What is the difference between “wie” and “als”?

comparisonsIn English we speak about things that are as big as something else but bigger than.

In German we use the term “als” (that unfortunately looks suspiciously like as…as) for the latter case, i.e. when things are

kleiner als = smaller than

schneller als = faster than

Please notice that for the comparative form we just add an “-er” regardless of how long the adjective is. For longer adjectives of two syllables or more English often uses the more … than format but German is a bit more consistent in its approach here

interessanter als = more interesting than

We would never speak of something being “mehr interessant als”! Beware of this as this is a common mistake for people learning German coming from an English language background.

When things are on an even scale we use the format “so [adjective] wie” or alternatively “genauso [adjective] wie”

so teuer wie = as expensive as

so erfolgreich wie = as successful as

so schön wie = as beautiful as

genauso gut wie = as good as

Mind you, listen closely and you’ll notice that there are actually a good number of Germans who mistakenly say stuff along the lines of: “Das Buch war viel interessanter wie der Film” or even: “Das Buch war viel interessanter als wie der Film”.

Just because even native speakers may occasionally mess up in that department should not stop you from using the forms correctly. So if you discuss a book and its cinematic adaptation you will properly say:

Das Buch war viel interessanter als der Film. The book was more interesting than the film.

Or:

Der Film war (genau)so interessant wie das Buch. The film was just as interesting as the book.

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.

Beware of false friends – 10 common errors for English speakers learning German

Given some of the similarities that exist between the German and the English language it is easy to believe that everything that sounds alike will also have the identical meaning. Needless to say this isn’t always the case. Below find a list of some of the most commonly made errors for English language speakers learning German. (Or for that matter for German language speakers learning English!)

der After
The fact that this word is capitalised and preceded by a “der” should already help to identify that this is a masculine noun and that therefore the meaning will not be identical to the English “after”. The German term is the proper medical term for the, ahem, “anus”. Given that we are talking posteriors here, this should at least help to create some kind of mnemonic connection between those words.

das Gift
In German “Gift” actually means “poison”. If you wanted to refer to a present you would instead use “das Geschenk”.

bekommen
This does not mean “to become”, but “to receive, to get”, i.e.
Ich bekomme ein Geschenk.
I am getting a present.
(You did remember that “Geschenk” was “gift/present”, didn’t you?)

(ich, er sie, es) will
In German “will” does not describe the future tense, but indicates that either I (ich) or he/she/it (er/sie/es) wants something. It is derived from the irregular German verb “wollen”. For the record, the relevant forms of the verb are:
ich will, du willst, er/sie/es will, wir wollen, ihr wollt, sie wollen
In order to express the future tense in German you would want to use forms of “werden”, e.g.
ich werde, du wirst, er/sie/es wird, wir werden, ihr werdet, sie werden

sensibel
Easily confused with “sensible”, but it actually means “sensitive”.

das Handy
A relatively new term that you likely didn’t learn in school if you first learned German more than 10-15 years ago, “das Handy” means “mobile phone” and has nothing to do with being handy or a handyman. The connection is with “die Hand”, i.e. a phone you carry in your hand, and yes, quite obviously a really dreadful Anglicism. Incidentally in German you wouldn’t “txt” or “text”, but “simsen”, i.e. send an SMS (SiMS, geddit?) message. And a “portable (house) telephone” is a… “Mobiltelefon”.

das Rezept
If you fancy a receipt, go and ask for “die Quittung”. If you are asking for a “Rezept” you would like a recipe for a meal…. and possibly also for a linguistic disaster if you get it wrong and mixed up.

der Chef
In German this is a very common term for “boss”. (Though you could also say “der Boss” or more formal “der/die Vorgesetzte”). If you rather talk about a chef/cook, use the term “der Koch” or “die Köchin” (for a female chef).

eventuell
This means “possibly” or “maybe”. “Eventually” on the other hand is “schließlich” or “letztendlich”.
In a similar vein, aktuell does not mean “actual” or “actually”, but “current, up to the minute”. Use “eigentlich” or “tatsächlich” to translate “actual(ly)”.

There are scores more of these false friends in the German language, but make sure to remember these ten as they are some of the most common ones that, make no mistake, you will confuse at least a few times when first learning the language.