English and so I was confused. Now I know why.

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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”.