Mind your Ps and … X’s?

These three letters might trip the learned native English speaker out. Here’s how not to incur some Pseudo-Xenophobie.


We don’t need that initial P at all in our $10 English words of Greek origin, do we?

  • Psilocybin
  • Pseudo-science
  • Psoriasis
  • Psychotherapy

We just ignore that silly P and hiss out the S as if it were the first letter.

Well, Germans don’t roll that way. They are principally opposed to slackers, and that applies to letters getting a free ride in words. 1 This means you’ve got to pronounce that P. Don’t overthink it — this is a sound you already make effortlessly in English words like

  • Alps
  • Capsize
  • Chopsticks
  • Cyclops2
  • Ellipsis
  • Gypsies
  • Tramps
  • Thieves Pimps
  • Upset

With a little practice, you can make that plosive-sibilant combination from a dead stop. Don’t let that P schwarzfahren — make it earn it!


Also beware Pt, in German words like Ptolemäus and Pterodactylus. Same rules apply as with Ps!

But why do we pronounce the P in our word “helicopter?” Blame the French.


X is easy when it’s bringing two syllables together. How about at the start of a word? In German, don’t pronounce a word-initial X like you would in English (namely, a voiced sibilant).

  • Xavier3
  • Xylem
  • Xylophone
  • Xenomorph
  • Xenon

Pronounce that word-intial X just as if it were wedged between two syllables…

  • Alexis
  • Baxter
  • Coaxing
  • Dixieland
  • Huxley
  • Toxics4

… and you’ll draw attention to your impressive vocabulary, not any foreign accent:

  • Xanthangummi
  • Xerxes
  • Xerographie
  • Xenophobie
  • Xing
  1. Barring a few exceptions. []
  2. Hmm, do we pronounce that P because it is not word-initial? []
  3. Like “Javier?” []
  4. Ooh, a two-fer []

Kann der Mond bumsen?

I was taking some meeting minutes with a colleague yesterday. We did the whole meeting German — it was all native speakers bis auf Yours Truly, so there was no reason not to. But we wanted to record the decisions and action plans in English, since the wider audience is not likely to be just German-speakers. This happens pretty frequently where I work.

I noticed we were using plenty of Denglish (that is also a fact of life in my line of work), and for a distraction at the end of a tiring day I asked about the gender of all those English words we’d employed in the discussion:

  • die Farm (as opposed to der Bauernhof)
  • der Level (as opposed to die Ebene or die Schicht)
  • der View (as opposed to die Sicht or die Maske)
  • die Mail, because die Nachricht (but some say das Mail)

I got faux ornery1 at my colleague. I asked him, accusingly, “so how did the entire German Rasse2 collectively decide which gender to assign to which words you imported from my native language you obviously prefer over perfectly usable equivalent terms in your own Muttersprache?

His answer: Continue reading

  1. Pronounced fo zorneREE []
  2. He cringed, and I admit to delighting in that. []
"BNSF 5350 20040808 Prairie du Chien WI" by User Slambo on en.wikipedia (same as Slambo here) - Photo by Sean Lamb (Slambo). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“Es zieht!”

What does, exactly? Get used to this expression around Germans. They, painting with a very broad cultural brush here, are sensitive to moving air, for whatever reason:

  1. They are convinced a current of moving air causes temperature differentials and affects circulation, resulting in (unwanted) stiffness.
  2. They regret having teased that ugly girl who grew up to be a witch and is now likely to shoot them in the back with magic. No, really: there’s a German Wikipedia entry about how mysterious, sudden backpain was blamed on black magic.
  3. They think that moving air — too much or not enough of it — is the root of all not immediately explainable ailments, particularly the upper-respiratory kind.

If you ask a modern German “What’s up with your culturally pervasive notions about moving air?” they tend to respond along the lines of #1 or #3. But, if they are honest with themselves, it’s #2 above causing the most concern. Continue reading

Determined to determine determination: festlegen and feststellen

If you work in German, you’ve probably encountered these words before: festlegen and feststellen. While they both ostensibly translate to “to determine” in English, and they have a lot of other similarities, they definitely have distinct meanings.

Let’s start with what they have in common:

  1. First off, they’re both transitive and regular.1 Transitive means means the verb needs an object. Regular means you can count on them to follow conjugation rules — in this case, for all persons and tenses. So no need to memorize the quirks of these two verbs — es gibt keine!
  2. They are both separable-prefix verbs. You know, those ones whose prepositional component kind of breaks off from the rest of verb and waits patiently at the end of the clause2, preventing your conversational partner from jumping in and prematurely interjecting. German Wikipedia has some good examples of separable prefix verbs and their permutations if you need a refresher.

  3. You can nounify them both with -ung, which is great, because then you automatically know their gender. -ung is reknowned for its reliable femininity. 3

  4. And they both can be translated as “to determine.” Whoa, nellie. Hold up there a minute.

To determine doesn’t always mean the same thing in English. Learning festlegen and feststellen has even helped me to see that some of its meanings are even contradictory. Continue reading

  1. These are not unrelated attributes, but that’s another post. []
  2. That is, unless we’re talking about subordination, natch. Separable prefixes are afraid of subordinating conjunctions, and meekly reattach to the front of the main verb in subordinate clauses. []
  3. See what I did there? []

Doing the deed, indeed: tatsächlich in der Tat

Do you know how to express the English verb “to do” in German? Most often the word you want is machen, but there is another one you should get comfortable with, even if its derivations are more prevalent than usages in its pure form.

Learn tun. It’s very useful. Here’s enough to get you started; Continue reading

Umlauts are not that scary

I think umlauts must be a source of stress for a ton of native English speakers trying not to sound like one of those Ben & Jerry’s commercials at the movie theater.

Here’s what I mean, if you haven’t been in a while: Continue reading

Stellen Sie bitte die Einstellungseinstellung ein.

There’s a lot going on in the title here, but without some context, it’s not clear at all what. Continue reading

Verbal Secrets

Shhhhhh. Keep this under your hat. Some German verbs are living a lie, hiding a terrible Geheimnis.

This is a lesson from the VHS. Some verbs objectify a little oddly for our tastes as native English speakers. Saying “*Ich helfe dich” would earn you an urgent stage-whisper from the instructor: “Psscht! Was ist das Geheimnis von helfen?!1

For some of these verbs, you can sort of see a reason for another object in the English translation’s use of a preposition. For others, there is just no discernible reason for these verbs to force their objects into case-drag. Continue reading

  1. Oddly, the German subtle attention-getter is not “Pßt!” []


The CH combination gets heavy rotation in German. It might be why German has a reputation among foreign speakers for sounding “harsher” than other languages — though this foreign speaker does not share that impression.

Maybe a closer look will help smooth over the rough edges. Continue reading

Intransigent Intransitives

Do you feel like a Depp when you get your past tense verbs wrong? If you’re lucky, your colleagues will gently correct you.

ich: “Du hast mich aus den Gedanken *gereißt!”1

sie: (sheepishly, as if it were her fault) “Gerissen.”

I am thankful for those colleagues who have the courage to suggest a correction. I hate needing one, but I hate that less than finding out I needed one, but didn’t get it. Continue reading

  1. I got reisen and reißen confused. []