It goes without saying

Speak, spake, spoken. Spricht, sprach, gesprochen. These are examples of ablaut, a type of vowel variation or apophony. Umlaut (e.g., “goose” and “geese”) and vowel length changes due to stress patterns (e.g., “photography” and “photograph”) are also examples of apophony.  The family of words formed from the root sprechen – “to speak” – is larger and more varied in German than in English:

die Sprache – “language” and “speech”

sprachlos – “speechless”

der Lautsprecher – “the loud speaker”

die Absprache – “agreement”

das Gespräch, im Gespräch mit – “conversation, in conversation with”

die Besprechung – “meeting”

die Sprechstunde – “consultation” or “office hours”

das Sprichwort – “proverb, adage, saying”

der Anspruch – “claim”

der Einspruch – “objection” in the legal sense

der Widerspruch – “contradiction”

Although many of the English translations incorporate aspects from semantically related word families, for example, “to converse” and “to say” (you may also have noticed the “diction” inside the word “contradiction”), I find myself wondering if native speakers of German find the words on the list above to be more similar in meaning that do English speakers given the sound overlap. It is a feature of human, as opposed to other animal languages, that the connections between words and sounds are for the most part arbitrary (otherwise we couldn’t have “meeting” and Besprechung). However, it is also the case that there are some interesting sound-meaning relationships. See, for example, this Wikipedia article on how people consistently associate nonsense words with shapes: and check out this piece on the SN connection:


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Lange nicht geschrieben

Sprechen, ja gut, Lesen, immer and ewig gut. Anhören, natürlich Aber es war, als ob ich allergisch gegen Schreiben wäre. Hoffentlich ist dieses Gefühl vorbei.

Ich freue mich darauf, mit Euch wieder zu plaudern. Bis zum nächsten Mal!

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Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Wo Gone?

As I was out running today, it occurred to me that when you ask where someone is from in German – Woher kommen Sie? – the form of “where” you are using sounds much more like English than the shorter Wo form. Both English and German have a number of compounds formed with “where/wo,” however the German ones appear to be more frequently used and therefore warrant treatment in most German grammar books. (Note that the translations of the English where-compounds are mainly wo-compounds, however they tend not to be the included in such lists further supporting the notion that the English forms are of lower frequency of use.)

Woher kommen Sie? Where do you come from?
Wohin gehen Sie? Where are you going to?
Wofür ist das? What’s that for?
Worüber spricht er? What’s he talking about?
Womit kann man das reparieren? What can one repair that with?
Woraus ist das gemacht? What’s that made out of?
Wohin soll ich das stellen? Where should I put that?
Wonach suchst du? What are you looking for?

These examples come from

The English where-compounds do not appear to be treated as being of special grammatical interest, however the formations seem quite similar, “where” + preposition to create an adverb:

Whereabouts – wohin
Whereby – offers wodurch, womit and wobei
Wherefore – wozu
Wherein – worin
Whereupon – woraufhin

Several where-compounds in English do not follow this pattern and form other parts of speech:

Whereabouts – noun der Aufenthaltsort (“His whereabouts were unknown”)
Whereas – conjunction, offers wohingehen, während, hingehen
Wherewithal – noun das Nötiges (“He lacked the wherewithal to pay”)

This search also introduced me to the idiomatic expressions Woher wissen Sie das? - “Where did you get that from?” (or perhaps simply “Huh?!”) and Woher soll ich das wissen? - “How am I supposed to know?” – which seem like they might come in handy!


I’ve been reading a lot of Krimis written for those learning German and came across the word gestehen in one of them ( It means “to confess” and it joins the small family of verbs I know that happen look like past participles: gefallen and gehören – “to be pleasing [to someone]” and “to belong [to someone].”  In the case of gefallen,it is both an infinitive and a past participle (for fallen); the past participle of both gehören and hören is gehört and the past participle of both stehen  and gestehen is gestanden. One factor that has helped me keep clear on gefallen and gehören is that they require use of the dative: das gefällt mir and das gehört mir – “that pleases me” and “that belongs to me.” Using, I discovered that there are 25 verbs which are formed by the addition of the prefix ge- ( Given there are 18202 verbs in the cannoo database, this makes it a rather rare prefix. (One verb I might have expected to see on this list is genießen (“to enjoy”), however while there is niesen – “to sneeze” – there is no nießen.)

Offen gestanden, or “to tell you the truth,” I usually still have a moment of confusion when I hear gehört and need to pause to discern whether we are talking about a case of “hearing” or a case of “belonging” (which just now brought to mind die Belohnung – “the reward” – of which getting the meaning surely is it’s own!).

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Bücher im Herz

Diese Woche habe ich das Ausdruck »Frühlingsputz machen« – spring cleaning – gelernt. Als wir über das Thema geredet haben, kamen wir auf die Herausforderung zu sprechen, sich von Bücher zu trennen. Ein Leiter sagte, dass er viele Kartons im Keller habe. Alle enthalten Bücher. Seine Kinder sagten, dass wenn er diese Bücher nicht seit fünf Jahren lesen hat, er die vielleicht wegwerfen wird. Das hat mein Herz berührt, weil ich auch viele Bücherkartons habe. Was noch schlimmer ist, die stehen nicht nur in Hamburg, sondern auch in Birmingham, Alabama und St. Paul, Minnesota. Also dann,ich bin Schriftstellerin und deswegen sind fast alle Bücher wie Kinder: man muss sich um sie kümmern. Wenn man umgezogen oder etwas ist, muss man für die Bücher ein neues Zuhause finden. Aber das geht nicht so einfach, und man kann die Nerven statt die Bücher wegschmeißen!

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Just Playing Around?

In the park near my apartment is a Kinderspielplatz (der). While this translates quite neatly to “children’s playground,” it seems a bit stilted to add the word “children’s” at the beginning. Yes, Atlantic City calls itself “America’s Playground” without intending to suggest it is a place only for children, however the typical image that comes to mind when someone says “playground” is of swings and slides and teeter-totters. has an entry for der Spielplatz – simply “playground” and also offers die Spielwiese – literally “play meadow or play grass” – and the lovely der Tummelplatz – “the romping [tummeln] place.”

The same entry offers words for an indoor and an outdoor [play]ground, der Hallenplatz and der FreiplatzDer Hallenplatz is a bit strange – “a hall place” – although in British English we do have the collocation “sports hall.” But der Freiplatz feels awkward unless one already knows the word das Freibad – “outdoor swimming pool.” The “outdoor” or “open air” meaning of frei is quite a bit less common than the “free” or “available” meanings. For instance, one thing you learn pretty early on is to say »Ist dieser Platz frei?« when you mean “Is anyone sitting here?” and everyone is always on the lookout for events or objects that are frei in the sense of not costing anything (kostenlos). Using it became clear however that frei is a pretty productive adjective. I’ll leave you with just one example, der Freigang, which when paired with bekommen means “to be let out on parole.” Having finished this post, I will let myself out to play!

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Are You Experienced?

I’ve been puzzling over two words that both can be translated as “experience” – das Erlebnis and die Erfahrung. I learned the first of these early on as I wanted to be able to describe my “experiences” with living in Germany and this word seemed to fit. Recently, I have been doing some online exercises about the German educational system and one of the key words that came up was die Erfahrung. As in English, this can be a section on one’s CV/resume (der Lebenslauf – worth a post in itself!) where you describe the different jobs, paid and unpaid, that you have done. Two German friends seemed surprised that I would find these two words confusing, they argued that die Erfahrung is associated with learning something new. In support of this they cited the proverb durch Erfahrung wird man kluge – “one learns by experience” or perhaps “through experience one becomes wise.”

My current hypothesis, based on this explanation, is that while you may set up the conditions that produce ein Erlebnis – going on a vacation or to a new restaurant or for a walk in the park – the “experience” just happens to you, you are somewhat passive. For it to be eine Erfahrung, you must put in some sort of effort, you don’t simply collect these “experiences,” you build them.

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What a Difference a G Makes

One of my fellow Dialog in Deutsch participants works as a live-in carer for an elderly woman with dementia. She is a Betreuerin. In a novel I was reading, one of the characters set up scams to get people, perhaps elderly and with dementia, to part with their money. She is a Betrügerin. While there is a vowel difference in the second syllable – /ˈtrɔy/ vs. /ˈtry:/ – this is rather subtle for the non-native ear, and thus that G becomes quite important to distinguish whether someone is being helpful or doing something harmful.

According to the Wortbildung analysis on, betreuen is formed from the prefix be and the adjective treu – “faithful” or “true” – and betrügen is formed by adding be to the verb trügen – “to deceive” and gives treu sein as the opposite of betrügen!

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Composing Word Play?

I’m working my way slowly through Anekdoten, Legenden und Sagen and today’s chapter concerned J.S. Bach. I was delighted to learn that Beethoven used a bit of wordplay to describe Bach that I think would delight a modern advertiser or marketeer:

»Nicht Bach – Meer soll er heißen, Meer

Ein Bach is “a stream” in addition to being the composer’s name, thus given what a “big” composer he was, his name ought to call out something equally big such as an “ocean” or ein Meer. Perhaps we should return the favor and upgrade Beet-hoven from his “patch” – das Beet – to at least a” field” and make him Ackerhoven!

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Brush up on your Dickens?

It made me laugh today when I was doing some sweeping because the word fegen – “to sweep [with a broom]” – is pronounced very much like the name of the Dickens’ character “Fagin” from the novel Oliver Twist. And why is this funny?! Because includes the entry die Straße fegen for which it gives the translation “to scavenge the street.” Perhaps this derives from the less common meaning of fegen –”to move fast” or schnell fahren – as in this sentence from Er kam um die Ecke gefegt – “He came tearing around the corner.” While I did make short work of the sweeping, I wouldn’t describe it as “tearing through” this task and I also failed to scavenge anything in my “Fagin.”

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