Does that ring a bell?

Meet das Handy – the German word for “mobile phone” or “cell phone.” It’s a false friend. One that makes me shake my head. First of all, in English “handy” is an adjective and that das and the capital “H” indicate that the German Handy is a noun. This means it behaves like “candy” or “party,” neither of which make sense when broken down into “stem + y” the way an adjective with this form would (even if, as in the case of “hand + y,” the derivation feels a bit forced). The fact that it is a noun in German also means it has a plural form, in this case it is one on the ones that was affected by spelling reform (more on this in future posts) – previously, you could write die Handies but now you have to write die Handys.

Next, although we do have the word “handset” in the world of communication devices, the word  “handy” doesn’t bring to mind “handset” or even “hand held,” it brings to mind “useful” or “nice to have” or “convenient.” Yes, a phone that you can take with you is certainly “handy” but then so are so many things, for instance, the pocket tissues called “Handy-Andies.”

Finally, there is the issue of pronunciation. I want to say Handy the way I would say “handy” but that could get me looks almost as odd as if I asked for someone’s “*Handy number” in the US.  Das Handy is [ˈhɛndi] and “handy” is [ˈhændi]. Thank goodness that the stress is on the same syllable at least, which cannot be said for Psychologie and “psychology” or Autorin and “author,” both of which I regularly stumble over when I try to talk about my professional life in German.

Perhaps I should simply relax and take Handy as a back-handed compliment about the versatility of English?!

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One thought on “Does that ring a bell?

  1. […] 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?). […]

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