German word of the day: Hä?

Today’s word won’t come up in textbooks, but you’ll hear it everywhere once you know what it means.

German word of the day: Hä?
Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

You’ll rarely see this word written down – and you certainly won’t hear it in your German classes. 

And yet – it’s an irreplaceable part of the German language. 

“Hä?” (listen to the pronunciation here) is an efficient way of saying “What you just said doesn’t make any sense to me, could you repeat it in simpler and clearer language?” Or “Eh?”

Though it can sometimes mean “What you just said makes absolutely no sense, you complete and utter fool.” 

It’s considered quite rude in German and would definitely be out of place at a business meeting or first date. Teachers and parents will often correct children who use it, telling them to use the more polite – but less expressive – “wie bitte?”. 

German dictionaries go so far as to call it “Salopp: als unhöflich oder ungezogen angesehen” (“crude: seen as ill-mannered or ill-bred”). 

But among friends, family, youngsters and Berliners, it’s basically just a more effective way of saying “I’m confused”. You’ll definitely hear it being used in casual conversations, in bars, or by unruly teenagers. 

It’s almost directly equivalent to the English “huh”, the French “hein” and the Italian “eh”. In fact, “Hä?” is a bit of a linguistic superword. 

Language researchers have discovered “Hä?” (with only slightly different pronunciations) in 31 different languages. This includes Japanese, Siwu – a Ghanaian minority language – and Cha’palaa, a language spoken by an indigenous group of Ecuador. 

So, “Hä?” actually exists all over the world. 

Mark Dingemanse, one of the researchers who made the discovery, sees no reason why “Hä?” should be seen as so ‘crude’. 

“The variations of ‘Hä?’ are probably much older than the more polite forms. And polite forms are slowly dying out,” he wrote.

How to use “Hä?”

When using “Hä?”, the way you say it also plays a big role in how it comes across. There’s the more obnoxious “Häääää?” (number of ‘ä’s vary) which expresses complete confusion, but also questions the sanity of the previous speaker. 

“Ich finde den Physiklehrer voll süß.” 


“I find the physics teacher kinda charming.” 

“Are you crazy?!!!”

Then there’s the shorter, more muted “Hä?”, which is usually followed by a full question to mask the automatic expression of surprise. 

“Ich finde deine Kunst, also, gewöhnungsbedürftig.”

“Hä, was soll das jetzt bedeuten?” 

“I think your art is, well, an acquired taste.”

“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”

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German word of the day: Lüften

One of the first lessons you learn when living in Germany is that airing out rooms is extremely important.

German word of the day: Lüften

Whether you sublet, rent a flat or own your home in Germany, it’s likely you’ve been told how important it is to lüften, or open your windows and let air in and out regularly. 

Lüften can be a verb or noun in Germany. As a noun it uses the ‘das’ article and stands for ventilation. The verb lüften means to air out something. It comes from the German word die Luft which means air.

The proper airing out of rooms is a very German thing. Hell, it’s a way of life. 

Just check your rent contract. Foreigners in Germany are often surprised to find that ventilating their homes is usually written into their contract and accompanied by instructions. That means it’s literally legally binding! 

There are very important rules to remember, and German even has a set of vocabulary dedicated to getting fresh air safely in and out the room. 

Words like Stoßlüften – which translates to shock or impact ventilation. This is needed at least twice a day (and more in summer) and involves opening the windows or balcony doors wide to let a ‘shock’ of cold air in. According to experts, you should do this for about five minutes a time in winter, 10-15 minutes each time in autumn and spring, and up to half an hour in summer.

Meanwhile, Querlüften or cross ventilation involves opening all the windows of a house or building and letting the fresh air flow through.

The aim of all this lüften is to stop mould from forming, get rid of smells and to stop rooms from getting too humid. The more people that live in your home, the more airing out you’ll have to do. 

Germans recommend that you turn off your heating while airing out your room (to save on money and to protect the climate) – so be sure to have a big jumper on if you’re airing out in winter. 

READ ALSO: Why Germans are obsessed with the art of airing out a room

Lüften took on a whole new meaning in the pandemic as other countries – or at least those that didn’t have the same culture for airing out – began recommending it to people as a way of helping protect against Covid-19 transmission.  

A good German habit

Lüften can quickly become a habit. Whereas before Germany, I was happy to leave a window tilted open for a while to get some fresh air, I’m now obsessed with the proper way to do it. 

I throw open the windows of my flat wide at regular intervals to get that fresh air circulating, even in the dead of winter. When I’m at home in Scotland or on holiday somewhere else, I do the same thing, which can be alarming to people who think you are trying to freeze them.

I find myself feeling pleased when the neighbours across the road from my Berlin flat open their windows or balcony doors wide. It’s like we’re all part of the secret society of fresh air.

There is nothing now that stands between me and Lüften. When I tweeted about this habit, lots of people said they felt a similar way. 

One Twitter user said: “Been telling my family this for years – as they shiver and complain about how cold it is, and my partner and I passive-aggressively follow each other around shutting and reopening windows. Makes for fun times.”

Another said: “My little sister spent an exchange year in Germany before me and when I visited was thoroughly disturbed by her obsessive window opening. A couple years later I was living in Germany and had become a convert, too.”


Hey Karl, Kannst du bitte dein Zimmer lüften?

Hey Karl, can you please air out your room?

In Deutschland muss man die Zimmer richtig lüften.

You really have to air out rooms the right way in Germany.