Monthly Archives: January 2014

Good luck with that broken neck!

Hals- und Beinbruch!

Neck and leg fracture!

Alternatively, “Good luck!” as in “Break a leg!” (which can also be rendered as Toi toi toi!). Curiously, der Hals appears in another expression where you are wishing someone anything but luck – jemandem den Hals brechen – “to ruin someone” or “to bring about someone’s downfall.”

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Getting things done?

In English “housework” and “homework” are distinguished by the first part of each compound being different “house” + “work” versus “home” + “work.”  In German the same two words are distinguished by the second part of the compound: die Hausarbeit and die Hausaufgabe. Breaking them apart we get das Haus + die Arbeit – which can be translated as “house” + “work” – and das Hausdie Aufgabe – which can be translated as “house” + “task.” 

“Housework” might be considered “work done to the house or for the house” and “homework” might be considered “work done at home” and, in particular, schoolwork done at home. We could describe work done to or for one’s house as “work done to or for one’s home,” but we don’t say “work done *at house” in English, the collocation with “at” and without an article is “at home” (although “at the house” is possible). In pondering this, it occurred to me that to say “at home” in German, you say typically say zu Hause, although you can say zu Haus. This Hause form is used regularly with two other prepositions im and nach: for example, im Hause bleiben – “to stay indoors” and auf dem Weg nach Hause – “on the way home.” and Duden also include the word das Zuhause for which offers the translations “home” and “crib” (in the slang sense of this term rather than a type of bed for a child!) and further searching uncovered the idiomatic phrase wie ein zweites Zuhause – “like a home away from home” – and this article about bookstores in Hamburg!

And I can’t resist throwing in another compound with das Haus – der Hausarzt/die Hausärztin – the “family doctor” or “general practitioner” and not the doctor who works from home, nor the doctor for a particular house, nor someone who repairs houses, although perhaps this is the person you might consult if you’ve lost the energy to complete your housework or homework!

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German Finger Spelling

I was walking in a nearby neighborhood and noticed the poster with the German Finger Spelling Alphabet in a window. If you look at the images in the lower, you will see that they include the three umlaut forms, ä, ö and ü; the ß; and my favorite, sch since this combination is such a common one. While searching online, I discovered that some systems also include a ch, an nn and an mm; plus my favorite, the sch.


Further searching revealed a Japanese Finger “Alphabet” which is more accurately termed a Finger Syllabery, as well as Russian, Greek and Norwegian varieties. With all of these you can let your fingers do the talking.


Fahren mit dem Pfarrer?

Gestern in die Barmbek Dialog in Deutsch Gruppe redete ein polnische Mann über seine Jobs. Einer interessierte mich sehr, weil der Name ein Kompositum ist: »der Gabelstaplerfahrer.« Dieses Wort hat drei Teilen. Der erste Teil is »die Gabel« – the fork. Eine Gabel ist eine Art von Besteck. Die hat »Zinken« – prongs, normalerweise drei oder vier (übrigens, »der Zinken« bedeutet auch »eine große Nase« – wie schnozz auf Englisch, und auch »ein Geheimzeichen« – secret sign). Ein Stapler stammt aus das Wort »der Stapel.« Man kann ein Stapel Papier oder Holz oder Bücher haben. Viele ähnliche Dinge, dass man ordentlich sammelte, sind ein Stapel. Mit einem Stapler, ein Fahrzeug, kann man einfacher einen größeren Stapel machen. Der Stapler ist ein schriftlicher falscher Freund von stapler – »der Hefter.« Nur schriftlich, weil die Aussprachen nicht so ähnlich sind: deutsch /ˈʃta:plɐ/ und englisch/ˈsteɪpləʳ/. Ein »Gabelstapler« – forklift – ist ein bestimmtes Fahrzeug mit zwei Zinken vorne (wie eine Gabel). Schließlich kommt der Fahrer –  driver oder operator – jemand, wer das Fahrzeug operiert. Man kann ein »Fahrradfahrer« oder ein »Zugfahrer« oder ein »Busfahrer« oder »Taxifahrer« sein. Und natürlich auch ein Gabelstaplerfahrer!

Ich denke, dass »der Fahrer« und »der Pfarrer« ein bisschen ähnlich klingt. Deswegen dachte ich über einen »*Gabelstaplerpfarrer.« Vielleicht könnte er ein Mann sein, wer seine Predigt dick auftragen?

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Special Word Supplement?

I’ve started reading a translation by Michael Hofmann of Joseph Roth’s collection of short essays about Berlin – What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933 – and in it I learned a new English and German word “feuilleton”/das Feuilleton. This word seems apt to describe many of the pieces one will find in the blogosphere as it can mean “a cultural critique or review,” “a serial story column” or “a supplement” and typically the style is a personal one, light and humorous/ironic in tone, with the writer’s presence and opinions being part of the story. The content can be anything current that interests the writer, with perhaps particular attention to the goings on about town (e.g., the Talk of the Town feature of the New Yorker magazine).

Interestingly, as the Jewish Roth exiled himself to Paris following the rise of Adolf Hitler (a fellow Austrian), this piece in German from a Dickinson College Wiki mentions how the feuilleton was used as part of the Nazi propaganda machine, in part for fomenting antisemitism.

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Louse-y old plurals

Today I needed to go to the Apotheke (“pharmacy, chemist or drug store”) in order to buy something to get rid of head lice – Kopfläuse – after finally realizing that they were what was making my head itch (this article helped me to figure out what to do). This got me pondering words where there is exclusive, or near exclusive use of either the singular or plural form. For instance, we rarely have reason to use the word louse in the singular when referring to the insect form. Contrariwise, you can’t really say about a group of disagreeable people that they are “lice,” the way you can use “a louse” to describe a single disagreeable person. (As an aside, “lice” is also interesting because it is an irregular English plural, although many lists include only its irregular sibling with a similar transformation: from singular “mouse” to plural “mice.”) gives a list of four types of nouns that are normally only used in German in the singular:

Materialsdie Baumwolle, der Regen, das Kupfer – “cotton,” “rain” and “copper.” Sometimes plurals are formed from this type of word by adding a suffix – die Lederarten or die Tabaksorten, “the leathers” and “the tobaccos.”

Collectives: das Obst, das Gepäck – “fruit” and “luggage.” We can say “fruits” in English, however “luggage” exists only in the singular form as in German.

Abstractions: der Neid, die Kälte, das Glück – “envy,” “the cold,” and “luck.” “Envy” and “luck” appear only in the singular in English, as does “cold” when the meaning is a sort of weather/air temperature; one can talk about “colds” when the topic is a runny nose.

Proper names: (das) Amerika, der Rhein – “America” and “the Rhine” (river), the former can be used in the plural in English as in “potatoes are originally a food of the Americas” but this form is rare. also offers a list of nouns found exclusively in the plural in German:
Place namesdie Azoren, die Pyrenäen and die USA – “the Azores” (island group), “the Pyrenees” (mountain group) and “the USA” (country name).

Groups of people: die Geschwister, die Leute – “the siblings” and “the people,” In English, we can say “sibling” and “people” is considered to be on of the plural form of “person” and is more commonly used than “persons.” German also has the word die Person which has the seldom used plural die Personen.

Collectives: die Kosten, die Fünfzigerjahre – “the expense, cost, expenditure” and the 1950s or “fifties.” The three translations of die Kosten are singular in English and have regular plural forms; decades appear only in the plural.

Diseasesdie Masern, die Pocken, die Röteln – “measles,” “smallpox,” “rubella.”  “Measles” serves as both the singular and the plural form; and “smallpox” and “rubella” exist only in the singular in English.

Otherdie Ferien, die Jeans – “vacation, holiday” and “jeans.” The former can be either singular or plural; the latter, like “glasses/spectacles” and “pants” appears only in the plural.

To end, here’s a poem (online source to see an English translation click here) that includes commentary on social class, friendly advice and a wish for deeper awareness of how we are seen by others – a wish that might not be shared by our conversation partners as we struggle to communicate with them in German!

To A Louse
by Robert Burns

[On seeing one on a lady’s bonnet, at church.]

Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’ faith! I fear, ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How dare ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else, and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith, in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rils, snug an’ tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right
‘Till ye’ve got on it,
The vera tapmost, tow’ring height
O’ Miss’s bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump and grey as ony grozet;
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty doze o’t,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flannen toy;
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’s fine Lunardi! fie!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin’!
Thae winks and finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin’!

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion!
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n devotion!

The Poetical Works Of Robert Burns
Copyright 1910
Ward, Lock, and Co., Ltd

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Buchstabenspiele im Plural

Am Mittwoch haben wir über diese vier Wörter geredet, weil sie ähnlich klingeln:

»das Stadium« – state or stage (e.g., of a medical condition)
»das Stadion« – stadium
»das Studium« – studies or course of study
»die Station« – hospital ward or station (bus, train)

»Das Stadium« ist ein falscher Freund mit dem englischen Wort stadium (auf Deutsch »das Stadion«). Es stammt von Lateinisch und Griechisch. Seine Pluralform ist »die Stadien.« Über »das Stadion« hat Duden geschrieben: »griechisch stádion = Rennbahn, Laufbahn, eigentlich = ein Längenmaß (zwischen 179 m und 213 m); Rennbahn; ursprüngliche Bezeichnung für die 1 stádion lange Rennbahn im altgriechischen Olympia.« Seine Pluralform ist auch »die Stadien.« Das dritte, »das Studium,« stammt von Lateinisch und seine Pluralform ist »die Studien.« Schließlich, »die Station« stammt von Lateinisch und ist ein verwandt mit »stehen« und »stand.« Seine Pluralform ist ganz typisch und unterschiedlich als die andere: »die Stationen.«

Infolge dieses Studiums werden unsere Gruppenteilnehmer diese Wörter nicht mehr verwechseln!

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Let’s Meet That Decision Head On

When I first moved the UK I needed to learn that one can “make” or “take” a decision and today I learned that in German one can “meet” – eine Entscheidung treffen – or  “chop down/fell” (okay probably “reach” is the more reasonable translation) – eine Entscheidung fällen – a decision; or zu einer Entscheidung kommen – “to make up one’s mind” or “come to a decision.” The term “decision-making” can be rendered as die Entscheidungsfindung – more literally a combination of “decision” and “finding.” There is even a way to discuss more formal decisions such as the decrees or resolutions made by a government body or a court – einen Beschlüsse fassen. Moreover, there are a number of collocations using the word der Entschluss*:

plötzlicher Entschluss – “sudden resolve”
spontaner Entschluss –
 “off the cuff, spur of the moment or snap decision” (the last one can also be schneller)
ein vorschneller Entschluss – “a hasty decision”
Mein Entschluss steht (fest/bombenfest) – “My mind is made up”
seinem Entschluss treu bleiben – “to stick/remain true to one’s decision”

So, no “taking” or “making” for us here in Germany, although we can still be “coming” to our decisions which is perhaps another way of saying that we are “meeting” them!?

* Like die Entscheidung, der Entschluss begins with the prefix ent- – and no, it isn’t “Ear, Nose, Throat,” that’s HNO, Hals, Nase, Ohren. See the following page for more info on this prefix:

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Compound, Thy Name is Mud

Yesterday morning at Dialog in Deutsch we were presented with the word die Haarspalterei and asked to take a guess at what it might mean. My guess was that it might mean “split ends,” as spalten is “to split” (as in wood) and das Haar is “hair.” And, indeed, one way to say “split ends” is die gespaltene Haarspitzen – “the split hair tips” – and the two other options – der Haarspliss and der Spliss – rely on a different verb for “split,” spleißen which has spliss as the third person singular (and sounds a bit like the English word “splice” making it a false friend as “splicing” involves joining things together). I also had a moment where I wondered if it might indicate a place where you could have your hair worked on as there are several shop names that end in -ei (e.g., die Bäckerei and die Metzgerei). However -ei is simply one way to form a noun from another noun; gives the example of forming a new word from das Ferkel – “piglet” – plus -ei which doesn’t mean a shop where piglets can be purchased but rather die Ferkelei means “mess” or a “dirty/disgusting/filthy thing to do.”

We also discussed a few other ways to get across the concept of “hairsplitting” including the words that could be applied to people:

der Haarspalter – hair-splitter
der Erbsenzähler – nit-picker (or “bean counter,” from the more literal reading “pea counter”)
der Federfuchser – petty-minded pedant (literally, I think this is “feather annoyer/nettler”)

Finally, there is the somewhat more neutral adjective penibel – “persnickety,” “painstaking,” “fussy” or “fastidious.”

I look forward to having fun to making a fine mess by debating the difference between nit-picking and hair-splitting!

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A dread of fruit?!

On Friday we were talking once again about the cultivation of asparagus. This time it was my Hungarian acquaintance who confused two similar sounding words (recall my Pferd and Feld confusion): befruchtet and gefürchtet. The confusion arose as we were asking if he used der Dung on his fields. Der Dung is a cognate between English and German but not between German and Hungarian where it is trágya or ganéj (the former, at least according to, seems to have more of the “fertilizer” meaning). Since we were talking about fields, explaining der Dung by saying it was used to make sure the fields were fertilized, befruchtet, made some sort of sense. However, on hearing the word befruchtet, he immediately thought we were talking about something negative, probably through furchtbar – “awful, dreadful, terrible” – which some would say der Dung is!

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