German is known for being a language with extremely long, but descriptive, words (Donau-Dampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, anyone?). It’s true they may be hard to learn, but once you understand how all the words were combined (put together) to form one concept, it makes you wonder what the English word is. In some cases, there is no English version of these untranslatable German words.
One of my favorite aspects (parts) of any language are the bits that are difficult, or impossible, to translate. I believe that these words are what truly give a language their flavor (color, character) and make them unique (special, different). I love the idea of there being emotions or ideas that can be expressed in one language, but not another.
Here are five of the most untranslatable German words, and no, Donau-Dampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän is not one of them. Check out these German loan words or also this post on German loan words.
If you spend any time in Germany at all, you’re going to hear the word doch thrown around. It’s a word I’ve only started using recently because I was warned by a professor once that if you use doch too liberally (often, much), you end up sounding like a Valley Girl who says “like” all the time.
Doch is a word used to emphasize (make stronger) a point in a sentence. It is also used to contradict something said. For example, if you put doch in the middle of a sentence, it strengthens the meaning. Kind of like “come on,” or “really.” For example, “Come doch to our house to have a cup of tea. We insist!”
It is also used to contradict (say something against, say the opposite to) someone. So if someone says to you, “You didn’t practice your English last night,” you can return with “Doch!” to mean, “Yes, I did!”
This is a tricky word that takes some getting used to, but it’s handy to know once you get the hang of it!
Although Schwärmerei might sound like one of those tough, angry-ish German words, it’s really not! As it’s one of those untranslatable German words, it has instead been co-opted into English, but with a slightly different meaning.
Schwärmerei originally had to do with swarming bees (can you see the word ‘swarm’ in it?), but has since changed its meaning to anything having to do with intense feeling and excitement. In German, the word still has to do with intense excitement or feeling, but also refers to the notion of puppy love.
Schadenfreude is one of the newest adoptees into the English language, and boy is it a good one.
Have you ever not really liked someone, and when something bad happened to them, you felt a little bit of joy about that?
That, my friends, is Schadenfreude. So the next time some driver cuts you off on the highway and speeds off, then 10 minutes later you see that they’ve been pulled over by the police, you have a word for that feeling you have.
Oh, Kehrwoche. I’ve heard a lot of people complain over the years about Kehrwoche.
Kehrwoche is the idea that the tenants (the people who live there) of a building- not usually a huge building, but maybe one that has between 6 and 10 apartments… otherwise they would have an apartment manager- take turns cleaning the common areas of their building, including hallways and stairwells.
The roster (list with the responsible person) rotates so that every tenant (or apartment) has a turn, then starts over. It quite literally translates as “sweeping-week.”
No one I’ve met actually likes Kehrwoche, but will do it because it’s necessary, and so as to not get a bad reputation of being selfish or lazy among their neighbors. It’s really the fairest and cheapest way to keep the apartment building clean. (I guess they have converted me!)
We’ve all been there. We’ve been sitting at a bar with our friends, a few beers deep (you have already had a few drinks), and suddenly it seems like the best idea in the world to text your ex or buy a car. This is a Schnapsidee (literally schnapps-idea). It’s the kind of idea that is only a good idea when you’re drunk.
It’s one of my favorite untranslatable German words for an extremely dumb or idiotic idea because sometimes a true Schnapsidee makes life a little more interesting.
Do you have any untranslatable German words we should focus on in another post? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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Looking for more grammar? Try Tricky Adjectives and Adverbs, when to use Which and That, Order of Adjectives, Its vs It’s, and Present Continuous tense!
Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, and also a yoga instructor. Though she is convinced by the concept of Kehrwoche, she does feel a little bit of Schadenfreude when she sees a particular neighbor of hers sweeping the stairs!
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