Sunday, 8 December 2013

On speaking like a German...

This week in Stuttgart I’ve enjoyed hanging out with a lot of other English speakers.  The choir has two Americans, a Brit, and, including myself, three Canadians.  When we expats get together, of course we enjoy speaking English.  But we still find ourselves throwing in the odd German word or phrase.  German is such a colourful language, so full of character.  And some German words are just so apt.  There is no English word that will express quite the same thing.  Here are some of my favourite idiomatic phrases which are useful in German:

Bitte – An essential word if you want to be polite, especially in restaurants and hotels.  Depending on context, “bitte” can mean “please”, “here you go”, “pardon me?” or “you’re welcome”.  Just imagine this absurd exchange: “Can I have the cheese, bitte?” "Bitte?" "I said can I have the cheese, bitte?" “Bitte.”  “Thank you.”  “Bitte.”  I’m not joking, this conversation could actually happen.  If you don’t learn any other German word, bitte learn bitte!

Danke – Don’t worry, while “bitte” has several meanings, “danke” just means “thank you”.  If you want to emphasise it further, you could say “Danke sehr” (thanks very much), “vielen Dank” (many thanks), or danke schön” (pretty thanks??  I’m just as confused as you are).

Pretty thanks???
Entschuldigung – An essential for navigating busy streets and train stations.  “Entschuldigung”, or the more formal “Entschuldigungen Sie” means “excuse me”.  It can also be used as a more casual form of “I’m sorry” (if you want to be really apologetic, you would say “es tut mir Leid” – literally “it does me pain”).  Before you know it, “entschuldigung” will become an automatic reflex when you bump into someone or push past them in a crowd.  I often forget myself when I’m in an English-speaking country, and say “entschuldigung” when bumping into someone.  That’s how much it’s ingrained in me.

Genau – This is my favourite word in German.  It’s a kind of all-around positive response.  It can mean “yes”, “exactly”, “I agree”, or “totally”.  If you want to really emphasise it, you can nod vigorously and say “ganz genau”.

GANZ genau!!!
Lust haben – Germans don’t say they “feel like” doing something.  Instead they “have Lust” to do it.  The desire or motivation to say, go shopping, is seen as an object which you either have or don’t have.  If you don’t feel like doing something, you might say “ich habe kein Lust”: “I have no inclination.”  In Cologne, some people say “ich habe Bock”, which is funny, because it literally means “I have goat”.

I have goat to go shopping???
Gern – This is a handy little word.  Similar to “having Lust”, it implies an enthusiasm or a desire for something.  It is usually used to qualify a verb.  “Ich hätte gern” roughly translates as “I would like to have”.  You might tell someone that you enjoy knitting: “ich stricke gern”.  “Gern” can also stand alone as a statement of enthusiasm and/or willingness.  If someone asks if you would like to go for a beer, you might respond with an enthusiastic “gern”!  Waiters also use this as a polite response when you say “thank you” – sort of like saying “my pleasure” in English.

Stimmt – Another sort of agreement word.  “Stimmt” is a combination of “ok”, “that’s right”, and “I agree”.  If you want to tip your waiter, instead of telling them to keep the change you can say “stimmt so”.

Eben - A strong expression of agreement.  In my friend's words, it's like saying "you said it, sister".  Not to be confused with "eben so", which means "likewise".

Oder – This is a strange one, and I’m still getting used to it.  Technically, “oder” means “or”.  But Germans love to use it at the end of a sentence.  “That was great pizza, oder?”  “We should get going, oder?”  The first time you hear this, you will probably wait for the rest of the sentence.  We should get going or what??  But don't be fooled - there is no rest of the sentence.  It’s a rhetorical question, like asking someone to confirm their agreement, even though you already know that they agree.  Basically equivalent to the Canadian “eh”.

-Es ist ganz kalt, oder?
-It sure is cold out here, eh?
Alles klar – Similar to oder, this is often asked as a rhetorical question.  It literally means “all clear”.  People might ask “alles klar” to make sure you understand something.  But it’s a polite formality: usually they don’t want to hear an answer.  You might also say “alles klar” as a statement, like “got it”.

Doch – A funny little interjection.  It can be used the way English-speakers say “like”, to fill a space in conversation.  It can also mean “rather” or “on the contrary”.  “I don’t have any brothers – doch I have three sisters.”  Or it can be used as a simple agreement, like "yeah".

Günstig – This has been an extremely important word for me as a penniless singer in Germany.  “Günstig” means “affordable” or “sensible”.  Whether you are buying a mattress or making plans with friends, you probably want to find the most “günstig” option available.

Praktisch – A word very dear to the German heart.  It means “practical” and it is seen as a very important quality.  Probably the highest praise a German could give something is to call it “praktisch”.  But if it is “unpraktisch” or even, heaven forbid, “unlogisch” (illogical), you can expect some disapproving tutting and shaking of heads.

Pünktlich – Another word very dear to the German heart.  Germans are renowned for their “Pünktlichkeit”: their punctuality.  German culture places high importance on being on time and strictly following a schedule.  Germans will usually show up exactly on time for their appointments, if not earlier, and they will expect the same from others.  Most of the time this is awesome – after all, don’t you hate waiting for latecomers?  But sometimes it leads to an irritating kind of inflexibility.  If you change a schedule, be prepared for Germans to get flustered and make such a fuss that you’ll feel you have committed a cardinal sin.

Schade – This one-word phrase is used to express regret when something goes wrong or can’t go as planned.  Your friend can’t meet you for coffee because they were called into a last-minute meeting?  Schade.  Sometimes Germans translate this into English as “it’s a pity”, and you have to remind them that we are no longer in Jane Austen’s time.  Simply saying “too bad” will suffice.

"It's a pity."
Tja – Sometimes this is a thinking sound, like “hmm…”  Other times it’s used to express judgement and disapproval.  “Tja, of course he’s going out to smoke again.”

Na ja – A philosophical sound, like the thinking man’s “well”.  It implies that you are thinking rather deeply on the subject.  You can use it to begin a sentence: “Na ja, she is a good colleague”.  Or you can just say it thoughtfully and trail off, like saying “oh well”.  “Na ja…”

Guten Appetit – I don’t understand why we don’t have an English equivalent for this.  The French say “bon appetit”, and the Dutch say “smakelijk”.  The German say “guten Appetit”.  Do English people just not want their friends to enjoy their meals?  Or are they too fixated on scarfing their food down to even think about it?  In any case.  “Guten Appetit” is a lovely little phrase to use when sharing a meal with German friends.

Prost – If you’re in Germany, chances are that you’ll be enjoying some beer.  Or a nice dry Riesling, if that’s more your thing.  Anyway, the essential word at the German Kneipe is not “cheers” or “chin chin” but “Prost”.  For extra points, try to say it with a super-closed “O” and a hearty guttural “r” which brings up all the phlegm at the back of your throat.


Keine Ahnung – When all else fails, and you’re at a total loss, this is the phrase you’ll need.  “Keine Ahnung”.  “No idea”.  Said with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders, with a hope that whoever asked you will go elsewhere for the answer.

These are just a sample of the many useful Deutsch expressions which I’ve come to know and love.  Try peppering your speech with these words as much as possible, and before you know it you’ll sound as German as Sauerkraut!

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