Monthly Archives: April 2013


This post was prompted by getting my haircut yesterday (and, no my German is not up to this task, I was lucky enough to find a stylist who spoke wonderful English to give me a trim). The name of the salon I went to is FON which is both an abbreviation and a bit of word play: the word for “to blow dry” is fönen and this small chain calls itself Friseur Ohne Name. They have a very good value option where a wash and cut are included and then you do the fönen yourself with their dryer and brush. This isn’t something I’ve seen in the US, although perhaps I’d simply not been looking for it!

A haircut also turns out to be a good change to practice what for English speakers is a fairly subtle vowel difference between the German u and eu/ö because die Frisur is “hairstyle” and der Friseur / Frisör is “hairdresser.” Yes, you can probably be a tiny bit lax because the grammatical genders are different, but where’s the fun in learning German if you aren’t challenging yourself to get your tongue around some new vowels?!

I also discovered that the idiom “Tell it to the Marines!” has as its German counterpart “Das kannst du deinem Friseur erzählen!” I’m not sure what it says about the view of either hairdressers or the Marines that when you want to suggest you don’t believe what someone is saying, you tell them to share it with either of these groups, perhaps the idea is that they’ve heard it all?! Interestingly, there were quite a number of phrases that at least one website categorized as having related meanings in German.

One final interesting aspect of talking about haircare in German is that you  use a reflexive verb and don’t refer to “your hair.” So you “to brush your hair” you say something like “oneself the hairs brush” – sich die Haare bürsten. Different yet again is when you want to say “to comb your hair,” here you say – sich kämmen, something like “to comb oneself” where the hair isn’t even mentioned.

I wish I’d found some way to fit “hair-splitting” into this post, but I’ll have to settle for remarking on how “hair-raising” – haarsträubend  being a compound of das Haar – hair – and sträubend -“bristling” – makes me think first of a porcupine or a wild boar and then the metaphorical meaning takes over and places them on a giant roller coaster…

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Sometimes less is more

Last week I had an interesting experience to do with pronunciation (die Aussprache) in a Dialog in Deutsch group with two Spanish speakers. One of these women was trying to explain that she was working as a volunteer – eine Freiwillige – but it came out sounding like •Freibillige because the relationship between the /v/ and the /b/ sound in Spanish. Both frei and billige are words in German and they appear together online in the context Versandkosten frei billige <etwas> – “free shipping [on] cheap <somethings>” so I am guessing that this added to the comprehension issue for the native speakers present. For me, with only a bit of German to interfere, and some knowledge of Spanish, it was clear what she was trying to say. Indeed, I am not even sure that I would have noticed the error but for the blank faces and the fact that they instantly cleared up when I said Freiwillige with a strong emphasis on the pronunciation of the /v/ sound.

I’m sure it isn’t unusual for one non-native speaker to be able to understand another non-native speaker better than a native speaker who is part of the same conversation because both non-native speakers are struggling. In addition, there is a sense of community among non-native speakers that centers around the desire to communicate and the frequent sense that the right word is just out of reach. If you can search your own word bank and pull out something that might help the other person express him or herself, you get a nice jolt of satisfaction from being helpful. And as many models of learning stress, helping someone else is a great well to build your own skills. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the meaning or the pronunciation of Freiwilligefrei or billige any time soon, at least not voluntarily.

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Short and sweet

My first hurdle in writing emails in German is that you do not capitalize the first word of the sentence after the greeting. My second is that it is very, very common to abbreviate the closing. To choices I see regularly are MfG and LG. The first is short for Mit freundlichen Grüßen – “Sincerely yours” or  “Yours truly.” The second is short for Liebe Grüße – which I have seen translated as “Love” but I think that that might only work for British speakers (I can recall the first time a male colleague from London closed his email with “love” – after checking with a native speaker I was able to relax). In the US, we tend not to end emails or letters to acquaintances or colleagues with “love” and might instead use something like “Kind Regards” or “Warm Regards” or even “Fond Regards.” All of these feel friendlier than “Yours sincerely” but nowhere near as intimate as “love” and I suspect that friendliness is what is intended by the people sending me LG. I believe that intimacy would require the addition of viele to liebe Grüße (perhaps at some point I’ll have a close enough relationship with a German speaker so that notes close with VlG?!)

One thing you will may have noticed is that abbreviations in German respect the fact that nouns are capitalized. Compare the way a German-English dictionary would indicate that a preposition is followed by a noun in the dative case in the two languages:

+Dat. gefolgt von Dativ
+dat.” followed by dative

My favorite example of this is – you’ve guessed it, perhaps – “for example” – z.B. which is the abbreviation for zum Beispiel. For some reason we abbreviate the Latin exempli gratia to” e.g.” when we want to briefly say “for example  in English.

To get a feel for the variety of abbreviations used in German, listen to this rap and read the glossary of their meanings: (perhaps unsurprisingly a number of the abbreviations have become the names of bands!).

MfG and bye for now.

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Uh-Oh, a Stop!

I was very happy when I finally had my residence permit, die Aufenthaltserlaubnis, so happy in fact that I was telling everyone and in doing so, getting some strange looks (well, more strange than I usually get when I am attempting to speak German). I realized quickly that the problem was where I was breaking this word up into syllables. The correct break, so that the different pieces that make up this compound word stay intact, is like this (the • indicate the breaks between syllables):


But I was breaking it like this:


Now there are two things that happen when you change the breaks in die Aufenthaltserlaubnis. The first is as mentioned, the integrity of the words forming the compound is compromised, there is no word or stem *serlaubnis. The second issue is with the pronunciation. If you are trying to say *serlaubnis, you begin with a /z/ and if you are trying to say halts, you finish with an /s/.

A second word that threw me off in terms of syllabification is the verb sich beeilen – to hurry (oneself). Was I to put the second e with the first e or with the i or was this a new vowel sound composed of all three? The answer is that you put the second  e with the i and add a glottal stop (the sound you make when you say “uh-oh” or  include all over the place if you speak certain British dialects) to make doubly sure your listener knows where the boundary falls, indicated here by underlining the vowel that is preceded by the glottal sto:p sich beeilen. This is in part because eilen is itself a verb that means “to hurry” or that something “is urgent” and thus be– is a prefix. The glottal stop (der Stimmritzenverschlusslaut) also is used because it commonly precedes vowels when they are the first letter of a word or a stressed syllable. In the one piece of linguistic research I looked at on this point, there is evidence the you see a glottal stop most often with a content word (rather than a function word(, when the initial vowel is stressed (rather than unstressed) and with a slow speech rate. Thus many native speakers of German may be unaware of them popping up regularly in speech – one example those of you who are native speakers might try is der Arm (“arm”) and arm (“poor”), in the former the tendency is to begin with a glottal stop.

In some cases, the presence of a glottal stop affects the meaning, compare these two verbs which you can hear pronounced at this site:

vereisenDie Scheibe vereist schnell “The window pane gets icy quickly”

verreisenEr verreist morgen nach Polen “He travels to Poland tomorrow”

In the first case the prefix ver– has been added to the noun das Eis and then the new form is converted to a verb (according to Canoo this is a fairly common word formation process and so likely deserves a post all its own at some point). Verreisen is formed from adding the prefix ver– to the verb reisen. Using the glottal stop helps to indicate that the break is between the ver and eisen. Not to include it would be a bit like my combining the s from halts with Erlaubnis.

With that return to where we started, thus beendet this post!

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Nearly food?

While fast looks exactly like “fast,” it doesn’t mean schnell (which those of you who watched Hogan’s Heroes as a kid may remember as a frequently given command, often in the same breath as raus). Instead the most common meanings for fast are “almost” and”nearly.” In fact, you can use fast and schnell together such as when you want to say something is “almost as fast” or goes “almost as quickly” as something else – fast als schnell. Interestingly, or perhaps confusingly depending on whether I am wearing my amateur linguist or my amateur German speaker hat, rather than saying a clock or watch “is fast” you use the verb vorgehen and say Die Uhr geht vor.

In English, “fast” can also be a verb. In this case, we have found a partial friend as there is a German verb fasten with the meaning “to fast” and also two German nouns die Fastenzeit and das Fasten with cognate meanings. The partial part is that there is also an English verb “fasten,” which is closer to another meaning of “fast” – “firmly fixed.”  This meaning is one which is captured by multiple words in German:

schliessen “to fasten” (you may remember this from the discussion of bowls and keys in a previous post as it also means “to lock”)
zumachen – “to fasten up a dress or coat” (zumachen is worth a post of its own as it has a host of meanings)
zuknöpfen – “to fasten up buttons” (what do you do if it is a dress or coat with buttons?!)
miteinander verbinden – “to fasten together”
zusammenheften – “to fasten together pieces of paper”
sich anschnallen – “to fasten one’s seatbelt”

And if there is a word in German that approximates the “firmly fixed” version of the adjective “fast,” it would be fest: something can “be fast” – fest sein – or “made fast” – festmachen. This would quite a happy situation if it wasn’t for the English noun “fest,” the short form for “festival” because the meanings for the German adjective fest – “fixed,” “firm,” “stable,” “permanent.” “tight,” “unshakeable,” “solid,” and “strong” (as well as the corresponding adverbs) – are a good fit for English terms like “color fast,” “fast friends,” “hard and fast” and “fast asleep.”

I find particular delight in the fact that the word das Fastfood has made it into German. Although, as I learned in working on yesterday’s post, there are not many nouns formed by adverb and noun combinations, there are a few, thus I will choose to interpret das Fastfood as meaning “nearly” or “almost” food and I “stand fast” on that!

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Most of my opportunities to practice speaking German come during sessions of Dialog in Deutsch, a wonderful, free program run by the Hamburg libraries whose slogan is Menschen Treffen, Deutschen Sprechen. In one group today I learned the word der Aberglaube – “superstition.” It is the result of an adverb + noun combination – aber + Glaube. This is a rare type of compound for German, of the 173,782 nouns in the online dictionary, only 578 entries are of this type. As an adverb, aber can mean “however” or “though.” It is also a conjunction meaning “but” as well as a particle (a little word that adds spice to your speech, there are several posts worth of material on German particles) that can mean “but,” “really,” “oh” and “yes, of course.” Der Glaube means “belief” or “faith.” I like think about a “superstition” being a “belief” about which there is a “but” or a “however.” This seems like quite a nice definition.

In the DWDS entry for der Aberglaube, the following words are included in the etymology section:

das Aber – “but” or “catch” or “snag” as in “There’s only one problem…” Da ist nur noch ein Aber
der Aberwitz – “folly” (same adverb + noun formation: aber + Witz), here the meaning feels somewhat related to me
abergläubisch – “superstitious”
abermals – “once again” which is formed from aber plus the suffix –mals, other examples are erstmals – “initially” or “for the first time,” letztmals – “for the last time,” mehrmals – “repeatedly” or “many times” and vielmals – “many times” or “very much”

And among the words which the DWDS entry lists as having significant connection with der Aberglaube are:

feudalistisch – “feudalistic”
unausrottbar – “deep-rooted” or “ineradicable”
heidnisch – “heathen” or “pagan”
töricht – “foolish/ly” or “unwise”
weitverbreitet – “widespread” or “common”

Most importantly, though, I wanted to share one of the Aberglaube that I have had to learn here in Germany. A New Year’s tradition is to give good luck charms, one of which is a man with a ladder and a four-leaf clover or two. I saw these adorning bouquets, pictured on cards and as small figurines and so asked something along the lines of “what’s up with the leprechaun with the ladder?” To which people, after taking a moment to figure out what I was talking about (as so often is the case when something is part of your culture, you don’t notice it), said (but in German) “You mean the chimney sweep [der Schornsteinfeger]? He is good luck charm [der Glücksbringer].” After I had pushed all thoughts of the breakfast cereal out of my head, I wasn’t any more clear on why he was lucky, but at least I had a better idea about why he had both a ladder and those shamrocks!

To complete this post, I decided to learn a bit more about this superstition and discovered that there was a link to yesterday’s post through the hearth being the center of the home – ooh, now that’s a bit eerie, isn’t it?! If your chimney wasn’t clean, chances are you couldn’t make much of a fire and keep your house warm or cook your food. In addition, using a dirty chimney was risky when your house was made of wood and there were no smoke alarms or fire departments. There was also the possibility of poisonous gases killing you while you slept. Apparently because the sweep could rescue you from these possibilities, he came to be seen as a good luck charm or a “luck bringer.”

BTW, der Aberglaube happens to be the first entry in the list of adverb + noun combinations, perhaps the superstitious would make something of that?!

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Week 4 Anniversary

I picked up my earth science book again on this the 4th anniversary edition of Earthquake Words and almost immediately stumbled across a familiar false friend, der Herd, but not with the meaning I expected. I was surprised to learn that in addition to being the name for a “stove” or “cooker,” der Herd also means “epicenter” when it is used in the context of earthquakes. Which got me to thinking about the way in which a stove might be thought of as being a center. It turns out that Herd and “stove” both have their roots in Latin and in the idea of the “hearth” which certainly would have been the focal point about which much of a family’s life would revolve as in the expression Heim und Herd. Thus it was intriguing to find that “focus” can be translated as der Brennpunkt because this word can be taken apart and its own fiery origins revealed: it is a compound formed from the verb brennen – “to burn” – and der Punkt – the “spot,” “dot” or “point.” suggests that the “focus” meaning of der Herd is “the origin of something negative” and gives der Krankheitsherd (“seat of a disease”), der Brandherd (“trouble spot” or “source of fire”), der Unruheherd (“flash point” or “source of unrest” in addition to “trouble spot”), das Pulverfass (“powder keg” or “tinder box”) and der Erdbebenherd as subordinate meanings.

I also discovered that while der Herd – “the stove” – and its plural die Herde are false friends of “the herd” (as in “a group of animals”), die Herde (whose plural happens to be die Herden) is a cognate. Now I don’t know if this would qualify as a Teekesselchen because the one noun is singular and the other plural, but it certainly had me confused. In checking out which animals could make up a herd – for example, die Schafherde “sheep” – I discovered two nifty words for referring to “flocks of birds,” namely die Vogelschar and der Vogelschwarm. Die Schar is given many meanings on such as “flock,” “bevy,” “gaggle” and “crowd” and der Schwarm gives us “school” as in fish, as well as “swarm” as in bees, butterflies and meteorites.

But, if we want to translate a favorite phrase of mine, “herding cats,” we have to turn to instead to the phrase einen Sack voll Flöhe hüten and “herd or tend a sack of fleas.” Hüten also has a second reflexive form sich hüten – meaning to “to beware of” or “to be on one’s guard against” and this is one place where we need to heed another expression – sich for falschen Freunden hüten!

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HH – Ha-Ha

When you learn a new language, you also have to learn new names for the letters of the alphabet (and in some cases a new alphabet or even a whole new writing system/systems). It is particularly important to learn the letters that spell out your name in order to be sure that it is spelled correctly (it can be very hard to change an official document once a particular spelling has been recorded!). For me, there is the additional issue that while my last name is German (see What’s in a Name), the spelling was changed during WWII to appear less German, making it Hirsh, ohne C – where C pronounced tseh as which sounds something like “hay” but with a slightly shorter vowel [tsé]. To spell it out in full, I must say in German ha, eeh (similar but a bit shorter vowel than “ee” in English), err, ess, ha (and last night I learned that there is a somewhat well-known joke that one doesn’t say Hirsh heiße ich quickly or it could be heard as Hier scheiße ich).

For those of who know me from my work with personality type, you will not be surprised to learn that I am often tripped up when I fail to remember that “I” is roughly “ee” and that “E” is roughly “ay” (and “A” is roughly “ah”!); remembering that “J” is “yot” is not nearly as difficult. I can well imagine that there are some challenges in the reverse direction when German type practitioners need to refer to Extraversion (“ee” – E) and Introversion ( as in “high” or “eye” or “I” the pronoun – I).

Remembering that my first name begins with kah (K) rather than “kay” as in “hay” hasn’t given me any trouble, so far. Nor has Q being called kuh rather than “kyew” as in “cue” been very challenging.

The mnemonic I use to remember two other letters whose names are different in German is the short form for Volkswagen – VW – which is fau weh or roughly “fow as in cow and vay (vé) as in hay.” In addition, I regularly have to say the name of the website for transit info here in Hamburg, HVV, therefore I get a lot of practice with both ha and fau. I still need to find an Eselsbrücke for Z – tsett, ß – ess-tsett or scharfes S – and Y – üppsilon, suggestions gratefully received.

For the first time today, I was thinking about the letter names when I read out a Hamburg license/number plate and I realized that it began ha-ha, or HH, and had a little chuckle (pun fully intended).

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Mal for the price of one

I first came across mal in a lesson on colloquial expressions on Memrise (a nifty tool that interfaces with Facebook). The first expression I learned using this flexible little word was mal sehen which can be translated as “we’ll see” or “I’ll have to see.” Like another phrase I learned early – Warum nicht? meaning “Why not?” – it comes in incredibly handy when you want to comment but can’t seem to form that nice, full sentence. Later on, I learned that you can do a swap and and say Sehen Sie mal! and ask someone to look at something – “Look!” – in a tone that is friendlier and softer than saying Sehen Sie! Likewise, to invite someone to try something in a friendly way, you can say Probieren Sie mal!

Today I added mal kurz to the mal family. This phrase is helpful when you don’t have your Handy handy and want to make a call or google something: Kann ich mal kurz dein Handy benutzen? “Can I use your phone for sec’ ?” Or if you want to check on something, you can say Ich gehe mal kurz nachsehen – “I’ll have a quick look.” Or when you are struggling to hold your groceries and get out your keys, you can say Kannst du das mal kurz halten? – “Can you hold onto this for a moment?” Then, when you get inside and realize that you’ve forgotten one thing, you can say Ich habe etwas vergessen. Ich gehe mal kurz nach draußen – I’ve forgotten something. I’ll just nip out.” Finally, mal kurz appears in a slightly humorous/euphemistic phrase you can use to indicate you need to use the toilet, similar to saying in English “I need to powder my nose/answer the call of nature/spend a penny.” This phrase, Ich muss mal kurz verschwinden, could be slightly confusing if translated literally – “I must disappear/vanish for a moment.”

Here’s hoping that mal kurz will stick in my memory the way mal sehen and Sehen Sie mal have, rather than vanishing after only a moment as so much of my new vocabulary seems want to do!

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Double trouble

Riegel, Regal and Regel. “Lock,” “Shelf” and “Rule.”

Riegel, Regale and Regeln. “Locks,” “Shelves” and “Rules.”

Three words, three ways of forming the plural. Sadly, this is three of eleven ways of forming the plural (many books give only five, some give eight, and a few of them count foreign words which have a variety of plural forms). Luckily, given these many options, the definite article for all plurals is die. Equally luckily, while all the forms below are possible, the most common forms are (1) for masculine and neuter nouns to form their plurals with “e” or nothing (and nothing is likely when there is a non-final “e” in the final syllable, e.g., “el”) and (2) for masculine nouns that end in “e” to form their plurals with “n” (3) for feminine nouns to form their plurals with “en” or just an “n” if the final syllable contains a non-final “e.” However, since you will meet all eleven of them in your early experiences in learning German, here they are in all their glory!

Option 1: Do nothing
This is what happens with der Riegel, it becomes die Riegel. Recall that is one of the popular forms.

Option 2: Add an umlaut, but no ending
This is what happens with der Apfel (“the apple”), it becomes die Äpfel.

Option 3:  Add an “e”
This is what happens with das Regal, it becomes die Regale. This is another one of the popular forms.

Option 4: Add an umlaut and an “e”
This is what happens with der Baum (“the tree”), it becomes die Bäume.

Option 5: Add an “n”
This is what happens with die Regel, it becomes die Regeln. This is yet another popular option.

Option 6: Add an “en”
This is what happens with die Frau (“the woman”), it becomes die Frauen. Again quite popular, some consider this equivalent to Option 5.

Option 7: Add an “nen”
This is what happens with die Lehrerin (“the female teacher”), it becomes die Lehrerinnen.

Option 8: Add an “er”
This is what happens with das Kind (“the child”), it becomes die Kinder.

Option 9: Add an “er” and an umlaut
This is what happens with das Fahrrad (“the bike”), it becomes die Fahrräder.

Option 10: Add an “s”
This what happens with das Auto (“the car”), it becomes die Autos.

Option 11: Add an “se”
This is what happens with das Erlebnis (“the experience”), it becomes die Erlebnisse.

Possibly we could make an Option 12 for the renegades, most of which brought their style of plural formation with them when they came into German, for example: das Museum (“the museum”) and die Museen and das Lexikon (“the encyclopedia”) and die Lexika.

Not all foreign words have such distinctive plurals. Many use “s” and in some cases this can be downright confusing for the English speaker: das Baby becomes die Babys, das Party becomes die Partys  and our friend das Handy becomes die Handys, all of which violate the rules of English plural formation. We have “parties” for “babies” and snap photos with “handies” (if we had happened to use this word for “mobile/cellular phones” – see Does That Ring a Bell?).

In addition, the learner can run aground on words where there is a mismatch between German and English in terms of whether there is a plural. For example, in English when we use the word “information” without the definite article “the,” we have to qualify with a quantity term like “some” or “a piece” rather than saying “*an information.” And whatever quantity it comes in, unlike German which has die Informationen, it is never “*informations.”  Similarly, we don’t say “*a furniture” – ein Möbel – or “*the furnitures” – die Möbel.

Hopefully you now have a sense how having to always memorize a noun’s singular and plural forms can lead to informations overload!

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