For Pete’s sake….

danger

Ah, those nasty prepositions……

Did you ever want to translate “for” but weren’t too sure whether to use the German “für” or “vor”….. just to discover the answer was neither but something completely different?

The trouble with this one is that sometimes “for” does indeed translate as “für” (or indeed “vor”) but often it doesn’t. A whole booklet could be written just about the pitfalls of translating prepositions in general but “for” in particular stands out as one of the chief offenders. With the limited amount of space we have available here, just a few words of advice.

As a general rule of thumb: Anytime you need to translate “for”, make sure you take a quick mental step back to ensure that you really pick the correct translation in this case.

In a lot of instances the term is used in connection with time:

I’ve been waiting here for the last ten minutes.

In this situation we first of all use “seit” in German and instead of the English perfect tense we use the German present tense:

Ich warte hier seit zehn Minuten.

“Seit” is used to mark the beginning of an event and therefore roughly translates as “since”. Some other examples:

Seit Weihnachten rauche ich nicht mehr. (I haven’t smoked since Christmas.)

Seit 1995 lebe ich in Irland. (I’ve been living in Ireland since 1995.)

On top of the choice of words, it is also very easy to confuse the tenses. Remember: the German perfect tense is used predominently in spoken language to express a past that is dead and gone.

Ich habe letztes Jahr mein Abitur gemacht. (I passed my Abitur/Leaving Cert last year.)

The English perfect tense on the other hand refers to something that started in the past but is continuing into the present: In the example above, the speaker started waiting ten minutes ago and continued to wait until now. And for that we use the present tense in German.

Did I just write “ten minutes ago”?

If we were to translate this expression we would use “vor”:

Ich habe Maria vor zehn Minuten gesehen. (I saw Maria ten minutes ago – German perfect tense! – but now she is gone.)

In English we also use “for” to describe the length of time something took, e.g. “I lived in Germany for three years.”

In that instance we would generally translate this as “[length of time] lang”.

Ich habe drei Jahre lang in Deutschland gewohnt.

We also use “vor” when we mean “in front of” with regards to locations.

Das Auto steht vor dem Haus. (The car is in front of the house.)

There are also lots of other expressions where we use either “vor” or “für” in German but do not use “for” in English (e.g.“vor etwas Angst haben” – to be afraid of something) so caution must always prevail whenever any of these prepositions are coming out of the woodworks.

Pass the marmalade!

Strictly speaking this not a classic case of False Friends as sometimes die Marmelade does indeed translate as marmalade.

But sometimes it doesn’t, thereby allowing us a an interesting look into how the language we speak may help us to perceive and categorise the world around us in different ways. (And into how law makers are trying their utmost to regulate centuries old linguistical traditions.)

See, in English the term marmalade refers to gelled breakfast fruit conserves made out of citrus fruits. For non-citrus fruit conserves the term jam is used, e.g. “strawberry jam”.

In German we generally don’t care about the type of fruit in those spreads but whether or not they have chunky bits in them. The ones with chunky bits we call “die Konfitüre”, the ones without “die Marmelade”.

That means we can equally talk about “Erdbeermarmelade” as well as “Erdbeerkonfitüre” or “Orangenmarmelade” as well as “Orangenkonfitüre”, all just depending on whether there are visible bits of strawberries or oranges left in them.

At least in everyday speech.

In recent years EU regulators have passed some decrees that officially outlaw the term “die Marmelade” for all but citrus fruits and instead favour the use of “die Konfitüre” at least for items prepared for export. Linguistically, however, this has not caught on and small traders selling locally in Germany are also still allowed to keep using the traditional terminology.

And there are lots of those small traders. “Marmelade” in all shapes or forms is an incredibly popular item of food in Germany and lots of families prepare their own during the season or purchase from a local market stall.

Etymologically both “marmalade” and “Marmelade” derive from the Portuguese word “marmelo” for the quince fruit which ironically is NOT a citrus fruit.

Robbing bankers, stolen meanings

Bertold BrechtI recently came across this quote by Bertold Brecht from his Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera):

„Bankraub ist eine Unternehmung von Dilettanten. Wahre Profis gründen eine Bank.“

In the light of recent global events I thought it quite succinct given that this was written 85 years ago.

As I wanted to share it with my social network I looked for the proper, commonly accepted English translation online and discovered those two versions:

“It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk.”

“What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?”

Can you spot the differences?

I leave it for the readers of this blog to explore these versions more in depth but just some pointers:

  • The gist (bankers are criminals) remains in all three versions but what is unexplored in the English versions is that both bankers and bank robbers are considered “professionals” involved in a venture (“Unternehmung”).
  • The German version doesn’t mention anything about the apparent ease. The unstated implication focuses instead more on the larger return gathered from those two ventures.
  • Bank clerk? What bank clerk?

It is clear that if you really want to expand your horizon and learn about a country’s culture it is imperative to become familiar with its language. All too often nuances are lost in translation, never mind the fact the some works simply have never been translated.

Poetry still remains virtually untranslatable and one of these days I will need to pen a blog post about the subtleties in Rammstein lyrics.

For now though I’d encourage you to try and explore as much of German literary texts and quotes as you can given your current language skills. And if you’re sitting on the fence with taking up lessons, what’s holding you back? A whole new world is waiting to be discovered by you.

Some of my favourite German words

The following are examples of some of my favourite German words. They prove how playfully you can use the language and how much fun you can have with it. You may not necessarily find these examples in your dictionary (or even taught in other courses) but they all make perfectly good sense and are used more or less frequently by native German speakers.

Jein

Could it be that I am indecisive?

Maybe, maybe not.

But I definitely love “Jein”, a mix of of “Ja” and “Nein” that means just that: “Yes and No”. It is often used when being confroted with a question that requires a Yes/No response but isn’t all that clear cut.

“Bist du ein Rod Stewart Fan?”
“Jein. Ich mag seine frühen Alben, aber hasse seine neuen Sachen.”

“Jein” does not mean “perhaps” (=vielleicht) but can best be translated with “yes, but….” or “no, but….”

In other words the closest thing the English language has for it is this:

Speaking ironically you can also answer a query “mit einem klaren und entschiedenen Jein!” (And they say Germans don’t have a sense of humour.)

Can’t say I know of any other language that created a word of its own for this kind of situation.

It’s a simple but handy word that is easy to remember, comes in useful but is rarely ever used by students of the German language.

I still remember the first time one of my students used it in a conversation with me. So proud……..

verschlimmbessern

Another artificial word similar to “jein”, this time combining the two words “verbessern” (to improve) and “schlimm” (bad). It is used to describe when someone intends to improve something (a service, a product) but by doing so actually makes it worse.

“Yahoo hat seinen Service mal wieder verschlimmbessert.”

jemanden schöntrinken

The previous words were playful but popular examples of original German words. This one on the other hand is a bit more obscure and not often used. In actual fact the first time I came across it was in discussion with an English German-language university tutor who made me aware of it.

I fell in love with it from then on in.

It means “to drink someone beautiful” and describes the phenomenon of seeing the beauty of one’s drinking partners enhanced with every drink one takes or “to put on your beer goggles”. Not that I ever needed to use that word but, yes, one can see how it can come in handy every once in a while.

Much more popular is another German construct that is used quite regularly: “etwas schönreden” i.e. to make an awful situation sound much better, in other words: to use a euphemism.

“Der Präsident hat die Situation mal wieder schöngeredet.”

What are some of your favourite German words or phrases?

Irish Leaving Certs (German) – Last minute points of focus

It is Irish Leaving Cert time. The German exams are due on Friday. Good luck to all of you attending.

Here are a last few areas to focus on, typical errors that often pop up and that can make a difference between one score and the other.

Prior to the exam:

Make sure you are familiar at least with the 500 most common German words.

During the exam:

Pay special attention to the following areas. Use the entire time available to you for your exam. If you’re finished before the time, review your answers and again focus especially on the following:

1.Capitalise all nouns!
2.Use the perfect (=past) tense when you describe events that happened in the past. This feels like stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how many times people use the present tense for describing the past.
3.You can, however, use the present tense to describe what you’ll do in the future. Im Sommer fahre ich in den Urlaub.
4.Remember the differences between als, wenn and wann. All translate as the English “when” but als is used for past events (Als ich 10 Jahre alt war, war ich in Spanien.); wenn for future or regularly occuring events (Immer wenn ich Durst habe, trinke ich Wasser. Wenn ich wieder in Cork bin, besuche ich meine Eltern.); wann is only ever used in questions (Wann kommst du?)
5.Remember the word order. Generally the subject in a main sentence comes first followed by the verb. Ich fahre morgen nach Dublin. If you put anything else in the front the verb still remains at second place: Morgen fahre ich nach Dublin. (Not: Morgen ich fahre nach Dublin.)
6.If you’re in loss for a word, don’t beat yourself up over it but try and come up with alternatives that may also describe it. Brand names can often come in handy! “Ich brauche Panadol.” if you happened to forget that “die Tablette” is German for “tablet”. It’s better to write something rather than nothing.
7.Re-read the German exam texts properly to make sure you have really understood them correctly.

If you’re stuck:

Don’t just sit there with your head looking at the ceiling. Write. Anything. At all. If you have to: Doodle. It is scientifically proven that the movement of your pen will likely stir memories as a lot of the time you learned the language by writing it down.

Yes, some of these tips feel like stating the bleeding obvious but they often make a huge difference for the overall exam score. So take them to heart. Trust me: You’ll be kicking yourself black and blue if you end up making any of those errors.

Good luck! And have a blast at the weekend.

Mir geht’s gut

If only I had a Euro for every time I asked “Wie geht’s dir?” (or even “Wie geht’s, wie steht’s?”) and received one of the following replies: Ich bin gut. Ich gehe gut. Or even worse: Ich geht’s gut.

In German we generally don’t say “I’m fine, thanks” but “Me goes well”. Does it make sense? Probably not, so just accept it as it is and remember that the proper replies are in the Dativ e.g.

Es geht mir gut.
Mir geht’s gut.
Mir geht es gut.
Danke, mir geht’s super.
Meinem Bruder geht es gut.
Meiner Schwester geht es gar nicht gut.
Meinen Eltern geht es schlecht.

Forming the German plural

QUESTION (received through my Facebook page):

“Well….I have a lot of problems with plurals, specially with those that don’t change (der Fahrer, die Fahrer) and those that change in a weird way (der Saal, die Säle)…and with the singular Tantrum (der Glanz)…since I’m assuming I’ll have to learn them by heart, it would be great to have a list (I am working on my own already, but if I can take advantage of the work of someone else…well, gerne!”

ANSWER:

That is a great question!

Whereas in English we generally just add an -s to the noun to form the plural (though try explaining to a German pupil learning English why it is “children” not “childs”!) German has about a dozen different ways to form the plural and in a lot of cases there is no proper rule for that that’ll cover all the forms. Instead you have more general rules of thumb that’ll cover a large number or some of the cases.

The good news is that you’re in good company. Even well educated Germans at some stage in their lives will come across a plural form they need help with. Just the other day a German Twitter buddy asked what the plural of “Plenum” is. It is “Plenen” though the original Latin plural form “Plena” apparently is also acceptable.

The moment you start learning German you are confronted with plural forms. You cannot form a sentence without using a noun so from Day 1 you need to find a way to learn the relevant plural forms. Given the large number of possible forms, it is best to simply memorise the right one any time you learn a new noun. So rather than just to learn: “das Fahrrad”, learn “das Fahrrad, die Fahrräder”. There really is no quick fix or short cut. (Sorry.)

Especially if you’re at an early stage in your studies, trying to understand possible rules is just going to confuse you unnecessarily. After all most Germans aren’t aware of those rules themselves and as children they also learned the plural forms one by one by trial and error. You could actually go through your whole German studies without ever needing to know the rules but if you have reached a level of expertise where you may want to learn a bit more about those forms, this is what you could do next.

First of all drop over to About.com to see a list of all the possible plural endings to get you started and give you a quick overview.

Unfortunately on those pages there is little in regards to theory so for this go to this Vistawide German page. They provide some additional info with regards to some of those forms.

Read through them all and specifically focus on the likelihoods mentioned in the text. Celebrate rules such as

“All feminine nouns ending in -ei, -heit, -keit, -schaft, -ung have the plural suffix or -en. Feminine nouns ending in -in add -nen in the plural form. These never add an umlaut.”

as they apply to all the nouns in question.

If you read that

“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e.”

then you know that when in doubt you could make a well informed guess with the masculine words (and possibly also the neutral ones) but that the odds are against this ending for the feminine nouns.

Needless to say those rules will help you when you have some time to think about the answer e.g. when you’re writing an essay. Of course, when you’re in the middle of a heated discussion you won’t have time to stop and analyse what possible prefix may make whatever plural form necessary or what the odds are that a specfic noun has an -e as their plural but as an extra bit of info to help you choose the right forms these rules can be quite helpful once you are past the Beginner stage.

So let’s look at your individual queries:

der Fahrer – die Fahrer

This falls under the category of
“Nearly all masculine and neuter nouns that end in -er, -en, -el, -chen, -lein & collective neuter nouns beginning with Ge- have plurals that are identical to their singular forms or that simply add an umlaut.”
“der Fahrer” is masculine and with an -er ending. Hence the form doesn’t change in the plural. Mind you: As the text indicates there are a few exceptions such “der Bauer – die Bauern” but when in doubt rely on the fact that the odds are stacked heavily in your favour that nothing changes for the vast majority of those nouns.

der Saal – die Säle

This belongs to
“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e. Feminine nouns with the plural -e always take the umlaut. Masculine nouns often take the umlaut, but not always. Neuter nouns that have the plural -e rarely take the umlaut.”
So this is masculine meaning that it has a high likelihood of a) an -e plural ending and b) adding an Umlaut. If you were just speaking the word out aloud you’d have come up with the right solution just from this rule alone.
What is special about this though is that one of the vowels drops and we don’t write “die Sääle”. Generally we just don’t have two Umlaute in a row so this you just need to remember on an individual basis. Again, you are in excellent company about this. There are numerous threads about this on the Internet – one is here – from German natives wondering about this particular form as well.

der Glanz (the gloss, the shine)

You are right: this as well as some other words do not even have a plural form. Other examples are:
die Milch, die Erziehung, das Publikum, das Obst, das Gemüse, die Ruhe, die Stille.
These are by and large collective nouns or abstract terms where it just wouldn’t “feel” right to use the plural and in a lot (but not all) of the cases the English translation would also not carry a plural.