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GERMAN LANGUAGE

10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

As a non-native speaker, it can sometimes be tricky to blend in with the locals. That’s why we’ve put together this list of 10 words and phrases that will help you sound like a proper German.

Oktoberfest celebrations in 2017.
Oktoberfest celebrations in 2017. Photo: picture alliance / Felix Hörhager/dpa | Felix Hörhager

1. Na?

This little word is extremely common in spoken German and is most often used as a greeting, meaning “hello“ and, if elongated, (“naaa?”) as an implied “how are you doing?“ as well. 

“Na” is also often used in combination with other short words, to make some of the most frequently used German phrases, such as:

Na dann – Well then

Na ja – oh well

Na, toll – oh, great (sarcastic)

Na, und? – and so what?

Na klar! – but of course! 

Na, los! – go on then!

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Na klar

2. Doch

Using this multi-versatile four letter word will not only make you sound like a real German, but will also help you express yourself in a way that no English equivalent can!

The word has several meanings, but perhaps the most unique is its function as a negation of a negative statement, for example:

Hast du die Liste nicht mitgebracht? – Didn’t you bring the list? 

Doch! – Yes I did!

or 

Sie ist mir hoffentlich nicht mehr böse? – I hope she isn’t angry with me any more?

Doch! – Yes she is!

3. Hu hu

This is a typically German, informal greeting which you can use to get someone’s attention and is roughly equivalent to “hey!”

If you have German friends or colleagues in your phone book, at some stage you’re bound to receive a text message starting with this greeting. Or you could do it first!

4. arschkalt

Pit the Panda enjoying the snow in the Berlin Zoo.
Pit the Panda enjoying the snow in the Berlin Zoo. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Kira Hofmann

This rather rude expression will come in handy when you want to make your feelings known about the weather this winter.  Literally meaning “arse cold“, the word describes that sensation we all know well – when it’s so bitterly cold outside that your backside freezes.

The word is so widely used in Germany, that there was even a romantic comedy called “Arschkalt” released in 2011. It’s about an emotionally cold frozen food supplier.

5. Ach so

If you find yourself taken by surprise, or suddenly reminded of something, then use this phrase to convince everyone of your true Germanness. 

For example, if, while shopping, you’re reminded by the cashier to enter your pin, you can loudly and proudly declare: 

Ach soooo! – Ah, now I see!

6. Feierabend

When you’re about to leave work this evening, and your colleagues ask “gehst du schon?“ (are you going already?) tell them “ja – ich habe schon Feierabend“ (“Yes, it’s the end of work for me already”).

This cheerful sounding compound noun literally means “celebration evening“ and is used to mean “the end of work”. The “Feier” (celebration) part, reflects the meaning of leisure, free or rest time.

READ ALSO: How to overcome five of the biggest stumbling blocks when learning German

Examples:

um 17 Uhr ist bei uns Feierabend – We stop working here at 5pm

Wir machen jetzt FeierabendWe’re calling it a day now

Two workers celebrate their Feierabend in Frankfurt am Main.
Two workers celebrate their Feierabend in Frankfurt am Main. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

7. Egal

Don’t care? Then tell someone: “es ist mir egal!“ 

This word is used surprisingly often to express indifference or to describe something of little consequence, and has the same linguistic roots as the English word “equal”.

Examples:

es ist mir egal was du sagst  – I don’t care what you say

es ist egal wo du herkommst – It doesn’t matter where you come from

8. Das ist mir Wurst

If you want to go one step further than “egal“, you can declare: “das ist mir Wurst!“ – literally meaning “that is sausage to me!“ – to show that you really couldn’t care less. 

Want to sound even more authentic? Just make the word “Wurst” into “Wurscht” – because that’s how they pronounce sausage in southern Germany.

Olaf Scholz enjoying a Sausage after his second TV debate in September.
Olaf Scholz enjoying Currywurst after his second TV debate in September. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

9. Es geht

Literally meaning “it goes”, this phrase is a very German way of saying that things are not great, but they’re ok. 

Examples:

Es wird eine Stunde dauern, geht das? – It will take an hour, is that ok?

Es geht – It’s alright

10. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof

Finally, if you haven’t got a clue what someone is saying (or want to fit in), tell them: “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” – literally “I only understand train station” – a way of saying: “I’m confused.”

This idiom is similar in meaning to the English “it’s all Greek to me”, and shows that you don’t understand something, or don’t want to understand something.

Despite the actual meaning of the phrase, Germans will be immediately convinced that you are a true German yourself, and probably continue chatting.

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day – Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

From dancing at two weddings to killing flies, the German language has its own unique way of expressing the sentiments behind some of the most popular English sayings.

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

Though many popular English idioms are largely similar to their German equivalents, if you try to directly translate others into German you may be met with a rather perplexed look. 

Here is a break down of the (sometimes surprising) German versions of some of the most popular English idioms.

Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen

The German equivalent of the English “to kill two birds with one stone”, uses much smaller flying victims to describe achieving a dual purpose at once. It means literally to “beat two flies with one trap”.

READ ALSO: Why traditional German names are often used as insults

Wie du mir, so ich dir

If you find yourself mistreated in the same way you have behaved towards others, your counterpart might tell you “wie du mir, so ich dir”.

The English version of this phrase – “to get a taste of your own medicine” – is not used in German, so don’t try to directly translate it, unless you have a lot of friends who happen to be pharmacists.

Sich an die eigene Nase fassen

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference.

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa/Pool | Marcus Brandt

In English, you might talk about “the pot calling the kettle black” to express irony or absurdity that someone accuses another person of exactly their own mistakes or shortcomings.

But in German, you’re unlikely to be understood if you start talking about kitchen utensils. Instead, you should tell someone to “touch your own nose.”

The origin of this saying is apparently down to an old Norman legal custom, in which a person who had unjustly insulted someone, had to touch their own nose with their hand while publicly apologising.

Example:

Anna war ganz schön sauer wegen meiner Verspätung. Dabei sollte sie sich an die eigene Nase fassen!

Anna was quite angry because of my lateness. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! 

Setz nicht alles auf eine Karte

The German version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” uses gambling rather than farmyard prudence to warn against taking big risks, and literally means “don’t put everything on one card.”

ein blindes Huhn findet auch ein Korn

The closest German idiom in meaning to “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is the pejorative “a blind chicken also finds corn”, meaning that even the most incompetent can sometimes succeed.

ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer

In English, you would say “once bitten, twice shy” to express that a person who has failed or been hurt when trying to do something is careful or fearful about doing it again. In German, you would literally say “a burned child is afraid of the fire.”

READ ALSO: What’s behind the strange German name for musical chairs?

Besser ein Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach

This avian idiom is very similar to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, though in this version a safe sparrow in the hand is compared with a flight-risk dove on the roof. The meaning is however the same, and is used to advise people not to risk the thing they have for certain – but which is of lesser value – for something more valuable but not guaranteed.

Sparrows land on a woman's hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin.

Sparrows land on a woman’s hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Paul Zinken/dpa | Paul Zinken

im Handumdrehen

In English, you might talk about something happening “in the twinkling of an eye” if it passes very quickly. In German, the equivalent speedy movement is a turning hand.

Example:

Das Problem haben wir im Handumdrehen gelöst.

We solved the problem in no time.

Jemanden auf den Arm nehmen

If you want to talk about someone being deceived in German, you would refer to them being pulled by the arm, rather than by the leg as you might in English.

The saying refers to the naivety of children, who are easily pulled by the arm and are also (generally) more gullible.

Examples:

Dieser Witzbold hat schon sehr viele auf den Arm genommen.

This joker has already taken a lot of people for a ride.

in den sauren Apfel beißen

A woman bites into an apple.

A woman bites into an apple. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

When Germans want to express having to do something unpleasant but nevertheless necessary, they talk about biting into a sour apple rather than a bullet.

Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig tanzen

The joy of eating your cake (but sadly not being able to have it, too) is replaced in German with the phrase “One can’t dance at two weddings at once” to express the frustrating truth that you can’t enjoy two desirable, but mutually exclusive, things.

Ohne Fleiß, kein Preis

A less severe version of the English “no pain, no gain”, this German idiom literally means “without diligence, no price.”

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