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GERMAN LANGUAGE

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.

Swedish Fan Tony celebrates shortly before the Grand Final of the 61st annual Eurovision Song Contest, in Stockholm.
Swedish Fan Tony celebrates shortly before the Grand Final of the 61st annual Eurovision Song Contest, in Stockholm. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Britta Pedersen

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”.  

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

Kätzchen and Büchlein: How to make German words smaller

German grammar is notoriously difficult. But the diminutive form – used to express a smaller version of the noun - is surprisingly straightforward.

Kätzchen and Büchlein: How to make German words smaller

Diminutives are forms of words that are used to express a smaller, younger or even cuter version of a noun. They are used a lot in German, so it’s definitely worth getting to know how they work.

In English, words often become diminutive by adding the suffix -let (e.g. drop becomes droplet, book becomes booklet). In German, the diminutive form (also called die Verkleinerungsform) is made by adding either -chen or -lein to the end of the word:

das Tier → das Tierchen

the animal → the little animal

der Stern → das Sternchen

the star → the little star

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to pick the right German language school for you

Nouns with a, o, and u change their vowel to ä, ö, and ü. The e at the end of the word is usually dropped.

die Katze → das Kätzchen

the cat → the kitten

die Torte → das Törtchen

the cake → the little cake

die Blume → das Blümchen

the flower → the little flower

A selection of little Törtchen on a table.

A selection of little Törtchen on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Catherine Waibel

The diminutive with -lein is used for words ending in -ch:

der Tisch → das Tischlein

the table →  the little table

das Buch → das Büchlein

the book → the little book

As you might have noticed, regardless of which gender the main noun is, the diminutive form is always neuter. See – told you it was simple!

Can you make any word a diminutive?

Pretty much. You can add the ending to any noun in German that is not itself a diminutive, e.g. Häschen (bunny) and Eichhörnchen (squirrel).

Common diminutives

There are many common German words that are diminutive, some of which you have probably been using without even realising it.

das Brötchen for example is the diminutive version of das Brot and means little bread.

das Mädchen, meaning girl, is actually a diminutive of the antiquated word die Magd meaning maid.

And lastly: Hallöchen! is a cute way to say hello there!

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