May 6, 2012

Like a Bridge

I just felt like dropping in to my blog again. To prevent too long intervals of silence, I’ll add smaller bits if there’s too little time for the larger topics – like now.-

In case you have been in a German speaking country recently, you may have heard the word “der Brückentag“. No, this is not a special memorial or festivity. It is simply a word for a working day (“der Werktag“) between days that are free. Usually such a day is trapped between a weekend and a public holiday.

This occurs as a rule with holidays on Thursdays, as Christi Himmelfahrt (Ascension)[1]. So if you prefer to have several free days in a row – as many do – you only have to use one vacation day to get four days off, from Thursday (holiday) until Sunday. In those regions of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland where Fronleichnam (Corpus Christi) is an official holiday, the same applies there.

This already explains the term: This day in between is like a bridge between the glorious free days. It’s up to your taste whether this feels more like a bridge if you have to work or if you take it off – you can use that term in both cases. Many people seize this opportunity and use a vacation day for it, schools and small companies may close down completely.

Now this year, there is a good example for the converse case. As in most European countries, the first of May is a public holiday in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland; it goes by the name Tag der Arbeit officially; in informal speech it is often referred to as Maifeiertag or Erster Mai.
As this was a Tuesday this year, we had the same scenario with the weekend before the “Brückentag”.

Please let me know if you come up with a good idea what the obvious opposite “tunnel day” could mean.

  • [1] The Swiss term for Ascension is Auffahrt. Don’t use it outside Switzerland; Germans and Austrians will only understand a highway ramp by that word
December 22, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

What do you think of when looking at a decorated Christmas tree? Do you automatically compare with others you have seen before, perhaps as a kid? Some people I know always declare that the one they see now was the most beautiful ever.

“Opa Hoppenstedt”, a character of the popular German comedian Loriot had different feelings:

Früher war mehr Lametta!

(We used to have more tinsel!)– Though not entirely correct in a grammatical sense, this phrase has found its place in common usage. It is still remarkably well-know after more than 30 years it was heard on TV. Is there a more charming way to say “Everything used to be better”?

Loriot deceased this year at the age of 87. His works will not be forgotten any time soon.

December 16, 2011

“Glowing Wine”

In case you ever have the opportunity to visit Germany or Switzerland in winter, you should definitely try Glühwein. It is the favorite drink on “Christmas markets” (Weihnachtsmarkt), but the drink is not a particular Christmas tradition. You may be offered it on various in-door or out-door events from fall to carnival – if only it is cold enough.

Booths on a Christmas market offer fancy variants of Glühwein more and more often – based on fruit wine for instance, or with shots. Even more frequently, you will see creative non-alcoholic variations (usually called Punsch). They are much less “standardized”, and tasting several of them can be quite interesting. (Don’t let yourself be deterred if the non-alcoholic drink is called Kinderpunsch. Neither the counter people nor the bystanders will find an adult ordering it surprising.)

I personally prefer to prepare the drink myself. This is actually quite easy: Many supermarkets (though usually not discounters) offer Glühweingewürz, a blend of spices in something like tea bags. Together with a bottle of not too expensive red wine and all the sugar you want, this is an excellent starting kit: Gently heat the wine in a pot on a stove; it should not get too hot, and not boil at all (the alcohol would evaporate). When the wine is warm, leave the pot in an unheated spot with a bag in it. After 5 or 10 minutes, take out the bag and add as much sugar as seems fit.

There are more sophisticated ways of selecting and applying the spices yourself. But this simple method will give you quite satisfying results already.

Whether speaking German becomes easier under the influence of Glühwein is yet to be analyzed.

December 7, 2011

Grammatical Gender: The Plain Truth

The gender of nouns might not be the favorite topic for many German learners. Indeed there are some difficulties in it. However, there are some guidelines which can make things a lot easier for you. But before we get to such means of support, I would like to put things into perspective: The purpose of today’s posting is only to show how ugly the situation actually is. Sorry.

Since gender is a tedious topic some people might be hoping for a universal formula; and perhaps even some learning materials claim that the gender can actually be easily determined. Actually I do believe that some rules of thumb can help a lot. But at first I will demonstrate you how limited their scopes must necessarily be.

My central message for today is: The gender is an independent item on a word “record”. Let me explain this a bit more: A word in a foreign language has several different aspects all of which may be useful to remember: Spelling, pronunciation, meaning; flection (e.g. declension for a noun), words it usually combines with (e.g. prepositions), but also the level of speech it belongs to (Is it fairly formal? Or is it colloquial?) and potentially its use in phrases. For German nouns, the gender is another point on this list.
The connections between these individual “pieces” of a word differ in strength. For instance, for German words, the relation between spelling and pronunciation is fairly close, and I suppose you appreciate that you basically have to learn only one of them.
But unfortunately, gender is somewhat different.


The grammatical gender is not determined by the sound of a word.

This can be best shown by collections of very similarly sounding words, but different genders:

(male) (female) (neuter)
der Mast mast, pole die Mast fattening (of animals)
der See lake die See sea
der Schmaus feast die Maus mouse das Haus house
der Tau dew das Tau 1. rope, 2. tau (Greek letter)

(Of course, the Northern German for ‘rope’ expression just happens to coincide with the name of a Greek letter. The gender of the latter needn’t be a surprise to you, as it is explained by the “words on a side job” theory.)

This being said, one has to admit that similar sound is indeed a very important link between words, and in many cases this has influenced the gender (here should be link as soon as I will have posted about this).

Now there are also theories out there that the gender could be determined by the ending of a word. This is correct in some cases (see below). One rule of thumb I keep hearing about says that ‘words ending in a vowel are usually female’. I think this is very misleading, independent form whether you refer to spelling or pronunciation. See the following table:

(male) (neuter)
der Tau dew das Tau 1. rope, 2. tau (Greek letter)
der Tee tea das Ei egg
der Mai May das Heu hay
der Floh flea das Stroh straw
der Etat (gov’l) budget das A A (letter)
der Schupo (coll.) cop das Inferno inferno
der Guru guru das Känguru(h) kangaroo
der Tsunami tsunami das Komma comma
das Gelee jelly
der Uhu eagle owl das Reh deer
das Klo (coll.) toilet

But still there is some truth to this rule: The vast majority of words ending in a murmured “-e” (shwa sound) are female.

This is a very general effect, and largely independent from meaning, stylistic level, word origin, or meaning. Some examples: Die Fliegefly, die Brückebridge, die Fragequestion, die Thesethesis, theory, claim.

It should be noted that these words drop their final “-e” sometimes. As this is only a pronunciation variant, the gender does not change: Die Ruh(e)rest; sinlence, die Erde / Erd’earth. (In very few cases, dropping the final “-e” is more than a matter of pronunciation, but we needn’t dwell on this for now.)

As a matter of fact, the vast majority of German words ending in a vowel actually end in such an unstressed “-e”. But the rule of female gender does not generalize well beyond this group, see the table above.

The same table also debunks the theory that “lean words are usually neuter”. Neutral gender is the least frequent among the three, and my impression is that it gets even less of its current share among new lean words. I suspect that this rule of thumb should actually cover some of the cases described as “temporary” nouns.
Let’s save this insight in this form:

The grammatical gender is not determined by the origin of a word.

Indeed, it is a very interesting question how a newly coined lean word gets to have a gender in German. I will later have some hints for you on that as well.

Finally, I have a third destructive message for you:

The grammatical gender is not determined by the meaning of a word.

As with sound, I compiled a couple of words with similar meanings but different gender:

(male) (female) (neuter)
die See sea das Meer sea
der Mensch human, person die Person person das Wesen creature
der Gegenstand thing, object die Sache thing, case das Ding thing, object
das Objekt object
der Apparat machine, gadget die Maschine engine, machine das Gerät gear, device
der Automat machine
der Name name, term die Bezeichnung term das Wort word
der Stock 1. stick, 2. floor die Etage floor das Geschoss floor
das Stockwerk floor
der Saal hall die Halle hall
der Raum space; room (of a house) das Zimmer room (of a house)
der Ball ball (toy) die Kugel ball (shape)

I am planning to provide you good help to guess the gender of a noun based on its structure, origin, and meaning.

But I had to say this first.

November 30, 2011

A delicate question

In my posting about different greetings in German, I skipped (on purpose, I admit) one pestering question: Is Grüß Gott a religious phrase? You might wonder: Do people expect that particular salutation, or do they despise it – either way because of their beliefs? Do I make a statement about myself by using or avoiding it?

To cut a long story short: No. In the regions where it is commonly used, it is the general standard and does not relate to personal belief.

However, such hesitations are not unjustified. Many German native speakers unacquainted with that phrase ask similar questions, and may come to the wrong conclusions as well. After all, Gott is mentioned very explicitly here. So the religious reference is easily suspected, even though the connection is a bit unclear: The sentence is indeed a rudiment of an old blessing. But archaic usage of the word grüßen and shortening over centuries have rendered it incomprehensible. It is not possible to make sense of the phrase based on contemporary grammar and vocabulary. So it is not too far fetched if Northern Germans think they are asked to pass on your greetings to higher levels …

So if you really, really need a pretext to start a conversation on religious matters, it might do. But actually it’s just something people say.

November 24, 2011

Servus, Grüß Gott und auf Wiedersehn

(If the headline looks weird, you might miss the German szet symbol. See Technical Remarks for more details.)

Greeting in German is a confusing topic. Even natives get lost here: While Nordlichter (the people from Northern Germany) have a hard time to get used to the Southern Grüß Gott, Austrians on the German coast or Bavarians in Switzerland may stand out by choosing the wrong expressions all the time.

I think that a broad-brush rules of thumb can actually shed some light here. Of course, we have to ignore a lot of secondary details.

The most important thing to realize is that the form of salutations depend on whether you address your counterpart with the formal Sie or the familiar Du.

You certainly know about the two distinct forms of addressing people in German? It is a very tedious question when to use which one. But once you have figured out what to use with a person, this triggers other consequences. A “Du” person is always called by his or her first name (or even nickname), while “Sie” persons should be addressed by Herr or Frau followed by their surnames (optionally with titles in between).

Saying hello and goodbye in German is also highly correlated with these “categories”. The basic rule of thumb in standard German would be to use Guten Tag and Auf Wiederseh(e)n with the “Sie” gang, whereas friends rather expect Hallo when you meet and Tschüss when you leave.

(Note that “Hallo” qualifies as a ‘false friend’ at least stylistically: It belongs to a more casual level of speech than the English ‘Hello’.)

The next step is the regional variations. They abound! But good news here is that there are only three big groups, and that they basically show the same structure as the standard. The main alternatives can be arranged in the following table:

Sie du
Central, Northern Germany ‘hello’ guten Tag hallo
‘bye’ auf Wiederseh(e)n tschüss
Bavaria, Austria ‘hello’ grüß Gott Servus
‘bye’ auf Wiederschaun Servus/pfiati
Switzerland ‘hello’ Grüezi Grüesdi
‘bye’ adieu / ade b(e)hüati

Greetings referring to the time of day (as guten Morgen and guten Abend) would rather qualify for the “Sie” column, whereas gute Nacht lives outside these borders.

This reflects colloquial language. Forms like “pfiati, b(e)hüati, grüezi” are less frequently written down; as a consequence, their spelling also varies.

I promised to not get entangled in too many details, but I’ll at least mention the most crucial constraints on this rule of thumb:

First, the trisection is not as clear as depicted here. The irregularity most useful to remember is that in large parts of Baden-Württemberg (South-Western Germany), the greeting “Gr&uumlß Gott” is in frequent use, while “Servus” is not considered ‘indigenous’.

Moreover, the distinction between “du” and “Sie” forms is flexible at several point. In particular, “Hallo” has spread into “Sie” territory: In an attempt to avoid too many formalities, while still keeping some distance the phrase Hallo Herr/Frau +surname has become one standard salutation in writing. It is used when sender and recipient do not have any closer relationship, for instance if it is a business letter, but know each other to some degree.- But writing is a different topic; in normal speech, this combination is not too common.

There are many more local variations, usually of smaller radius of prevalence. After all, we are discussion colloquial language here, so even the exact forms are variable (e.g. the longer version “pfiati Gott” instead of “pfiati”). However, it probably doesn’t make sense to learn many of them; when you are in a German speaking country, just listen what variants are in use. Until them, the table above will be a reasonable guide.

And what does actually happen when people hear “Grüß Gott” the first time, which sounds like Say hello to God (for me) to the unfamiliar ear? Alarmingly many will resort to the stale joke “Wenn ich ihn seh'” (In case I meet him) …


November 18, 2011

Shakespeare on tour

Studying phrases and proverbs in a foreign language can be both useful and entertaining. Many frequent sayings are actually literary citations, both in English and in German. They may have been slightly adjusted to fit for everyday situations, and probably not every person using them is aware of their origin.

Surprise: German proverbs have borrowed heavily from English literature. And most German speakers probably aren’t aware where these phrases originally come from. But, and this may be the second surprise, the scope of English sources is rather limited: Virtually all well-known English literary phrases have been penned by Shakespeare.

I’ll list a couple of well-known sentences you will probably recognize without further remarks. I suppose it is also relatively easy to guess the occasions to employ them:

Ende gut, alles gut.

Da ist der Wunsch der Vater des Gedankens.

Viel Lärm um nichts.

Morgenluft wittern

Es gibt mehr Dinge im Himmel und auf Erden, (als eure Schulweisheit sich träumt.) (usually cited incompletely)

Der Zahn der Zeit (hat daran genagt.)

Es ist etwas faul im Staate Dänemark.

Ist es auch Wahnsinn, so hat es doch Methode!

I tried to roughly order to the top the most wide-spread sayings, while the lower ones might not occur but in slightly higher levels of speech.
Note that these are phrases that can actually be used in normal speech, without being necessarily recognized as quotations. Of course, it will ring a bell for most Germans if you ask questions about Sein oder Nichtsein, or engange them in a discussion about telling Lerche from Nachtigall. But the practical use of these topics seems to be limited – limited to witty puns, actually.

Probably the list extends much longer. One quote I didn’t show above actually seems slightly more common in German than in English: die nackte Wahrheit. More common? Perhaps at least more prevalent in, um, family-friendly contexts. This, however, is just my personal impression.

It turns out that this ingenious poet has coined phrases which are really useful even when translated. In his own words (sort of): Gut gebrüllt, Löwe!

This ends today’s post: Der Rest ist Schweigen.


November 11, 2011

Umlauts where you’d least expect them

Got trouble remembering all the word that use umlaut to form the plural? (You know, for some words you have to replace a, o, u by ä, ö, ü to get the plural.) Don’t worry, it’s a stable group – umlaut nouns do not reproduce any more.

Oh, hold on – they do! What, people really think of inventing new umlaut plurals? Feel free to be confused here.

Well, let’s put this in some order. First of all it is true in general that umlaut plurals are a historical relict – though quite a comprehensive one. Umlauts haven arisen as the effect of certain sound changes, which were finished almost a thousand years ago.

You need not be an expert on language history to make a guess which words might be so old, and which can’t possibly be. For instance, you wouldn’t expect an English or French lean word in German to form an umlaut plural.

Anyway, you may have noticed that the umlaut plural nouns form a relatively large group; they do not only include old Germany inheritance vocabulary (e.g. Väterfathers), but also quite a number of Latin lean words (e.g. Klöstermonasteries).

So this was the principal part. Now welcome to reality: Umlaut plurals have been used since for humorous purposes, and the form may have achieved serious status. Or the similarity to an umlaut word (in the narrow sense) drew a more recent arrival into this group.

So it does happen that lean words adopt a Germanic umlaut plural form. As other diseases, they first spread in the military:

der General, die Generäle general(s) (as a military rank)
der Admiral, die Admiräle admiral(s)

It should be noted, however, that in formal speech, these words usually occur without umlaut in the plural (e.g. Generale).

Note that so far we have been talking about forming plurals only. Umlauts do occur in lean words to produce the desired sounds. They have jumped into “das Känguruh” – kangaroo and found a suitable habitat in ecology (die Ökologie).

But there is still another place where umlauts have a grammatical function. It is one of the tools you need when tinkering new words out of old ones.

As with the plural forms, umlaut changes occur mostly in relatively old (and often simple) words:

der Flug flight
der Flügel wing
blau blue
bläulich bluish
der Mann man
männlich male

But also in this large group, we find an odd shoe. This one is actually my favorite:

das Attentat (assassination) attempt, attack
der Attentäter assassin

Huh? Umlaut derivations in a (somewhat) modern lean word?
Yes, it’s true, and news presenters pronounce it straight-facedly.

But this used to be different: The word is originally a little pun, blending Attentat with “der Täter” (‘doer’, offender) (which, by the way, derives from “die Tat” – deed in the logic we just discussed). It was used tongue-in-cheek, today it belongs into the technical standard repository of any journalist.

We even know the exact year and occation of birth of this word: In 1837, the Prussian king faced an assassination attempt (he survived it). In Berlin of that time, newspapers didn’t have a monopoly on spreading news: They were also sung in rhymes by street organ players. And one of them was desperatly searching for a rhyme for Hochverräter (traitor) …

December 30, 2010

“Sliding” to a new year

If you are staying in a German speaking country at the moment, you will often hear people say to each other:

Guten Rutsch!

And one might wonder what that’s supposed to mean.
First of all, the full version of this phrase reads

(Ich wünsche dir/Euch/Ihnen) einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!

which explains its frequency now at the end of December. Basically, it is the wish for a happy New Year.
(Side note: From the -n endings in “einen guten” you can derive a general rule of thumb:
Wishes and greetings always stand in the accusative.)

But why do people wish each other to slide to the new year?
The prevalence of glaze in this season causes a lot of puns, but this cannot really be the reason for this phrase.

The most popular theory on its origin refers to the Hebrew and Yiddish greeting Rosh ha shana tov – Happy new year. According to this theory, the German speakers would have listened to this saying and understood its general purpose, but not its literal meaning.

There are some doubts about this story; however, the believe in it is quite wide-spread.
And it is a good way to remember it, isn’t it?

All meinen Lesern einen guten Rutsch und ein glückliches neues Jahr!

December 24, 2010

Frohe Weihnachten!

In German there is not too much controversy about how to wish people a merry Christmas. Frohes Weihnachtsfest, Frohes Fest, Schöne Feiertage can be used – but number one is still good ol’ Frohe Weihnachten!.

Wait a minute – frequently there is also Fröhliche Weihnachten. “Froh”, “fröhlich” – what’s the difference?

The good news is: Hardly any. “Fröhlich” can suggest a more frolic happiness, whilst “froh” might express a deeper bliss. But these are very tiny hues – the words are used widely interchangeably, even during the rest of the year.

So it remains to wish the same to you.

Besinnliche Festtage!