The literal nature of the German language

16 Mar

The other day I was thinking (and I have no idea why before you ask) about the German word for breakfast. I have no idea why I was thinking about Frühstück while I was waiting for my tram but I was. If you deconstruct the word, you are left with früh which means “early” and stück which means “piece”. The word literally means in English “early piece”. This make so much sense because breakfast is the first meal of the day and my theory is that the word “piece” is fitting for the German speaking world because most people have a croissant or a piece of bread as their first meal.

This doesn’t really work in the English language because we tend to have more lavish and complicated breakfasts. We don’t just take “a piece” and go. Can you imagine if you took a piece from an English breakfast and you mistakenly end up with a baked bean? That won’t stop you snacking until lunchtime.

This got me thinking about other German words which are literal in their meaning. The word for shoe in German is Schuh and the word for glove is Handschuh. So Germans genuinely think of a glove as a shoe for the hand, which it sort of is.

The German word for a sloth is made up of the word faul meaning “lazy” and tier meaning “animal”. I’ve watched David Attenbourgh and that animal is lazy by anyone’s standards.

It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that there are some laughable mistranslations when Germans try to speak English. I mean laughable in the nicest possible way. One mistake that is frequently used in the office is emails that start with “Hello together”. In German the email would start with Hallo zusammen meaning dear all. The problem is that zusammen also means “together”. You can say Wir gehen morgen zusammen which means “We are going together tomorrow”. I have a colleague who proudly walks into the office every day, cheerily declaring “Hello together”. Part of me thinks I should politely point out to him his mistake, the other part of me thinks it might be a bit rude to say anything at all. It’s a modern-day dilemma.

Other howler is the use of the words “some when” which is directly translated from the German word Irgendwann (irgend meaning some and wann meaning when in the precise sense of what time). A friend asked me if I wanted to go to the cinema with her some when. I pointed out this way wrong. Firstly, she is my friend and secondly, she specifically mentioned that it’s ok if I pick her up on mistakes. The modern-day dilemma was clearly avoided in this case. When I told her the question should be “do you want to go to the cinema some time?”, she looked at me a little confused and said “when do you use some when?” To which I replied “well, never. It doesn’t exist in English in the way that you mean it”.

The verb to ski in German is Skifahren, literally “to drive skis”. This time I was on the receiving end of the confusion when a friend told me he would like to drive with me. I had to stop myself from saying words to the effect of “That’s lovely. Maybe we can drive somewhere later but right now I would like to go skiing”. Then it dawned on me what he meant and I smiled and followed him down the mountain.

These miscommunications, while at times can be frustrating when learning a language, provide light relief. In some of the above cases, it makes it easier for me to remember phrases in German because of the funny story or association behind it. At the moment, I wish there were some more funny stories that would stick more vocabulary in my head; recently my memory has been like a sieve and I need a way to bung those holes up!

target-2045925__340

4 Responses to “The literal nature of the German language”

  1. emma March 17, 2017 at 12:48 am #

    Great post! Really interesting to read and you’re so right – hearing Germans make mistakes in English, it also provides a really good German lesson (as you can understand why they would say that).
    My partner is French, and when he doesn’t know a word (usually a noun you don’t use often) he’ll end up laughing when I tell him what it is. Just because it’s usually so literal. I think we’re too close to it to realise how literal English can be, we just think of breakfast as breakfast, we don’t think of it of breaking the fast from not eating all night 😉

    • ourgirlinzurich March 17, 2017 at 8:17 am #

      That is so true! And a free German lesson is always a good thing 😃

  2. Confuzzled Bev March 17, 2017 at 8:22 am #

    I wrote a post on my favourite literal German words a while ago: https://confuzzledom.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/those-literal-germans/

    It definitely makes things easier at times when you come across a new word and you already know what it’s components mean.

    Have you seen those postcards with German phrases translated literally? “I think I spider” is one (Ich glaube, ich spinne).

    • ourgirlinzurich March 17, 2017 at 8:46 am #

      Great minds, think alike!! Yes I have and they make me laugh out loud. I’m not sure if they get the joke the same way we do!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: