10 February, 2014

My Favorite German Words

Among native English speakers, the German language has a reputation for being harsh and having a lot of strange, seemingly unpronounceable sounds. Examples of this abound, such as this video I stumbled across today called "Why German is Scary":

German is considered especially harsh when compared to the Romance languages, such as French, Spanish and Italian. These languages, as a group, tend to live up to their name and have more melodic, romantic sounds. Here's some more YouTube wisdom to illustrate this point (beware of clumsy cultural stereotypes!):

One thing these examples of German have in common is the exaggerated tone in which the words or statements are delivered. In everyday life, German is not spoken the way it is spoken in these videos, and can in fact be quite fun and interesting to listen to (once the uninitiated English speaker has had some time to adjust his or her ears to the new array of sounds. I have to admit that when I first started hearing German 24/7 it hurt my ears a little bit).

Now that I'm decently involved in my German adventure, I have adopted a few German words as my favorites, either because they are fun to say, because they are interesting from a linguistic/translation standpoint, or because they just seem ridiculous. Here are a few of my top picks. Clicking each German word will open a page with the complete translation results and the option of hearing an audio clip of the word being spoken (just click on the button that looks like a megaphone to the right of the word). Enjoy!

      1. Gummibärchen -- Gummy bear

This is by far my favorite German word to say. It looks very similar to its English counterpart, but the German twist on the pronunciation is just precious. The ch is especially fun; because of the arrangement of letters around it, it's actually not that difficult for me as a native English speaker to pronounce (and in general the ch in German is not as harsh as native English speakers think it is. It's also NOT pronounced like a K!).

      2. Vernünftig -- reasonable

When I first heard this word spoken, I literally laughed out loud. There are so many consonants happening in such a short span of time that I can't help but chuckle at the result. Then you throw the ü in there, which makes a sound that English just doesn't have, and you've got yourself some magic.

      3. Straßenbahnhaltestelle -- tram stop

I'm stealing this one from my friend Bianca, because once she pointed out its absurdity in comparison to English I couldn't stop thinking about it. Why use two syllables when you can use seven, right? This word is also a perfect example of the tendency in German to simply put words together to make new words. This is a compound of the words Straßenbahn (tram) and Haltestelle (stop, as in "bus stop"), both of which are themselves compounds of other words (Straße = street, Bahn = train/railroad; halten = to stop, Stelle = place).

      4. Übernachtungsmöglichkeiten -- the possibility of staying overnight (plural)

This word, like the better known Schadenfreude, is an example of a German word that simply does not have an equivalent in English. At eight syllables and a whopping 26 letters, it's the longest German word I've ever used (I used it in a letter I wrote for my German class).

      5. Doch -- yes (when contradicting a negative question or statement)

Following the trend of untranslatable words, we have the often used "doch." This word is used to contradict a negative question or statement; the translation, "yes, I do" or "yes, I am" might be more appropriate. For example, if someone says to you in German, "She wasn't there yesterday" but you know she was (wherever "there" is), you can reply, "Doch" (Yes, she was). Think of it as a way of saying and "Yes" and "You're wrong" at the same time. This is a crowd favorite among bratty children. Used along with the word Nein, it gives small children the ability to forcefully contradict anything a parent says.

      6. Jein -- yes and no

I chuckle every time I hear this word, since it sounds like a made up word you would say to be funny. Turns out it's not, it has a dictionary entry and everything. It basically means "yes and no" and is used as a response to a yes-or-no question when there isn't a clear answer either way. It comes from combining the words Ja (yes) and Nein (no). Simple and useful.

Now for the bonus round: False cognates, or "false friends." These are words in German that look like words in English but have completely different meanings. Some of these are pretty funny.
  1. Bald -- This looks just like the English word meaning hairless, but in fact it means "soon."
  2. Dick -- Looks just like the name or the male body part, but it actually means "thick."
  3. Fahrt -- Looks like "fart" (and when pronounced sounds like "fart" in a British accent), but actually means a trip or a drive.
  4. Lust -- This isn't exactly a false friend because it sometimes has the same meaning as in English, but it's most often used in the sense of "Ich habe Lust..." (I feel like...) or "Ich habe keine Lust" (I don't feel like it) and in that usage does not have the sexual connotation that it does in English.
  5. Damit -- This looks and sounds like "damn it" (except with the emphasis on the second syllable) but in fact means "so that" or "with that."
Aside from these fun and often funny words, German continues to fascinate and infuriate me. While many words and phrases are nearly identical or are literal word-for-word translations from one language to the other, some of them are wildly different or simply untranslatable. And don't even get me started on the grammar. That may be a topic for another post, or perhaps a series of posts... Stay tuned.

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