Word Nerd: 10 German loanwords that English is never giving back

11 Mar

When stepping out of your comfort zone to study abroad, learning a new language is often one of the major reasons. At least it was for me when I traveled westward from Germany as a foreign exchange student to spend a year at an American high-school. For me, learning a language in a classroom, online, or in self-study often gets tedious unless you get to test it out on native speakers or even better, on the ground.

You probably agree that the first phrases and greetings are usually quickly learned; especially when the new language one is learning is related to one’s own. Did you know that there are over 6,000 different languages spoken in the world which actually derive from only three root languages: the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic languages?

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Learning English as a native German speaker, I quickly figured out that both  are  West Germanic languages from the Indo-European language family. Hence, it came as no surprise that both languages share many cognates – words that have the same root and therefore look and sound similar even though they belong to different languages. True cognates have the same, or similar, definitions in both languages, e.g. the German word “Haus” is a cognate to the English word “house.”

Unfortunately, I also learned quickly that relying on these similarities isn’t foolproof. For the many cognates I found, I also learned that there are false cognates – words that look similar but have different meanings, e.g. the German word “bald” meaning “soon” which to the English speaker translates to “hairless.”  (So when I say “Bis bald” I am hoping to see you soon…not commenting on your hairstyle!)

In the beginning, I might have been overwhelmed by the newness of it all, struggling to make sense of not only a new language, but also the new cultural context, and never-ending new experiences that came my way as I traveled the world. I realized that language is much more than the words in a dictionary or a rule-book; it is shaped by people and by their experiences over time. Learning English as a German speaker opened my mind up to not only a new language but also the history that shaped its  use today – in my case, it was the stories of the many Germans before me who had arrived in America through waves of migrations over the last 400 years and left  their mark on the English language. With Germans settling in America, German words – known as loanwords (leihwörter,) started getting integrated into the English language.  

Below are 10 of my favourite leihwörter, first translated literally, and then as per the Oxford English Dictionary, followed by a sentence that you and I would use on ground. Besides earning a bunch of brownie points with my English teacher, discovering these loanwords helped me ease my journey into mastering and enjoying the (American) English language.

1. Angst – German: fear, panic, anxiety; English: a strong feeling of anxiety about life in general.
Angst is what you feel when you decide to uproot yourself and study abroad.

2. Wanderlust – German: the longing to wander / travel / roam around, near and far; English: a strong desire to travel

Wanderlust is a gene commonly found in those who yearn to study, live or travel abroad.

3. Weltanschauung – German: the way we view the world; English: a particular philosophy or view of life; the world view of an individual or group.

An international student graduates not only with a degree but also weltanschauung – that unique ability to see the world from different angles.

4. Heimweh – German: the pain for home; English: the distress one feels when being homesick (not to be confused with the happy feeling of nostalgia)

Those moments in The Lord of the Rings, when Sam is overcome by  heimweh, are the ones that moved me the most.

5. Dopperlgänger – German: double walker; English: an apparition or double of a living person – a ‘doppelganger’ is someone who looks spookily like you, but isn’t a twin. Also referred to as a type of a ghost or a shadow of oneself!

We all are said to have a doppelgänger but are often surprised when we find him/her halfway across the globe!

6. Hinterland – German: the land ‘behind’; English: An area lying beyond what is visible or known; The remote areas of a country away from the coast or the banks of major rivers.

I am always drawn to the big cities, but not so much the hinterland.

7. Kaputt – German: not working, broken; English: Broken and useless; no longer working or effective.

My brain is often kaput after a long day spent practicing a new language – kaput but happy!

8. Verboten – German: forbidden; English: something that is not allowed to be said or done, something that is inappropriate or taboo.

Chewing gum in Singapore, sunbathing in the nude in Spain, bringing a gun to a BBQ in Germany are all  verboten!

9. Schadenfreude – German: Schaden is ‘harm’, Freude is ‘joy’ – to laugh at somebody else’s mishap. (English): Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

Letting people gossip in a language they think you don’t understand, and joining in suddenly, calls for a touch of schadenfreude. 

10. Über – German: over, above, across (and so much more – go ahead and google it, its uber-cool), English:
1. referring to an outstanding or supreme example of a person or a thing: an uber-babe.
2. To a great or extreme degree; an uber-cool bar.

Honestly, you don’t need to be an Übermensch aka super human (yup, mensch is German too) to learn a new language!

Any interesting German words you think we’ve missed? Email us or drop a comment below.


Author: Julia Regul Singh has a master’s degree in urban planning and urban design from the Technical University Hamburg-Harburg (Germany) and a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Bayreuth (Germany). Julia attended Columbia University as part of her masters on a scholarship from the German government. After graduating, she worked as an Urban Planner and Urban Designer in Germany and New York City before turning her hand to writing. In 2010, the Urban Crayon Press published her first book – Boris the Bench. In 2015, her novel Leap of Faith was published by Rupa Publications. Julia currently splits her time between New York City, New Delhi and Bielefeld.

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