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GERMAN LANGUAGE

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

From dancing at two weddings to killing flies, the German language has its own unique way of expressing the sentiments behind some of the most popular English sayings.

organic farm at a window
A chicken on an organic farm at a window opening in the scratching room. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

Though many popular English idioms are largely similar to their German equivalents, if you try to directly translate others into German you may be met with a rather perplexed look. 

Here is a break down of the (sometimes surprising) German versions of some of the most popular English idioms.

Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen

The German equivalent of the English “to kill two birds with one stone”, uses much smaller flying victims to describe achieving a dual purpose at once. It means literally to “beat two flies with one trap”.

READ ALSO: Why traditional German names are often used as insults

Wie du mir, so ich dir

If you find yourself mistreated in the same way you have behaved towards others, your counterpart might tell you “wie du mir, so ich dir”.

The English version of this phrase – “to get a taste of your own medicine” – is not used in German, so don’t try to directly translate it, unless you have a lot of friends who happen to be pharmacists.

Sich an die eigene Nase fassen

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference.

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa/Pool | Marcus Brandt

In English, you might talk about “the pot calling the kettle black” to express irony or absurdity that someone accuses another person of exactly their own mistakes or shortcomings.

But in German, you’re unlikely to be understood if you start talking about kitchen utensils. Instead, you should tell someone to “touch your own nose.”

The origin of this saying is apparently down to an old Norman legal custom, in which a person who had unjustly insulted someone, had to touch their own nose with their hand while publicly apologising.

Example:

Anna war ganz schön sauer wegen meiner Verspätung. Dabei sollte sie sich an die eigene Nase fassen!

Anna was quite angry because of my lateness. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! 

Setz nicht alles auf eine Karte

The German version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” uses gambling rather than farmyard prudence to warn against taking big risks, and literally means “don’t put everything on one card.”

ein blindes Huhn findet auch ein Korn

The closest German idiom in meaning to “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is the pejorative “a blind chicken also finds corn”, meaning that even the most incompetent can sometimes succeed.

ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer

In English, you would say “once bitten, twice shy” to express that a person who has failed or been hurt when trying to do something is careful or fearful about doing it again. In German, you would literally say “a burned child is afraid of the fire.”

READ ALSO: What’s behind the strange German name for musical chairs?

Besser ein Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach

This avian idiom is very similar to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, though in this version a safe sparrow in the hand is compared with a flight-risk dove on the roof. The meaning is however the same, and is used to advise people not to risk the thing they have for certain – but which is of lesser value – for something more valuable but not guaranteed.

Sparrows land on a woman's hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin.

Sparrows land on a woman’s hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Paul Zinken/dpa | Paul Zinken

im Handumdrehen

In English, you might talk about something happening “in the twinkling of an eye” if it passes very quickly. In German, the equivalent speedy movement is a turning hand.

Example:

Das Problem haben wir im Handumdrehen gelöst.

We solved the problem in no time.

Jemanden auf den Arm nehmen

If you want to talk about someone being deceived in German, you would refer to them being pulled by the arm, rather than by the leg as you might in English.

The saying refers to the naivety of children, who are easily pulled by the arm and are also (generally) more gullible.

Examples:

Dieser Witzbold hat schon sehr viele auf den Arm genommen.

This joker has already taken a lot of people for a ride.

in den sauren Apfel beißen

A woman bites into an apple.

A woman bites into an apple. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

When Germans want to express having to do something unpleasant but nevertheless necessary, they talk about biting into a sour apple rather than a bullet.

Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig tanzen

The joy of eating your cake (but sadly not being able to have it, too) is replaced in German with the phrase “One can’t dance at two weddings at once” to express the frustrating truth that you can’t enjoy two desirable, but mutually exclusive, things.

Ohne Fleiß, kein Preis

A less severe version of the English “no pain, no gain”, this German idiom literally means “without diligence, no price.”

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

Standard German is called Hochdeutsch and is heard all over the country. But there are many regional dialects and other languages spoken in Germany.

EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

The wide-ranging dialects of Germany

There are believed to be as many as 250 dialects of German, with many tracing back to the languages of Germanic tribes.

In the north and around Berlin, many dialects have been displaced by the standard German language, however in the south, dialects are still prominent. This divide is thought to be due to the fact that the upper German south was a strongly rural region for a long time, becoming industrialised a lot later than its northern counterpart.

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Rheinhessisch (from Rheinhessen) and Pfälzisch (from Rhineland-Palatinate) belong to a group of Rhine-Franconian dialects which are spoken across the western regions of Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Hesse, and even in the northeastern part of France. 

Bairisch – from Bavaria – is one of the most widely spoken dialects and is more easily understood by German speakers, partly due to its prominence. 

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: "I mog di" (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019.

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: “I mog di” (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Other dialects include Schwäbisch, Kölsch, Hamburgisch and Allgäuerisch.

READ ALSO: The complete guide to dialects in Germany

But how many people actually use their dialects on a daily basis?

According to a survey by the Institute for the German Language (IDS) in Mannheim, every second German claims to be able to speak a dialect. 

However, decline in dialects has been noted by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research. In 1991 the institute found that 41 percent of Germans in the former East almost always spoke in dialect. By 2008 this number had dropped to 33 percent. In the west, this figure fell from 28 to 24 percent. 

It is also a lot more common for older generations to speak in dialect, which is contributing to its decline.

While many dialects are gradually disappearing, a so-called Regiolekt (regional dialect), which is a combination of dialect and standard language, seems to be sticking around. This is a regional, colloquial language that still maintains the grammar of High German. For example, the word “ich”, which people in Hesse and some other regions pronounce as “isch”, has been integrated into standard German.

What about other languages?

Overall, around 67 percent of the population speaks at least one foreign language, with 27 percent mastering two.

The most common second language is English, with many Germans learning English in school, especially with the emergence of bilingual kindergartens and schools. A number of businesses and start-ups in Germany use English as a working language, and even universities offer many classes or degrees in English, which further encourages teaching of the language. 

READ ALSO: ‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like working at a Berlin tech startup

English is taught in schools in Germany.

English is taught in schools in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Marijan Murat

Learning French or Latin is also still a popular option in German high schools. If you’re living near the Western or Eastern borders, it isn’t uncommon for Dutch or Russian language classes to be offered (the latter being especially the case in former GDR or East German states). 

Due to the number of first and second-generation immigrants from Turkey, Turkish is also widely spoken in households across Germany.

Minority languages in Germany

Minority languages have long played an important part in German culture, with Germany being one of the first countries to sign the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages from the Council of Europe in 1992, aiming to preserve minority cultures in modern Europe, encouraging tolerance and diversity.

The minority languages most present in Germany include Romani (0.8 percent of the population), Danish (0.06 percent of the population) and the Frisian languages, including North Frisian and West Frisian from Schleswig-Holstein and the North Frisian islands, and Saterland Frisian spoken in Lower Saxony.

The West Slavic languages of Upper and Lower Sorbian spoken in Saxony and Brandenburg, while mostly spoken by older generations, have been given the right to protection under the Brandenburg constitution.

Low German or Plattdeutsch is closely related to Frisian, and is also spoken mainly in Northern Germany. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

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