Monthly Archives: June 2013

The proverbial agony of choice

On my walks down our main Barmbek-Nord shopping street die Fuhle, I regularly see posters announcing opportunities to meet local, regional and national elected officials and nearly always they mention die Wahl – which in these contexts I interpret as meaning “the vote.” I also walk by a sign outside a bakery on the same street advertising their specials, and often this is 2 or 3 of something Ihrer Wahl – which I then interpret as meaning “of your choice.”

Today on my run, I saw a sign with the phrase große Auswahl – most likely “plenty of choice” in this context – but that I initially parsed (correctly) as “selection” because it combines aus – “from” or “out” – and Wahl. Indeed, in the first meaning given for die Wahl on, die Auswahl is listed as a synonym for die Wahl along with die Selektion

Researching further, I came across the proverb wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual – “the greater the choice(s), the harder it is to decide” or as puts it “to be spoilt for choice.” I like this expression for several reasons. First is that it can be very difficult to make a choice when one is faced with too many appealing options or when one has no good options, and die Qual means “agony” or “torture.”

Secondly, it highlights a phrasal construction that feels very unnatural when translated directly, but is typically German: the wer die Wahl hat portion of the proverb. To translate this without modifying the word order gives you “who(ever) the choice has.” I suppose it might seem like one is being “held” by the choices and therefore one could poetically interpret this first clause to mean someone is “in the grip” of a choice. However this construction is in common use in modern German, not just in proverbs, and thus needs a more straightforward translation. For example, in an article in the June issue of Mobil Das Magazin der Deutschen Bahn, the following sentence appeared under a photo of two women in a tent in an article about cool camping equipment: Wer sich in freier Natur niederlassen will, sollte sich vorher informieren. When I see or hear these wer constructions, I tend to play a little loose and think about the wer as encapsulating something like “If you are the sort of person who…” or “For the sort of person who..” Thus I would translate this is as “If you are the sort of person who likes to set herself up in the wide open countryside, you should get the lowdown [on what’s best/what your options are].” It makes a bit of a mouthful of that wer but it helps to get past the rather un-English word order much more effectively than something “He who wants to settle in the open countryside” ever will.

And while we are in the Wahl family, I want end on another saying that uses this clan’s verb form wählenwählen zwischen Baum und Borke – “to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea” or literally “to choose between tree and bark.” I hope you enjoyed joining me to explore the forest, the trees and the bark that is learning German.

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Letzte Woche war ich in der Schweiz mit meine Mutter und ein paar neue Wörter habe ich da gelernt. Am wichtigsten war “Schoggi.” Diese Wort bedeutet “Schokolade” auf Schweizerdeutsch. Natürlich, brauche ich nicht euch erzählen, warum in der Schweiz dieses Wort so wichtig ist! Ich habe einen besonderen Sommergeschmack gegessen – Zartbitter Schoggi mit Holunderblüten. Einfach lecker!

Ein anderes neues Wort war “Rahm” – “Sahne” – und ich habe Sauerrahm Eis zweimal genossen. Einmal mit “Amarena” (“Kirsch” – dort sprechen sie auch Italienisch), und einmal mit Aprikosenkompott und “Baumnüsse” – “Walnüsse.”

Zum Frühstück hatten wir “Gipfel” – “Croissant” – welchen waren hausgemacht mit Weizen von die Felder des Klosters angebaut. Jeden Tag hatten wir auch hausgemacht Käse, na klar! Und ein Abend gingen wir in den Wald und eine Fondueparty gemacht. Der Käse hat ober ein Holzfeuer geschmolzen.

Das war meine Feinkostreise in der Schweiz – das Essen für Körper und Geist.

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Anniversary Week 11* – Killer words

The star (*) in today’s title indicates that although this an anniversary post, coming as it does on a Wednesday, I’ve been away for more than a week. It’s good to be back and I hope you enjoy today’s post.

While I was not able to find a specific German word that means “to be killed in an earthquake” (however see below), I was struck by their being a set of words that spoke precisely about the manner in which someone was killed and which can be contrasted with words with a similar meaning that seem not to necessitate death as the outcome. Although we can and do can make this distinction in English, it typically requires the use of additional words.

ertränken – “to kill by drowning” (sich ertränken is “to drown oneself”)
erwürgen – “to kill by strangling”
vergiften – “to kill by poisoning” (sich vergiften is “to poison oneself”)
erschießen – “to shoot somebody dead” (sich erschießen is “to shoot oneself dead”)
erstechen – “to stab someone to death”

Compare the above with their mates which appear not to require the effort to be fatal:

ertrinken – “to drown”
würgen – “to choke” or “to strangle”
schießen – “to shoot”
stechen – “to stab”

However, one member of this family turns into something altogether milder without its prefix:
giften – “to rile” (sich giften “to be annoyed”)

While we are in this macabre vein there is another interesting colloquial term umkommen  which defines as “to perish,” “to be killed,” “to go to waste,” “to lose one’s life” and “to meet one’s death.” It also appears with the means of death preceded by the preposition bei. Here are a few examples that suggests how one would say “to be killed by an earthquake” – bei einem Verkehrsunfall umkommen (“in a traffic accident”), bei einem Flugzeugabsturz umkommen (“in a plane crash”), bei einem Tornado umkommen (“by a tornado”) – bei einem Erdbeben umkommen.

Finally, I wanted to note that a special word is used to describe those killed in action, which happens to be a cognate with English: fallen. As we approach the 4th of July holiday in the US, this puts me in mind of all of the service personnel who fought and died and I like to think that having distinctive word to describe their dying offers a special level of respect.

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Reisewörter Umkehrpunkt

Morgen früh fahren meine Mutter und ich in die Schweiz. Ich will sagen “gehen,” aber wir fahren mit dem Zug. Oft muss ich mich erinnern, dass auf Deutsch nur man “gehen” sagen sollte, ob man zu Fuß unterwegs ist. Und wann geht man mit Lufthansa, dann sagt man “fliegen.” Außerdem sind die Wörter für to depart nicht gleich. Man muss “abfahren” oder “abfliegen” sagen, und wenn man zu Fuß geht, kann man “weggehen” oder “abdampfen” sagen.

Es gibt auch die Frage von “in.” Wenn man eine Reise macht, dann muss man “in” + Akkusativ sagen. Aber wann man angekommen ist, dann muss man “in” + Dativ sagen, weil man da ist!

Deutsch hat andere Reisewörter:
“in Reisegröße” – travel size
“die Kreuzfahrt” oder “die Seereise” – cruise
“mit der Fähre übersetzen” – to go by ferry (which does not mean to translate using a ferry!)
Und natürlich “der Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän” – captain of the Danube Steam Shipping Company

Ich wünsche dir eine gute Reise mit deinem Wörterbuch, während ich eine kleine Pause machen. Bis 25 Juli!


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Anniversary Week 10

The word das Erdbeben is a compound word, putting together the word “earth” – die Erde – and das Beben (from beben – “to quake,” “to shiver” or “to shake”) – “tremor,” “quake” or “shaking.” One of the lovely things about words which were originally verbs in the infinitive and have become nouns, is that all of them take das. For example, we have das Essen, das Kochen and das Spielen: “food,” “cooking” and “playing.” When you want to create a noun that describes the outcome of the action described by the verb, then you must add the ending –ung and as a result, this new noun always takes die, for example, die Entscheidung, die Leistung and die Hoffnung: “the decision,” the performance” and “the hope.”

Both of these sorts of conversions feel relatively comfortable and clear, however there are some more confusing verb-noun conversions. For example, there are two nouns formed from arbeiten “to work,” das Arbeiten, which fits one of the above patterns, and die Arbeit which does notDas Arbeiten means “pursuit” or “works.” Die Arbeit means “work,” “labor” or “job.”  Luckily, according to, there are only 119 of these die words to keep the language learner busy, although perhaps this is still enough to take time away from our “work” on other “pursuits.”

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Context, context, context

Just as “location” makes all the difference in real estate, context plays a huge role in how well we understand what we hear or read. Last week I was listening to two of Deutsche Welle’s great language learning offerings, the “slowly spoken news” (langsam gesprochene Nachrichten) and the “word of the week” (Wort der Woche). In the first case, I had some idea of the topics being covered because I’d seen newspaper headlines or photos (the flooding in southern Germany) or because the stories detailed ongoing events (the efforts to prevent Iran developing nuclear capabilities). In the second case, all I had to go by was the word of the week itself, der Troll, and the understanding that the meaning being explored was somehow, although perhaps very tenuously, related to the standard meaning of this word that is common to both German and English. This was not enough context to help me understand what I was hearing and, as these snippets are at level B2, even after reading the transcript I still needed to check Wikipedia to get the meaning.

To give you a somewhat similar experience, here is a paragraph from a wonderful psychology experiment by Bransford and Johnson (Bransford, J.D., & Johnson, M.K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717-726. I found this material here, thanks ScienceBlogs™). Read, record your hypothesis about what the paragraph is about and then scroll down for some context.

If the balloons popped, the sound wouldn’t be able to carry since everything would be too far away from the correct floor. A closed window would also prevent the sound from carrying, since most buildings tend to be well insulated. Since the whole operation depends on a steady flow of electricity, a break in the middle of the wire would also cause problems. Of course, the fellow could shout, but the human voice is not loud enough to carry that far. An additional problem is that a string could break on the instrument. Then there could be no accompaniment to the message. It is clear that the best situation would involve less distance. Then there would be fewer potential problems. With face to face contact, the least number of things could go wrong. (p. 719)









In Bransford and Johnson’s experiment, some of the participants read the paragraph on its own and tried to remember it. A second group had the picture first and then read the paragraph. Having just experienced the first of these two conditions (note that there were two others in the actual experiment), you will likely not be surprised to hear that this first group was able to remember very little of what they had read. If you went back and re-read the paragraph after seeing the picture, you experienced the second condition and thus probably correctly anticipate that the second experimental group was able to remember much more about the paragraph given they had the context available.

I have to say it feels fabulous to see my old role as cognitive psychologist and my new role as flâneur (Flaneuse) on all things English-Deutsch coming together to assist me in seeing the basis of some of the cognitive challenges I face in learning a new language!

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Clean and unclear

I walked on a doormat today that reads Immer schön SauBär and has a picture of a bear with a pig’s nose. Now, doormats are crucial for keeping your home sauber and sauber sounds very much like a combination of the two nouns die Sau and der Bär – the “sow” and the “bear.” I am guessing that part of what makes it funny if you are a native speaker of German is that there is the fixed expression immer schön sauber bleiben. Unfortunately, in my search for the meaning of this phrase I was only able to find two shortened forms, Bleib sauber! – “keep your nose clean” or “take care” or “keep yourself clean” – and sauber bleiben – “to go straight” or “to keep out of trouble.” However, I did find lots of articles, videos, etc. entitled Immer schön sauber bleiben.

For example, here is a video from the US about littering:

And here is a list of how to separate your rubbish from the city of Herne:$FILE/Flyer_Abfalltrennung.pdf

And an article on the grooming habits of the ancient Romans:

And finally, an apron with a rock ‘n roll theme for keeping you clean:

All of this variety made it hard to make a clean and sober assessment of what the full phrase immer schön sauber bleiben means.

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Sharp sheep

It is lovely when wordplay works in multiple languages:

Warum laufen Nasen, während Füße riechen?
“Why do noses run while feet smell?”

Archetyp: Noah
“Archetype: Noah”

And you feel a bit of a loss when it doesn’t:

Man braucht scharfe Scheren zum Schafe scheren.
“One needs sharp shears when one shears sheep.”

“Sheep” and “sharp” are not a million miles apart in phonological terms, but they not nearly as close as Schafe and scharfe. In addition, while I’ve translated the German so that the noun and verb are both “shears,” this renders it a bit awkward and not really the sort of awkward that renders it funnier. So perhaps it would be closer to the feel of the original to say: “To spear sharks you need sharp spears?!”

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Habit forming

Yesterday I brought in some Teekesselchen for sharing at a Dialog in Deutsch session and der and das Laster kept us occupied for quite some time (in case you don’t recall, Teekesselchen are pairs of words with the same sound but different meanings, and in this particular case, they are identical words save for their associated articles which differ in terms of gender).

Der Laster is the straightforward member of the pair, meaning “truck” or “lorry” and it is a shortening of der Lastkraftwagen (LKW). Das Laster, on the other hand, got us talking. It was unfamiliar to all of us, but with some examples – too much to drink, too much time in the casino with lots of money lost – we got the idea. Then, one group member asked about die Sucht. Could it be used interchangeably with das Laster, and if not, what distinguished the two words?

The translation for das Laster given by is “vice” and the heading says schlechte Gewohnheit or “bad habit.” gives die Untugend – also “bad habit” – as its synonym. Duden indicates that it is pejorative. defines die Sucht in two ways: “addiction” and “obsession.” It further differentiates these two meanings by referring to the “addiction” meaning as krankhafte Abhängigkeit – “pathological dependency” – and the “obsession” meaning as unwiderstehliches Verlangen – “compelling desire” or “irresistible urge.”

It turns out that we aren’t the only people trying to figure out the difference. If you search Google with Sucht and Laster as keywords, you get quite a few returns similar to these:

Rauchen – Sucht oder
Laster?  – “Smoking – Addiction or Bad Habit?”
Krankheit oder schwache Willensstärke? – “Disease or Weak Willpower?”

In the end, however, our group decided that because some of us were a bit “obsessed” with attending Dialog in Deutsch and this was a good rather than a bad habit, if we had only these two words to choose from, we would have to refer to it as our Sucht rather than our Laster.

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Separate but equal?

Back in April, in Sich [sic] as a Dog I talked about the challenges posed by verbs that have both a reflexive and a non-reflexive form. For example, there is the pair:

fragen – “to ask”
sich fragen – “to wonder”

These can be pretty tricky and yet today I discovered another verb family that may top them, prefixed verbs where there is a form where the prefix is separable and another form where it is not. As full verbs, these two forms have different stress patterns. The separable form has the stress is on the prefix, the inseparable form has the stress on the verb stem:

um|fahren – separable, stress on um “to knock down” or “to run over”
umfahren – inseparable, stress on fahr “to circumvent” or “to drive around” gives the sample sentences Der Bus fährt einen Hydranten um and Der Bus umfährt die Baustelle. With the first someone is calling the emergency services to report an accident and lots of water, with the second someone is calling the transit authorities to complain about the bus detour throwing off the schedule.

Unfortunately for the learner, some of the most common verb prefixes – durch, über, um and unter – are ones that can take either a separable or a inseparable form. (There is an additional member of the family, wider. It is not terrible common and I could not find any examples where the same stem can be combined with wider to create both a separable and an inseparable form.) Given the topic of this blog, one of my favorites pairs from this devilish little family is über|setzen “to cross over” and übersetzen “to translate” or “to ferry,” not only because there are two forms, separated by their separability, but also because the separable version takes sein as its helping verb and the inseparable one takes haben. Nothing like two laughter-provoking error opportunities for the price of one to make you feel like you are den Rubikon überschreiten.

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