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GERMAN LANGUAGE

Beatles to Bowie: how pop stars can help you master German grammar

If you are struggling to cement some simple German words in your head, listening to some very familiar songs sung in German by iconic pop stars might help.

The Beatles perform in Munich in 1966.
The Beatles perform in Munich in 1966. Photo: dpa | Gerhard Rauchwetter

The Beatles – tricky datives

The Fab Four famously cut their teeth in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district, where they would play for hours on end in the district’s seedy nightclubs.

Less well known is that they recorded German versions of two of their biggest hits.

“Komm gib mir deine Handand Sie liebt dich” are two Beatles tracks that only true aficionados still know.

The boys from Liverpool already had a few words of German from their Hamburg days, but their impeccable grammar in these songs is more likely the result of learning the words off by heart.

“In deinen Armen bin ich glücklich und froh, das war noch nie bei einer Anderen einmal so,” they sing on the German version of “I want to hold your hand” – that’s some careful use of the dative case! Prepositions including bei are followed by the dative as this guide explains.

On “Sie liebt dich” (“She loves you”), the band sing that:

Du glaubst sie liebt nur mich?/ Gestern hab’ ich sie gesehen/ Sie denkt ja nur an dich/ Und du solltest zu ihr gehen”.

This is another useful text for learning when to use an accusative (dich/mich) and when to use the dative (ihr following the preposition zu).

By the way, if you want to hear the real standard of the Beatles’ German, take a listen to “Geh raus”, a jam that Paul McCartney sang to the tune of Get Back. Probably best not to get any grammar tips here though!

The Supremes – giving orders

Diana Ross’ girl group also got in on the 1960s trend for cutting records in German in the hope of breaking the market in the German-speaking world.

In 1964 they recorded German versions of the hits “Where did our love go?” and “Moonlight and Kisses”.

On “Baby, baby, wo ist unsere liebe”, the Motown group sing: “Geh nicht fort, oh baby bleib bei mir!”

Good use of imperatives there! Geh (go!) and bleib (stay!) are both simple imperatives (order verbs) to get your head around. For a full explanation of the German imperative, see here.

On the lonesome “Moonlight and Kisses”, the girls mourn the fact that “Einsamkeit ist mein Begleiter, seitdem du gesagt hast, goodbye.”

David Bowie – irregular verbs

Berlin’s most famous guest musician performed a German version of his most iconic song, “Heroes”, for the soundtrack of the cult film Die Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo.

Bowie wrote and recorded the track at Hansa studios near the Berlin Wall during his stay in the city in the late 1970s. The lyrics, just as in the English version, reference the political events of the time of recording in 1977.

Die Mauer Im Rücken war kalt/ Schüsse reissen die Luft/ Doch wir küssen/ Als ob nichts geschieht/ Und die Scham fiel auf ihre Seite/ Oh, wir können sie schlagen/ Für alle Zeiten!” Bowie sings, describing a love affair under the Berlin Wall.

By coincidence, Bowie uses two common irregular verbs that are useful to learn. Geschehen (to happen) turns to geschieht in the third person singular and becomes geschah in the simple past. Fallen becomes fällt in the third person singular and fiel in the simple past.

David Bowie shared a flat with rock star Iggy Pop during his time in Berlin. Legend has it that Pop wrote the song “The Passenger” after being inspired by a journey on the Berlin S-Bahn, but as far as we know, he never took to singing in the local tongue.

Joan Baez – past tenses

1960s protest singer Joan Baez did a cover version of one of the most famous anti-war songs of all: “Where have all the Flowers Gone” by Pete Seeger.

But she gave her version a twist. Instead of covering the Seeger original, she learned the German words to a version that was sung by Marlene Dietrich: “Sag mir wo die Blumen sind”.

Lamenting the destruction of war, Baez asks where the flowers, the young girls and the soldiers have all gone since war broke out. Then she asks where the graves are: “Sag mir wo die Gräber sind/ Wo sind sie geblieben?/ Sag mir wo die Gräber sind/ Was ist geschehen?”

Not only a powerful message but also an opportunity to learn two important verbs that take sein in the past tenses! Learning when to use sein instead of haben to create a past tense is one of the most important skills on the road to German fluency. Bleiben (stay) and geschehen (happen) are two very common verbs that take sein.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

10 words to help you enjoy the German summer

Summer has arrived in Germany, so we’ve put together a list of ten words to help you navigate the hottest season.

10 words to help you enjoy the German summer

1. (die) Sommersprossen

A close-up of a woman with prominent freckles.

A close-up of a woman with prominent freckles. Photo: pa/obs/myBody / Shutterstock | Irina Bg

The German word for ‘freckles’, translates literally as “summer sprouts”, as these little spots start to appear on many people’s faces as soon as the sun begins to shine in spring and summer.

2. eincremen

A woman applies sun lotion on a summer's day.

A woman applies sun lotion on a summer’s day. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

To help protect against sunburn, it’s important to use a lot of sunscreen during warm summer days in Germany. Thanks to the magic of German separable verbs, there is a specific word for applying creme to the skin – eincremen – which can also be used to talk about applying sun lotion.

Examples:

Den gesamten Körper vor dem Aufenthalt in der Sonne eincremen

Apply creme to the entire body before sun exposure.

Einmal eincremen reicht nicht, um die Haut einen ganzen Tag lang vor Sonne zu schützen.

It’s not enough to apply sun cream just once to protect the skin from the sun for a whole day.

3. (die) Hundstage

A dog lies exhausted on the stones of a terrace in summer temperatures.

A dog lies exhausted on the stones of a terrace in summer temperatures. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Gerten

‘Dog days’ are colloquially referred to in Europe as the hottest period in summer from July 23rd to August 23rd.

The term ‘dog days’ dates back to the 14th century and was originally associated with the first appearance of the star Sirius of the “Great Dog” constellation. However, due to the changing position of the Earth’s axis, the time period has shifted by about four weeks.

Nevertheless, you’ll still hear people all over Germany referring to the “Hundstage.”

4. eisgekühlt

A glass of mineral water with ice and lemon.

A glass of mineral water with ice and lemon. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

There’s nothing better than cooling off with a refreshing, ice-cold drink on a hot summer day, so make sure to use this word at the beach bar to specify that you want your drinks at a near-zero temperature!

Examples:

Das Kokoswasser schmeckt am besten eisgekühlt.

The coconut water tastes best ice-cold.

5. (die) Waldbrandstufe

A sign on a forest path indicates forest fire level five.

A sign on a forest path indicates forest fire level five. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-centralpicture | Soeren Stache

The Waldbrandstufe – meaning forest fire level – is a warning system that has been used in all German states since 2014 to indicate the level of forest fire risk, based on the local heat and dryness levels.

Level 1 stands for very low fire risk in forests and level 5 for very high risk. When the Stufe (level) is above 3 or 4, certain measures – such as banning barbecues – will come into force locally.

You will often see the Waldbrandstufe sign in woodland areas, near beaches, or on weather reports over the summer.

Example:

Lagerfeuer werden aufgrund der hohen Waldbrandstufe nicht geduldet.
 
Due to the danger of forest fires campfires will not be tolerated.

6. (der) Strandkorb

Beach chairs stand in sunny weather on the beach in the Baltic resort of Binz on the island of Rügen.

Beach chairs on the beach in the Baltic resort of Binz on the island of Rügen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

The “Strandkorb”, literally meaning beach basket, is a special type of beach chair that you will find on almost every German beach. The traditional beach chair was invented in 1882 by German basket maker Wilhelm Bartelmann in Rostock.

Example:

Hier kannst du in der Ostsee baden oder dich in einem Strandkorb entspannen.

Here you can swim in the Baltic Sea or relax in a beach chair.

7. (die) Radtour

A man and a woman cycle through Lüneburg Heath.

A man and a woman cycle through Lüneburg Heath. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/HeideRegion Uelzen e.V. | Jürgen Clauß, HeideRegion Uelz

Germans love biking, so it’s no surprise that a specific word exists for the summer phenomenon of going on a Radtour – bike tour.

READ ALSO: 10 things to consider for a bike trip in Germany

Example: 

Der gesamte Rundweg ist eine leichte Radtour.
 
The entire circular route is an easy bike ride.

8. Sonne tanken

A man on an air mattress sunbathing on a lake while a model boat passes him by.

A man on an air mattress sunbathing on a lake while a model boat passes him by. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

If you love summer, then you probably like to lie in the sun and soak up the rays. In German, you would call this “Sonne tanken” – literally to fuel up on sun.

Example:

Ich will einfach nur Sonne tanken!

I just want to soak up the sun!

9. (die) Sommergewitter

Lightning striking in the Hanover region in June 2021.

Lightning striking in the Hanover region in June 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

Another very specific word, this term is used to describe the phenomenon of summer thunderstorms.

Example:

Die ersten Sommergewitter rollen quer durch Deutschland.

The first summer thunderstorms are rolling across Germany.

10. (die) Eisdiele

A scoop of strawberry ice cream is placed on top of another scoop in a waffle cone at the "Eiskultur" ice cream parlor in Schöneweide.

A scoop of strawberry ice cream is placed on top of another scoop in a waffle cone at the “Eiskultur” ice cream parlor in Schöneweide. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Finally, no summer would be complete without a generous helping of ice cream. In German, the most common name for an ice-creme parlour is “Eisdiele”. 

The word seems to have joined the German language when the very first ice-creme parlour was opened in Hamburg in 1799.

READ ALSO: Spaghetti ice cream to Wobbly Peter: Why we love Germany’s sweet summer snacks

Example:

Es gibt eine sehr gute Eisdiele an der Promenade.

There is a really good ice-creme parlour on the promenade.

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