Posts tagged ‘german’

July 17, 2015

Especially devious false friends

My husband pointed out a particularly devious pair of false friends for the German speaking crowd out there to me the other day and so I decided to write a quick blog about it.  The culprits are:

Pathetic (engl.)

Pathetisch (d.)

Let’s tackle pathetic first.  The word has two meanings, both not particularly pleasant.  The first basically means “in such a bad state that it arouses pity”.  An example would be “the poor abandoned dog looked pathetic, I had to adopt him”.  Synonyms would be pitiable, heart-breaking, distressing.

The second, and probably more common usage means “miserably, completely inadequate”.  Examples would be “his performance was absolutely pathetic. It was a disgrace” or me to my son “a B in math is pathetic, you shouldn’t ever have a grade worse than an A-.” (I am not crazy, the boy is a math whiz and anything worse than an A- indicates laziness, not lack of understanding).

Let’s turn our attention to “pathetisch” – it means passionate, maybe a bit too much so, solemn, declamatory.    The word can have a negative connotation and indicate that the speaker is totally overdoing it, might be showing off , use overblown or sententious language.  What it does not mean is paltry, miserable, abject, pitiable.

So one needs to be careful here.  Though a “pathetischer” talk can be annoying and too much it is a far cry from pathetic.

Another devious pair is sensible (eng.) and sensibel (d.).

It is sensible to wear sunscreen, esp. if you have sensitive skin.

It is sensible to wear sunscreen, esp. if you have sensitive skin.

The English sensible means rational, practical, prudent and is used in sentences such as “She is wearing boots for the hike, that is very sensible” or “Although I really would like you to participate in the meeting it is sensible to stay home if you are sick.”

The German “sensibel” on the other hand means “sensitive” in English.  It is used for example when talking about people “eine sensible Person” is a sensitive person not a sensible person. The word is,  particularly devious in German as it is spelled “sensibel” in some cases (das Kind ist sensibel – the child is sensitive) but takes the English looking version “sensible” although pronounced quite differently, if used as an adjective in certain cases “das sensible Kind weint” (the sensitive child is crying”).

So you can see who a prudent, rational person can quickly become a sensitive one if Germans are involved.




July 5, 2015


This is the first of a small series of German language blog entries that are designed to address some common mistakes Germans speaking English make.  Some content might be redundant with the content provided in the English language blog.

In dieser kleinen Serie fasse ich einige der haeufigsten Fehler zusammen, die Deutsche im Englischen machen.  Fangen wir mit den an sich einfachen aber doch haeufig verwirrenden Konzept des “besitzanzeigenden s” an, das im Deutschen am ehesten dem Genetiv entspricht.  Im Deutschen wird der Genetiv – der ohnehin fast nie benuetzt wird –  ebenfalls durch ein s signalisiert. “Das Haus des Grossvaters/Grossvaters Haus ist der Stadt” waere ein Beispiel.

Im englischen ist das ganz aehnlich nur ist das s mit einem Apostroph abgetrennt: “Grandfather’s house is in the city.”

So weit so gut. Was aber wenn man zwei Grossvaeter hat, die beide in der Stadt wohnen? In dem Fall wird der normale Plural gebildet und dann das Apostroph angehaengt um den Possessive anzudeuten: “The grandfathers’ houses are in the city.”

Unuebersichtlicher wird es bei Worten, die auf s enden, denn dann gibt es zwei Moeglichkeiten” Grandpa Charles’s house is in the city” oder “Grandpa Charles’ house is in the city.”  Beide sind richtig und haben ihre Grammatik-Gurus, die die eine vs. die andere Schreibweise befuerworten.  Die einfachste Empfehlung ist, dass man sich fuer eine Schreibweise entscheiden soll und diese dann auch durchgehend verwendet.

Natuerlich gibt es jede Menge zusaetzlicher Regeln und Empfehlungen, was man mit Worten, die auf x oder ch enden macht, was wenn es Eigennamen sind oder auf s enden oder Worte, die auf zwei ss enden und vor einem Wort stehen, dass mit s anfaengt?  “the hostess’s sink” – “das Wasch/Spuelbecken der Gastgeberin” waere so ein Beispiel – dass ja recht bescheuert aussieht.   In vielen Faell ist ebenfalles gesunder Menschenverstand und Konsistenz gefragt.  Wenn man schreibt dass man bei den Joneses zum Abendessen war dann sollte man mit den Sanchezes ins Kino gehen.  Wenn man allerdings bei den Jones’s diniert hat, sollte man mit den Sanchez’s ins Kino.

Wichtig ist erstmal, dass man die Grundlagen richtig hinkriegt, um Missverstaendniss zu vermeiden oder nicht wie ein Ignorant darzustehen.

possessive 2

Das ist ein ganz normaler Plural muesste also “Signs” sein, nicht sign’s. Das Schild macht so ueberhaupt keinen Sinn.


Das gleiche Problem, Hondas ist ein Plural – viele Honda Autos. Wieder ergibt das Schild so keinen Sinn.

Die Grundregeln sind:

  • In einem normalen Plural hat ein ‘s nichts verloren.  Meine zwei Soehne sind “my two sons” nicht “my two son’s” or “my two sons’ ” Das letztere waere richtig wenn es von einem Nomen gefolgt waere. z.B. my two sons’ boat- das Boot meiner zwei Soehne, also ein Boot das beiden gehoert.
  •  Ein Possessiv braucht ein Apostroph, sonst ist es kein Possessiv sondern ein Fehler.

Bevor es ganz bloed und umstaendlich wird kann man sich meistens mit einer Umschreibung behelfen.  Also statt “Illinois’s constitution” also “Illinois Verfassung” kann man ohne weiteres “the constitution of Illinois” sagen, also “die Verfassung von Illinois” oder – vermutlich korrekter im Deutschen “die Verfassung des Staates Illinois”.

Wenn man das gemeistert hat, kann man schon mehr als viele Muttersprachler.

July 2, 2015

Presumed English

A few words recently came to my attention that Germans often get wrong but that are not false friends per se.  It is more that everybody presumes that these are English/American words because they sound English when in fact their are not.  These mistakes are hard to avoid – because they are made in the conviction that the words/terms used are English and as such never questioned.

Here are a few examples.

The most well-known one is “Handy” the term universally used in Germany for a mobile or cell phone.  The “y” at the end and the English pronunciation generally used for the “a” makes people believe that they are using a proper English word.  Most are very surprised, many to the point of thinking it is a joke, when they are told that no such a thing as a “handy” exists in the English language.

Somebody asked me the other day what “handy” actually means in English but I had to pass.  Other than a slang meaning that I wasn’t prepared to discuss while the kids were in the room I couldn’t think of any.

The puzzling term "beamer"

The puzzling term “beamer”

A funny one, and probably an American English rather than British English one is “beamer”.  Germans use “beamer” – an unquestionably English term – for a projector.  One of those handy-dandy things one attaches to the computer that enables one to project the computer screen to a large external screen.  There is a beam of light so, undeniably, this makes a certain amount of sense.  However, in American English a beamer is something quite different, namely a general term of a BMW.  Don’t ask me how this came about, I assume it has something to do with BMW being a mouthful and beamer keeps the B and M sound but does away with the clunky W while making it sound fast and sleek.

After having spent almost a year in Germany I fell for it myself the other day.  In a meeting I said that it would be good to have a  …. what’s that word? …. you know that thingy that projects to the wall …. a beamer.” I caught myself a split second later and corrected myself but not before seeing some blank stares and silly grins.

The list keeps going:

Public viewing

In English, as Wiki states, is the condition of a deceased person, often of high social stature, whose body is available for public viewing.

In German or rather “Denglish”: the live broadcast of a sporting event to a public square on which 100 to many 1000s will rather to watch together.

Body Bag

In English those dreary black plastic bags that are used to remove corpses from a crime scene

In German/Denglish: a messenger bag like accessory that is worn close to the body

There are a bunch more but those are a few of the good ones.  If you have a favorite please let me know!

June 30, 2015


The other day we took a stroll through the center of the historic German town we currently live in when I stopped in my tracks.  Right in front of us was a new store I had never seen before – this might be a bit strange in such a small town but then, things change quickly and seeing  new store normally doesn’t stop me in my tracks – unless, of course, it is an Antique Store, or better yet some sort of indoor flea market type store.  With the town rapidly gentrifying tit was neither.

Friking  - a questionable name choice and an similalrly questionable slogan (c) Tina Baumgartner

Friking – a questionable name choice and an similalrly questionable slogan
(c) Tina Baumgartner

What stopped me in my tracks was the name.  The store – which sells men’s fashion – is called “Friking” – seriously? Friking? The word doesn’t mean anything in German and might be a name.  In any case it is pronounced slightly differently from the English “freaking” – but only ever so slightly.

Now, a German store owner might be forgiven for not knowing that Friking is way too close for comfort to “freaking” if they didn’t make a point of using an English slogan right under that name.  But not only that, they use a slogan that makes no sense whatsoever. The slogan, right there outside the store says “you are in the shop”

Ehm, what?  I am clearly not in the shop, I am outside looking at it in disbelief.  And even if I was in the shop, what would the slogan tell me?  I would know I am in the shop, then, I needn’t be told. I  tried to make sense of this by translating it literally into German, but it doesn’t make sense in that language either, so it isn’t a case of literally translated idiom.  Maybe the webpage holds a clue as it is a Spanish webpage ending on .es – so some Spanish store using a bad English slogan in Germany?  The headache of it all!

Another point, maybe an US vs. UK English point is the use of “shop”.  In US English one would say store rather than shop, a shop has the connotation of a small place where often services are performed such as body shop (car repair), barber shop to get a shave (do shops where people are getting shaved still exist?)

I am still scratching my head over the fact that somebody spends lots of money on merchandize, the very expensive rents in my quickly gentrifying little town, hires sales people etc. etc – but can’t be bothered to ask somebody fluent in English something along the lines of “hi, buddy, help me out here.  Does this slogan make sense?” This is a friking mess, really.

June 27, 2015

False Friends

I mentioned false friends before, words in the language you study that sound very much like words in your own language and hence one is tempted to assume they mean the same.

Two examples from the German and English languages come to mind: eventually and actually in English and eventuell and aktuell in German.  Let’s talk about and clarify both of them:

Eventually and eventuell – are very close sounding and used in similar contexts.  However, “eventually” indicates that something will happen at some non-specified time in the future.  The point is, the thing will happen, just when isn’t determined yet.  “Eventuell”, on the other hand, means that something may happen in the future, so the basic fact whether the event will happen is uncertain.

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married "eventuell/maybe."  (c) Tina Baumgartner

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married “eventuell/maybe.”
(c) Tina Baumgartner

The difference can be rather disconcerting: “eventually we’ll get married” is quite different from “maybe we’ll get married.” Hearing a college student say: “I will eventually finish my degree” is cause for concern for parents, but hearing them say “Maybe, some day, I’ll finish my degree” is way worse.   From the German’s perspective misusing the word the consequences can be dire as well: saying to your business partner “I will eventually come up with the $2M needed to keep the doors open” is telling him/her that you will get the money when what you meant to say that you “eventuell” will get the money which means potentially/maybe you somehow manage to come up with it.

Actually and aktuell are also similar sounding but have the advantage of being used in different contexts and hence it should be easier to keep them apart.  “Actually” is a frequently used word in English which is mostly used in the same contexts as the German “eigentlich”.  It is a bit of a fudge word that is hard to translate and very context dependent.  A few examples might illustrate the use best:

“Are you going to the grocery store with me?” – “Actually, I had planned on going to the gym now.” – here it is used in the sense of “well” or – since it is often used when saying no to something, it is used in the sense of “uhm, well, no”

“This is actually a good question” – here it is used in the sense of “indeed”

“How did your trip to Italy compare to the last time you were there?” – “Actually, I had never visited Italy before” – here it is used in the sense of “in fact”.

Aktuell, however, means current/up to date:  “aktuelle Nachrichten” are current news, “ist das noch aktuell?” means “is that still up to date?”

So a false friend but not as deviously false as the eventually/eventuell pair.


June 24, 2015

Of course

“Of course” in English is used to express that something is well-known and understood and not surprising.
“We loved Norway in winter, but, of course, the days were short.” Now, that doesn’t come as a big surprise to most people.

“Was the food in Thailand spicy?” “Of course it was.”  At least to those of us who have traveled to Thailand this not new either.

“Of course” is one of those little phrases that Germans use a lot when they speak English and that they use slightly differently than native speakers .  And it is another of those phrases that Germans use the way they would use the literal translation “natuerlich” in German as a way to emphasize a fact or statement. They often start a sentence with “of course” to express not that what follows is a well-known fact but that what follows is a somewhat surprising or unusual fact that needs a bit of emphasis.”Of course, all our dishes come with French fries” a waiter might say, before anybody even asked whether French fries are available.

Germans use “of course” often to express that they think something is the case or to proactively confirm a not generally known fact and hence use it more in the sense of “certainly”.

The following is a bit of an overstated example to make the point:

German sales person: “Of course, the computer comes with a free ticket to Disney World and preloaded software.”

While the computer can be reasonably be expected to come with software (and hence an “of course” would be appropriate if the buyer asked “does it come with software?”) it cannot reasonably be expected to come with a free ticket to Disney World, hence the “of course” is misplaced.

Now if the company had put out an advertising campaign saying “Buy a computer get a free ticket to Disney World!” and the buyer had come in, flyer in hand and asked “does this computer come with a free ticket to Disney World?” then “of course, it does” would have been an appropriate answer.

It is a fine difference and probably not particularly relevant in many contexts but I have noticed it a number of times and in some occasions this “proactive of course” comes across as a bit unfriendly or slightly offensive.  As if the other party should have known already.  As if a generally accepted fact somehow had slipped the attention of the other person and one now has to point it out the obvious.

This is definitely American English 201 or even 301, not 101 but its best to not get into the habit of using “of course” to emphasis a fact that isn’t widely known and accepted.



August 9, 2012

In Defense of Californias Elementary Schools

I have pretty much given up blogging about the California school system and it’s shortfalls, specifically the political correctness which often lies like a sticky blanket on everything that should be fun from candy to a good playground fight.

Mobbing is nasty, pic:


Today, though, I have to raise my voice in defense of the political correctness and mollycoddling which surprises no-one more than me.  I have spent the last four weeks with my family in my native German town.  My parents live in a small, save cul-de-sac with kids my son’s age around.  “Perfect”, I thought to myself, “‘precious only son’ will have some buddies (or should I say mates) to play with and I will get to do – whatever.”  What I never even considered was the fact that the lovely little neighborhood brats would gang up on my child, whose only crime it is to be a stranger


with the occasional strange idea about how German language should be used.  Five of them mobbed him, were absolutely nasty from the first moment on, stole his toys, refused to include him in their games, shoved dirt down his shirt and similarly nasty stuff while their parents sat by looking and saying smart and enlightening things like “that’s just how kids are”.

Now I hate to say this but where we live every parent would be mortified by such behavior and every teacher would call a conference with the parents if they observed such despicable acts.  Kids would be impressed upon that mobbing is unacceptable and that message would be delivered in no uncertain terms.  Kids learn in Kindergarten to be open and tolerant of others.  This is part of the curriculum.  Does it always work and do we have a bunch of little angles floating three feet off the ground in California?  No, of course not, but at least a serious attempt is made to train them from an early age to be caring and inclusive,  call it mollycoddling if you like but at least it isn’t mobbing and indifference.

I am very glad, I have to say, that the first day of my son’s third grade will be in a political correct school in politically correct California.


April 24, 2011

Restaurants, part 2

This morning we were sitting in a restaurant near one of America’s big tourist attraction – Yosemite National Park – having breakfast.  The crowd was pretty international but from the look of it mainly Europeans,  a few Hispanics and of course Americas.   On the table next to us was a German couple.

After dinner drinks are the norm in Germany, pic:

We had just settled in and finished half of the food we had gotten from the buffet when the waiter came and asked whether everything was fine.  We nodded and mumbled something affirmative between two bites of French toast and he produced our check from behind his back and put it on the table with the usual “whenever you are ready” or something to that effect.

We hardly noticed.  Then he did the same with the German couple and the woman got all upset, felt kicked out and insulted and commented in German to her companion that this wasn’t the first time somebody had treated them in this very rude way.   I almost intervened to tell them that this is the way things are done here.  It isn’t rude or unusual, you aren’t being kicked out you are simply spared the inconvenience of having to ask for the check.  In the US, unlike in Germany for example, you go to a restaurant, you order, eat, pay up, and get out of there.  No lingering at the table for another glass of wine or beer.   You don’t have to rush and wolf down your food but after you have finished your food and dessert you leave.  If you want to have another glass of wine you either get it at the bar or you go to a different place, like a bar and get it there.

In Germany and certainly any number of other European countries I have been to like Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Spain that is not the rule.  You eat, then you finish you wine, decide, get another glass, talk, laugh, have another and (until not too long a go) smoke a cigarette or two or three.  You might not leave for an hour or more after dinner is finished.

Not so in the US – just different customs, has nothing to do with rudeness, it is just the way it is.

April 8, 2011


I often joke  with people who don’t know me well about my (almost) always being punctual by saying: “I am German, I can’t be unpunctual even if I try.” And that is probably not even such a far-fetched explanation.

Punctuality was drilled into us from an early age on and punctuality in Germany – at least for my parents generations – means not only that you are on time, but that – when in doubt – you arrive a few minutes early, rather than late.  The rational being that the food is being prepared and likely ready upon arrival, by the time one has taken off the coats and gotten  situated at the table the eager hostess brings out the appetizer (or it might already be waiting on the table).

My poarents idea of punctuality, pic:

Here in the US that would be considered very rude.  You do not under any circumstances arrive early. The hostess is likely still in the shower at 10 minutes before the official invitation time, or arranging the flowers or putting on mascara.  If for once the traffic gods were kind and you arrived a few minutes early here is what you do: sit in your car and listen to music, play with your iPhone, take a walk around the neighborhood, call your mom – do whatever to kill a few minutes so you show up about 15 minutes after the time indicated.

If you live in Silicon Valley and were invited by your Indian friends, this rule does not apply.  Your hostess is likely still in the shower about an hour after the official invitation time (less true for small dinner parties, definitely true for larger parties with buffet-style food).  Even my Indian friends admit that one has to allow for an “Indian hour”.  Te same, more or less, applies to Latin Americans.

I am still working on my coming late skills but by now I got the “still being in the shower by invitation time ” down.

March 30, 2011

Things to do for good luck

In the US – like presumably everywhere else – there are things people do for good luck.  Looking at the most common ones I realized that they are very similar or identical to the things people do in Germany for good luck.  So, I guess, either they work 🙂 or somebody did a very good job at promoting these somewhat random acts.

Lucky me, found a four-leaved clover on the Internet, pic:

In the US people knock on wood if they are talking about something positive or desirable and what that to continue or to happen in the first place.  Like in this context:

“I have never gotten a speeding ticket before – knock on wood – although I have been driving plenty fast at times.”

Wiki lists a whole number of countries where the phrase is used in one version or another.  The possible origin is the ancient belief across many cultures that spirits dwell in trees or guard them and so knocking on wood might get the good spirits on ones side.

Finger crossing is a gesture one does to wish good luck as in “I applied for this really cool job and am waiting to hear back.  Keep your fingers crossed that I get to go in for an interview!”

This one is interesting, though, as the same gesture, done behind one’s back, is used to nullify a promise.  This is fairly popular with kids and teens and a less accepted loop-holes in grown-up world.  The origin seems to date back to the days when crossed fingers were used to ward of witches.

In Germany people don’t cross fingers, they squeeze their thumbs – which ends up looking pretty similar.

That leaves us with a symbol of good luck: the four-leaved clover.  Four-leaved clovers are very rare and bring good luck, especially when found accidentally.  The story goes that each leaf stands for something: the first for hope, the second for faith, the third for love and the fourth, rare one, for luck.