Isst der Osterhase zu Ostern Obst von der Ostsee? Oft!

It’s getting to be that time of year again, when the days are longer (Dank der Umstellung auf Sommerzeit), das Gras ist grüner, and everybody wants to wish you Frohe Ostern!

Let us embrace the cycle of rebirth and reconciliation by getting the pronunciation right.

You probably learned that die Post and die Ostsee are pronounced with a short ‘o,’ kind of the same vowel sound you hear generic British people use on the word ‘box.’ I always thought that was because of the two consonants following it.

But it’s a much longer ‘o’ sound in words like Obst and Ostern and their derivatives, and they have two or even three consonants following the vowel. What’s up with that?

Who knows. Maybe it’s one of the (thankfully few) areas of German that will not be governed by rules.

Here are some more potentially tricky Pärchen:

Long Short
die Geste gesture die Gäste (der Gast) guests
das Gefäß vessel zuverlässig reliable
das Buch book die Bucht bay
jemand sucht someone searches for die Sucht addiction
der Schoß lap schoss shot, preterite of schießen
koksen to do cocaine Oktober October
das Frühstück breakfast das Frühstück breakfast

Some of them are easier to spot than others; particularly Frühstück, with its vowel-lengthening h and shortening ck, seems logisch. If you’re on board with the spelling reforms of the 1990s, the ß vs. ss thing can help you identify long/short dichotomies, provided it’s not an all caps setting. 1

The guidelines for short and long vowel sounds seem rather unzuverlässig at best. Maybe you have to treat these little nuggets of German wisdom like Ostereier and scoop them up wherever you can find them.

Share the ones you’ve found in the comments, please!

Frohe Ostern!

Editorial note: a tip o’ the hat tip to @smarterGerman for some corrections to a previous version of this post.

  1. ß is never a capital letter! []

Stake your claim with verbal building blocks

Many learners of German appreciate it for its stackable properties. You can link otherwise unrelated concepts together into one word, and if you recognize the individual pieces, very often the sum total meaning of the word is a snap. Let’s take Inanspruchnahme as an example. You may have seen it in the fine print of various types of service contracts: insurance, telecommunications, and the like.

in Anspruch nehmen

Inanspruchnahme is a nounified verb1. In Anspruch nehmen means “to make use of,” “lay claim upon,” or in the legal sense, “to exercise (a right).” Let’s divide and conquer, starting off verkehrt with nehmen.

“Hey, do you need help moving to your new apartment this weekend?”

“Nein, danke, im ersten Schritt nicht, aber vielleicht nächstes Wochenende nehme ich das tolle Angebot gerne in Anspruch.”

The construction in Anspruch, even though it’s always written separately from nehmen, works just like a separable-prefix: the main part of the verb (nehmen) goes where you’d expect in the sentence structure.2


Nehmen means “to take” and is an i→ie stem-changer in the present tense, so you know it’s going to have a checkered past, as well.

ich nehme wir nehmen
du nimmst ihr nehmt
er/sie/es nimmt sie/Sie nehmen
ich nahm wir nahmen
du nahmst ihr nahmt
er/sie/es nahm sie/Sie nahmen

And for good measure:

Partizip Perfekt
haben genommen

But it’s really the preterite stem that’s useful to us here: nahm. Throw an -e on it and consider it the nounified form of “to take,” or perhaps “taking.” You find that it in other useful contexts, as well:

German Denglisch English
die Abnahme take down weight loss, decrease, acceptance
die Aufnahme take up recording, admission (to a hospital)
die Ausnahme take out exception
die Einnahme take in ingestion
die Kenntnisnahme take notice attention
die Stellungnahme take a stand taking of a position (in a debate)
die Teilnahme take part participation
die Übernahme takeover
die Zunahme take toward weight gain, increase

der Anspruch

Likewise Anspruch is another verb hiding in noun’s clothing. You may recognize the verb ansprechen as “to address” as in “to speak to someone,” but did you know it also means “to address (a problem or topic)”? If we tromp through the conjugation patterns of sprechen, (it is also an i→ie stem-changer) we won’t find a mention of Spruch.3 But you find sprechen in one of its nounified forms all over the courtroom:

  • der Ausspruch4
  • der Einspruch
  • der Freispruch
  • der Urteilsspruch
  • der Widerspruch

der Anspruch is a claim, entitlement, or demand, and something that is anspruchsvoll is demanding. Surely you know someone with an inflated sense of entitlement: das ist ein anspruchsvoller Mensch.


What’s the point of the in here then? We’ve established nahme, Spruch, and Anspruch.

Well, in is the activator. Your option, resource, alternative, can of Whoop-Ass, etc. exists, theoretically, whether you make use of it or not. You need to take it off the shelf and get it ready for deployment. You do that when you take it in Anspruch.


ansprechen + nehmen

Anspruch + nahme5

Then fire it up with in as the catalyst.

in + anspruch + nahme = Inanspruchnahme

Thus Inanspruchnahme is the act of availing one’s self of something.

In the spirit of putting it all together, and equipping one’s self for future glory, here’s a familiar usage of Sprach.

Now go make use of your new tools.

  1. So is ‘nounification.’ They’re real words if we say they are. []
  2. that is to say, in the second position in main clauses, or reattached at the end of a Nebensatz. Except that it’s not even fully reattached by writing convention. []
  3. The stem changes in the preterite forms to a and o in the past participle. Keep reading for a subtle shout-out to sprach. []
  4. Not to be confused with die Aussprache! []
  5. nahme is not a noun on its own; it needs a preposition or other noun when it goes out in noun drag. []

Bad Gender and Backwards Traffic

das Geschlecht

Is there anything inherently bad about gender?

No, of course not!

says the modern, well-educated thinker.1

And yet, one can’t help but shake the impression that gender, or at least the physiological aspects, have a negative tinge to them. If one is a foreign observer of German, that is.

How’s that? Because Geschlecht.

“Bad!” leaps out at you from the German word for “gender.” Or “sex,” in some contexts.2 Schlecht is one of those words you taught yourself to stumble through upon arrival ins Vaterland while explaining your lack of language prowess to the nice border control people at the airport.

Entschuldigung, mein Deutsch ist sehr schlecht.

And when you spray them with that combo of CH and T at the end, you’ll have convinced them.3 See here for help with that CH-precipitation.

But I digress. Let’s come back to gender: what can we conclude about it? Is it truly linked to bad, evil, sub-par-ness or other negativity, somewhere deep in the psyche of the typical native speaker?

“No, of course not — not anymore, at least.” We’d like to think that. But consider that the last bastion of defense of your Geschlechtsteile, unless you’ve taken measures to the contrary, are nearby, both physiologically and emotionally: your Schamhaare — “shame hairs.”

Reluctance to Drop Trou

Have you ever caught a German colleague in a mistake he’s made and was hoping no one would notice? If he acknowledges his misfortune at all, you may hear him dejectedly admit:

Mei, da muss ich wohl die Hose runterlassen…

This would imply that he’s not really looking forward to exposing his bits. It’s an expression about facing up to your shame, which is normally kept properly stowed in your pants.4

der Verkehr

It means “traffic,” as a noun. But watch out — when it’s a past participle serving as an adverb or adjective, as in verkehrt, it means “backwards,” and usually denotes something did not go as planned. Kind of like how “backwards” as an adjective in English implies developmental difficulty.

der Geschlechtsverkehr

Literally, “gender traffic,” it’s a cold, clinical way of describing…yeah, just what you thought. Though one of the translations for Verkehr I found was “communion,” which at first sounds kind of nice, until I was reminded of a certain sacrament from my Catholic upbringing.

  1. “Except perhaps that our widely-accepted Western notion of ‘Two Sizes Fit All’ seems increasingly outdated, disenfranchising, and less fun,” s/he pondered internally. []
  2. Whether those are really the same thing is certainly not something I’m prepared to dive into in this blog, let alone this post. []
  3. This is the real reason for the plexiglass divder at the passport booths. []
  4. Here we mean the British kind. []

Mind your Ps and … X’s?

These few letters might trip the learned native English speaker up. Here’s how not to incur some Pseudo-Xenophobie. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

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