All present and accounted for?

Lernkrimis (special mystery stories for German language learners aimed at particular levels in the European Standard Framework for Languages) continue to be a good source of new vocabulary. I already knew the words das Wesen (the “being” or “creature”) from the Nelly Rapp Monsteragentin series by Martin Widmark and die Anwesenheit (“presence” or “attendance”) and anwesend (“present”) from Dialog in Deutsch, however the story »Hits, Hits, Hits« in Tatort St Pauli introduced me to die Abwesenheit (absence).

This triggered two things for me. The first had to do with German. In this post on going up and down stairs, I wrote about the prefix ab- and how it often signals movement away from something. In the case of die Abwesenheit, someone or something has moved so far away as to no longer be “present.” Thanks, Tatort St Paul, for providing further support for this meaning of the prefix.

The second thought was about the words “being,” “present,” “absent,” “presence,” and “absence” in English. The relationship between “being” and the remaining words isn’t obvious and yet we can talk about “sensing a presence” and mean that we are aware of another “being.” In addition, to be “present,” one must orient her/his “being” to the events currently taking place (in the “present” or “here and now” – die Gegenwart) and the other “beings” who are also “present.”

Noticing the Wesen within Abwesenheit also led me to reflect on how we might conceive of our “being” as something that has been “sent” into the world with a particular purpose to fulfill, if only we could be “present” to that purpose. Perhaps we can only become “a presence to be reckoned with” when we tap into this aspect of our “being” and are “present” and “attending to” our true selves?

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Tied by their sounds

I’m not sure how often I notice words that have similar sounds but quite different meanings in English, but this frequently is a source of amusement (and challenge) in German. Today’s example:

die Krawatte – “the tie” (as in “piece of clothing worn around the neck” –think “cravat,” die Krawattenschal, which a combination of die Krawatte and der Schal, “the scarf”)
die Krawalle – “rioting”

I now have an interesting picture in my head of tie-wearing rioters. Hopefully no tie wearers (or perhaps rioters?!) find themselves “miffed” by this image or sich auf den Schlips getreten fühlen (literally something like “to feel [as though] one’s tie has been tread upon”) and now want to put me in “a headlock” (a second meaning for die Krawatte)!

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What’s all the flap about?

Yesterday I learned that the expression “to have blinders or blinkers on” can also be used in German – Scheuklappen aufhaben or Scheuklappen tragen or mit Scheuklappen herumlaufen – when one wants to describe someone as rather close-minded. According to an entry on the word has been used in this figurative manner since at least 1512 (albeit with older word Scheuleder).

The word die Scheuklappe is a combination of scheu – “timid,” or “skittish,” in the case of horses – and the “flap” meaning of die KlappeScheu is also found in the expression die Gäule scheu machen – “to upset the applecart.” The word die Klappe appears in the expression zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen – “to kill two birds with one stone.” Die Klappe is also part of the expression Halt die Klappe! – “shut your trap/gob” – which one might be tempted to shout at someone wearing those Scheuklappen.

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Bob the Bilder?

As I walked past a toy shop today and noticed a sign for Bob der Baumeister, who is called Bob the Builder in English. Now the English word “builder” /ˈbɪldəʳ  US,ˈbɪldɚ UK/ and the German word die Bilder /ˈbɪldɐ/ (“the pictures”) are pronounced and spelled similarly. Therefore to my ears the phrase die Bilder des Baumeisters – “the pictures of the builder” – sounds humorous.

In English we can say that someone has “built up a picture” of someone or something to mean that they have developed an impression or idea about this person or thing. While I couldn’t find a definitive answer, I believe that one could use the verb aufbauen to express this same notion in German as PONS includes examples of using this word when describing building up a new relationship, a new life, one’s stamina or strength. What I can definitively say, however, is that learning German has helped me to build all four of these things.


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Nee-ther, nigh-ther

This bit of doggerel on a subway car poster had me pondering how linguistic differences might reflect cultural differences:

Wer am Handy Reden hält, bekommt weder Applaus noch Geld.

What intrigued me was not whether talking on the phone on public transportation would get you applause or money – I am pretty sure that the English and German speaking worlds are in agreement on this – but rather that the shorter word weder means “neither” and the longer word entweder means “either.” In spite of the fact that in terms of frequency (as measured by entries) entweder is more common and assures me that both words cannot be broken down any further, I still cannot help but see weder inside entweder and wonder if that makes the basic notion “neither” the primary one in German. Could this perhaps translate into a more pessimistic cultural outlook? One where people are more worried about what is not allowed, not done or not said? Where the response to “How are you?”/Wie geht’s? is  frequently “not bad”/nicht schlecht instead of “good”/gut?


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Why you need to learn the local language I

There are lots of things you can manage when you can speak with the locals in their own language. The ones that you hear about are things like ordering food and drink, securing a bed for the night, or getting directions and the correct ticket to get you to your destination. What I’d like to explore is some of the things that the phrase books don’t discuss. So, here’s an example from a couple weeks ago.

You are walking down the street on your way to the bus stop. A man and a boy, they are probably father and son, approach you. The son is carrying a notebook. He tells you he is doing a school project where he needs to find out what people know about birds flying south (or I suppose north if we had been in the Southern Hemisphere) for the winter. You are expected to guess how far birds fly to get to their winter homes. The father tries to help you make your estimate by suggesting that they likely fly to another continent. They both are looking at you expectantly.

If you speak their language, you can enjoy this interaction, if you don’t, perhaps you make a young boy’s day a little tougher since he now has to get up to gumption to ask another person about birds’ habits. As it turned out, my German was sufficient to allow me to share my thoughts about birds’ winter habits and receive a smile from father and son both.

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Upstairs, downstairs

I needed to use the words “upstairs” and “downstairs” – treppauf and treppab – today and I realized that the morpheme »ab« was confounding me as I tried to learn which form was which. The verb with »ab« as a prefix that I use most often is abholen– “to pick up something or somebody” and so »ab« has become associated with “up” in my mind. Learning that treppab means “downstairs” made it crystal clear that this association was not a helpful one from which to generalize. A search turned up a discussion of separable verbs and the most common meanings of the separable prefixes. »Ab«, according to this page at Dartmouth “usually…carries the notion of ‘away from.'” On the list was another »ab« prefixed word that I use with some regularity: ablenken. One of its primary meanings is “to distract” with the sense of “taking someone’s attention ‘away from’ something.” This should work long enough to help me master up- and downstairs and to discourage me relying on abholen to derive the meaning of »ab« when added to another word. Let’s hope it’s not enough distract me into thinking that abstimmen means “to vote down” something – that’s niederstimmen – or to make me want to niederbrennen – `’burn down” – or niederreißen – “tear down” – anything.

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Zu Tränen gerührt sein?

Es gibt eine Konkurrenz zwischen zwei Regeln in meinem Kopf:
• die Präpositionen, die den Akkusativ regieren, wenn man etwas oder sich selbst in Bewegung setzt und
• die Präpositionen, die den Dativ regieren, und in einem Zusammenhang mit Bewegung häufig zu finden sind

Zum Beispiel muss man sagen »Ich fliege nach den Staaten« und »Ich gehe zum Arzt« und nicht »Ich fliege nach *die Staaten« und »Ich gehe zu *den Arzt,« obwohl »fliegen« und »gehen« bestimmt Bewegungen sind.

Weil ich jetzt für diese Konkurrenz besseres Verständnis habe, stoße ich vielleicht nicht so oft auf diesen Stolperstein.


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I, E, I, E, Oh!

Have you ever had a sense of panic that you might have been mispronouncing something for years and no one ever told you? I had such a moment recently when I was reviewing the variety of ways you can form plural nouns in German. There is a subcategory of words that end in »e« (or unstressed »el« or »er«) where there is no need to add an extra »e« when forming their plural forms. Two examples from this list that I use regularly are die Energie and die Familie. When seeing them together on the list of words that refers to as e-Tilgung bei Endung -en (“e-deletion triggered by an -en ending”), I was suddenly thrown into doubt about how their final syllables – »gie« and »lie« – were pronounced.

What’s additionally challenging about this is that one of the first mnemonics you are given for German pronunciation is that with the »ie« and »ei« combinations you pronounce them by saying the name of the second letter of the combo in the ENGLISH alphabet. Therefore »ie« is pronounced like the letter “E” and »ei« is pronounced like the letter “I.”

With doubt sometimes come enlightenment, however. In this case, I discovered that there is a pronunciation rule that governs final »ie« in German (you can read about it and listen to some examples here: In a nutshell, because the stress in Energie falls on the final syllable [enɛrˈgi:], the »ie« is pronounced as you would expect, namely a “long e” [i:] sound as in the English word “bee.” On the other hand, because the stress falls on the second syllable in  Familie [faˈmi:lə] (i.e., the final syllable is unstressed), the »ie« is pronounced [ə] similarly to the final syllable of the North American pronunciation of the English word “cafeteria” [kæfəˈtɪriə].

What is fabulous about learning this pronunciation rule is that I can now purchase parsley – die Petersilie – at the Isemarkt with a confident [ə] on the end! The only other question is then glatt oder kraus.

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Liebe auf den zigsten Blick?

Letzter Donnerstag beschrieb ich, wie ich PONS den Laufpass gab. Aber dieser Donnerstag bin ich mich mal wieder verliebe, weil ich ihres »Deutsche Grammatik & Rechtschreibung« fand. Mein Vertrauen in PONS wiederherstellte, hätte ich nun die Energie, um einen Beschwerdebrief über »Grammatik in Bildern« zu schreiben. Bleiben Sie dran!



Noch ein paar Beispiele von diesem schrecklichen PONS Bilderbuch:

Es gibt nur »Die Ableitungen mit trennbaren Präfixen« (S. 140) und »Die Ableitungen mit trennbaren Präfixen« (S. 142-143). Keine von den, dass trennbar und untrennbar sein, nämlich (laut durch, über, um, unter, wider.

»Die Ableitung mit Suffixen« (S. 144- 147 fehlt fünfte der Häufigsten -heit, -(ig)keit, -ei, -schaft und -ung.


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