Tag Archives: German

Making sense of words that don’t exist

Some days ago I had a sensation in my eyes which I referred to as ziepen (tweaking) when I told a (German) friend. She got what I meant even though she didn’t actually know the word and it would not normally be used in this way. I wondered:

How did I come up with ‘ziepen’ if it wasn’t meant to be used in such a context?

Ziepen describes ‘the brief pain through pulling of hair’. The meaning of ‘brief pulling pain’ can probably be transferred easily, e.g. in my situation to my eye.

How did she know what the word meant for me, i.e. what kind of sensation I was trying to describe, without actually knowing it?

New words are often deduced from words with similar meanings, giving them a similar sound pattern, which belongs to the study of phonesthemic patterns. A phonestheme is a sound (sequence) that suggests a certain meaning and has the tendency to show up in neologisms. Phonesthemes are often initial, but can also be final or even medial. The remainder of the word may not itself be a morpheme. (Waugh, 1994) Some examples:

  • fl– (often expresses movement): flick, fly, flip, flourish, flee, flop…
  • sn– (found in nose-related words): sniff, snore, snot, sneer, sneeze…

The German cluster zw (cf. tw in English) is generally related to the number two: zwei (two), zwischen (between), Zwilling (twin)… However, there are several exceptions, e.g. zwirbeln (twirl) and zucken (twitch). Although these don’t carry the specific meaning (two), they do seem to be somewhat semantically related.

Studies have shown that when asked to invent/interpret new words, participants look at phonesthemes in their language to follow a predictive pattern. This could explain why my friend was able to tell what I meant without actually knowing the word: She might have associated ziepen with zucken which describes a brief, usually involuntary movement.

In general, how do we agree on words for particular sensations while we can’t tell what they feel like for anyone else, and how do we learn them?

When we learn new words we understand their meanings by, for example, being pointed at the ‘thing’ or the ‘action’ they (nouns and verbs) describe. When it comes to internal experiences like perception it all gets a lot fussier.

How do you know that the pain I experience is actually painful? This touches upon linguistics, philosophy and biology. All our knowledge comes in through our senses which are subjective and unreliable (as revealed by the many ways in which they can be manipulated and deceived, e.g. hallucinations and optical illusions) and truth is defined by language which is more of an agreement than an objective state.

Pears (1971) explains that an empiricist view on sensations involves accepting that the general meaning of e.g. ‘pain’ involves two aspects: 1) the set of teaching links 2) the inner reference (private sensation). Only a primitive empiricist would think it only involves the latter – a language only about private sensation would be unteachable. He says that “our language of sensations is not really teachable, and we do not ever really communicate about such matters” (p.158). So, while we can ‘teach’ nouns and verbs that can be pointed at in the world, we cannot teach words that have their meaning lying within ourselves. We all live in our own worlds, we can never know for sure about other people’s sensations, so I guess instead of being ‘taught’ we can only infer such information from cues: When I bleed, I’m hurt and I’m in pain. So when you bleed, you are probably experiencing pain too.
Yet it is to note that pain comes in a whole lot of different forms, as you may notice when you see your doctor and try to find words to explain what’s hurting you. That’s where neologisms and phonesthemic patterns might come handy…

It is incredible how we manage to communicate things we don’t have words for, by using common words or inventing new ones. Life is miraculously mysterious and mysteriously miraculous!


  • Oxford handbook of Wittgenstein (2011). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pears, D. (1971). Wittgenstein. London: Fontana.
  • Waugh, L. (1994). Degrees of Iconicity in the Lexicon. Journal of Pragmatics, 22(1), 55-70.

Making off

I have quite a few Eastern European friends, and sometimes I use English words that they don’t know, and I have to explain them. They are usually the more literary or figurative words, which may not be included in a beginner’s or even intermediate language course. The problem is that many thousands of such words, even if they are quite infrequent, are nevertheless entirely appropriate to use in everyday conversation when called for, and all native speakers know them.

 Because of its peculiar history of having Germanic, French, Latin and sometimes Greek or other strata in the same lexical fields, and because of its worldwide dominance and use in a vast array of fields, it is far from unlikely that English has the largest and richest vocabulary of any language ever known. Royal, regal and kingly stand side by side and are not entirely interchangeable in meaning and ‘feel’, whereas a language such as German has just königlich. Languages such as French and Hindi have two main strata, the native development and then forms based on older, classical versions of themselves (Latin, Sanskrit), but English is unusual in having three such strata, and in having gone from a position of subjugation that it was semi-creolized with French to such a position of prestige that it can dominate and influence with loanwords almost all other languages on the planet, while still retaining its cheery promiscuous ease in taking its pick of words from those languages, from zeitgeist (German) to wiki (Hawai‘ian).

 So if I say ‘dastardly’, ‘ominous’ or ‘cower’ or ‘hold sway’ or ‘teeter’ in conversation with my friends, I suddenly see a look of incomprehension and have to stop to explain, which is sometimes very different. Living with non-native speakers of English is probably good training for being a lexicographer though!

 It is sometimes daunting and depressing when one considers how vast the vocabulary of English is, especially when I try to learn other languages (at the moment Russian fills me with despair…). I am studying Gaelic and know it fairly well, but reading old poetry I sometimes have to look up half the words: the traditional bards had enormous vocabularies, and they lived in a world where everyone was immersed in these words all their lives and knew what they meant. Such richness in Gaelic is fading fast, it is hard to find in any speaker under 60 years old, as the language gives way to English. But if it is any comfort (agus is beag an sòlas a th’ ann dhomhsa—nach eil de dh’eanchainn ann an ceann duine a dh’fhòghnas airson dà chànan beartach taobh ri taobh? — cha jean ee cosney ping dhyt, agh chamoo nee ee coayl ping dhyt), they are replacing Gaelic with a language that probably has the richest and most fertile idiom ever known. (This is not to say Gaelic is inferior; it is still very, very rich: but a language that has millions of speakers all communicating with each other by new-fangled means never dreamed of in other ages, and drawing from so many sources, will inevitably be off the scale as regards fertility and richness of vocabulary). Of course, Anglophones often boast about their language, and claim it is the most expressive on earth: but in certain respects there may be a grain of truth in it. English is certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing language to me personally (Gaelic or Welsh would be at the top of the list), and other languages may be more expressive than English in certain contexts—for example, I find Celtic languages much better for poetry than English, because in the latter the Romance and Germanic elements jar with each other in verse unless the author is very careful*—but I nevertheless maintain that English is probably the all-round most expressive and subtle language in existence. The language capacity in all humans is equal, and languages all have equal potential, and a base line of expressiveness that is the same for all languages (probably the level to which children automatically take pidgins when they make them into creoles), but nonetheless it is possible that because of various external circumstances, languages may not actually be equal in all respects.

 (*For example, I love John Donne but still think he would sound much better in Welsh or German, or even French.)

 Anyway, to get back to my L2 English-speaking friends. One of them is currently reading The Lord of the Rings (a wonderful book for demonstrating one facet of the greatness of English—Tolkien has a very good grasp of the beauty, subtlety and simplicity of earthy native and low-register or register-neutral English words and expressions. His language is generally not consciously archaic, but neither is it modern: it is timeless, as if the author was trying to capture an element of the genius of English which runs all the way through it synchronically and diachronically). My friend says he learnt the expression ‘make off’ (as in ‘depart’) from LOTR.

 This made me think about this expression and related ones. It is a phrasal verb, another thing that strongly characterizes English (and also German and Gaelic, but not Romance). There are many different types of phrasal verbs in English, including ones formed with prepositions and adverbs, and ones that are separable and inseparable. Incidentally, I have a book called The Oxford Dictionary of English Phrasal Verbs, which classifies and lists thousands of such verbs. I found this tome in a small bookshop in another town where it had been sitting so long on a shelf near the sunny window that the red on its spine had been bleached to a sickly pink. After eyeing the book on several visits over several months, I finally could not resist any longer and purchased it. One of the stated aims of the book is to be a guide to L2 learners, since phrasal verbs are one of the trickiest parts of English for foreigners.

‘Make off’ is not very frequent, and has a slightly jaunty air, and may be a tad archaic; though it is often used to mean ‘steal’, as in ‘He made off with the cutlery’. More commonly, one says ‘set off’, or ‘set out’, which are more or less synonymous except that ‘set out’ is more purposeful, and can be used in a non-literal sense: ‘He set out to kill his wife’ can mean either literally that he moved from one place to another in order to kill her, or else figuratively that he had the intention to kill her and began planning how to do it, whereas ‘he set off to kill his wife’ can only have the first meaning. Also note that ‘set about’ means almost the same as ‘set out’ in this non-literal sense, but they are syntactically different in the complement they take: one can say ‘he set about ruining my life’, but not ‘*he set about to ruin my life’; and one can say ‘he set out to ruin my life’ but not ‘*he set out ruining my life’. No wonder it’s confusing!

Much, much more could be said on this topic, but this is enough to show how complicated English is (and all other languages), and what a chore it is to learn all the subtleties. At the end of the day all you can do is keep an ear out for new things, and read, read, read a wide range of text types and look things up in dictionaries, no matter how dull or tiresome that is. However you do it, reading The Lord of the Rings is no bad place to start. I must remember to start reading The Hobbit in German again…


A wengerl ondas*

*ein bisschen anders in Standard German (a bit different)

I remember me sitting in front of Dr Bert Vaux and another professor in my interview at Cambridge. I told them that I had lived in Austria for some years and they subsequently asked me about the differences between Standard German (SG) and Austrian German (AG). I replied with ‘different pronunciation, some different words and also the grammar differs a bit’. When they asked for examples, I had to pass. I never really got my head around really looking at the differences. So why not now, might come handy for those of you going on exchange to Austria next year.

AG is a standard variety of SG used in Austria. In everyday life, most Austrians speak different dialects of AG. AG mainly differs in lexicon, pronunciation and grammar from SG. Here some differences that I noticed myself.

(Always find the SG word first, then the AG one. Bold = what I would usually say. Cursive text following (AG) bold word(s) = why I might use this variant)

There are several words in AG that German people will most likely have troubles with understanding, for example:

  • langweilig > fad (maybe cos it’s shorter?) (boring)
  • Hefe > Germ (yeast)
  • Sahne > Obers (cream)
  • Januar > Jänner (January)
  • Kartoffel > Erdapfel (potato)
  • Rührei > Eierspeise (scrambled eggs)
  • Quark > Topfen (curd)
  • Guten Tag > Grüß Gott (depends where I am) (“Good Day” > “Greet God” Hello)

AG commonly inserts consonants (epenthesis) in compound words. For example “Zugverspätung” (train+lateness) becomes “Zugsverspätung”.
When constructing the perfect tenses, AG uses the auxiliary verb ‘sein’ not only for verbs of movement but also for verbs expressing a state; so instead of saying “Ich habe gesessen” they’d say “Ich bin gesessen” (“I have/am sat”).
Grammatical gender varies little, but there are a couple of differences, like: das vs der Gummi, das vs der Brösel, das vs die Cola, das E-Mail vs die E-Mail, der vs das Spray. There are occasionally also dialectal differences; e.g. der/die Butter, der/die Zwiebel

Many Austrians do not distinguish between p and b, t and d and sometimes also k and g.
The suffix –ig is not pronounced // but /ik/ or/ig/ (can’t decide just now, I think my pronunciation varies. Nevertheless, it feels ‘nicer’ to produce the // sound at the end of a word).
Loanwords often differ in stress and pronunciation (e.g. /çi:na:/ > /ki:na:/ (probably because I connect /çi:na:/ a little more to my name)).
Some Austrians pronounce the prefixes st- and sp- /st/ and /sp/ instead of /scht/ or /schp/ (I remember me and classmates being really annoyed by my Austrian teacher saying ).

So yeah, now you know a bit (about) Austrian German (so next time you’re in Austria you can show off/make people like you/make people laugh at you 😉 )

Appendix: I grew up in Germany and moved to Austria at the age of 11 and lived there until I was 17. I speak SG, at least in terms of pronunciation and lexicon (mostly). However, it seems that AG had quite an effect on my grammar. I wonder what my German will be like after a few more years in the UK (>the effects of English)…


About a word that’s been used on 9 websites, according to google search results. 10 with this post.*

A vivid discussion on facebook yesterday. I wrote “ich popp kurz aufm Nachhauseweg vorbei“ on a friend’s wall. Literally “I pop briefly on-the way-home over” meaning “I’ll briefly pop in on my way home”. A friend (who learns German) asked whether “pop by”, i.e. my German “vorbeipoppen” had entered the German lexicon. No. That is just my screwed-up German (see this post).
In fact, when you say “poppen”, Germans think of something completely different (refer to this translation please). For me, however, this denotation has been ‘replaced’ by the English one.
I frequently borrow words or proverbs from English when the German one doesn’t ‘pop into’ my head; I make the word obey phonological and morphological principles so that it sounds more German, or translate the proverb literally (which usually ends up making no or little sense [e.g. “I am looking forward to” – you’d never say “Ich schaue vorwärts/nach vorn zu…”]). Interestingly though, I am not saying to pop in” (“hineinpoppen” I suppose, since “hinein” is the only translation for “in” that sounds somewhat right in this expression) in German, rather “to pop over” (which wouldn’t be used in the above context). Any ideas why?
In the end of the day, no matter how much I enjoy creating neologisms, it is rather unlikely that “vorbeipoppen” will anytime soon enter the German lexicon. Not only because of the current meaning of “poppen” but also because “to pop in/round” is used in Britain and anglicisms in German tend to come from American English…

Ms J. (it was her wall I posted on and she was part of that discussion), I really think you should NOT get on that plane tomorrow – can’t you see what’s happening to my German? You need to stay to keep my language skills alive!

No. I don’t have skype. Actually, I don’t even have internet access, you know. Seems as if you really have to stay!

If you do leave anyway, do me the favour and use vorbeipoppen and let me know how people react 😉 (I expect increasingly more google search results as time goes by!) And think of me when you listen to this song that I only like because of that very pop.

*I didn’t include websites containing conjugated forms of “vorbeipoppen”

Another kind of poem

In this dinosaur comic, T-Rex says: “Maybe if you’re writing poetry, you could write a poem with only female nouns and then one with only male nouns, and that could be something, right?

In response to that, I wrote a “German Gender Poem”. Lucky me if you don’t understand it, because it really is not that outstanding (in terms of meaning… I suppose…). According to T-Rex though, alone the fact that it only uses (in this case) masculine nouns should make it kind of brilliant!

Der dahinrottende Mann
Der Hut saß schief auf seinem Kopf,
denn sein Rücken war nicht grad’.
Mit den Zähnen biss er auf ’nen Knopf,
denn er wusst’, bald würd’ er liegen in einem Sarg.
Der Kummer schlug in Schauern zu,
denn sein Abschied nahte rasch.
Sterben würd’ er gar im Nu,
und aus seinem Körper würd’ werden Asch.

Not a massive amount of nouns, but anyway, I tried to use at least one per line.

der Hut, der Kopf, der Rücken, der Zahn, der Knopf, der Saag, der Kummer, der Schauer, der Abschied, der Nu, der Körper, Asche.

Conclusion: Sure, it is possible to write a poem devoted to some ‘gender’. However, I do not believe that even the best poet in the world could write an exceptional poem with only using nouns of one particular gender group…

And for those of you who speak (some) German and are now utterly confused, I should probably admit that I did cheat with that very last word. Die Asche, feminine noun. Eek.

Quote: “German is underlying a verb-final language, but statistically this isn’t the case”

Because Richard encouraged us to BLOG, I’m not posting the following as a comment but as an actual post (my first one). So let me start with; German grammar is really not that bad. It’s actually rather nice in terms of word order because the case morphology allows more word order possibilities than, say English (which lost a great deal of it). But let’s focus on the verb position that Richard was questioning.

In simple sentences, the word order is SVO, just as in English. For example “Ich trinke Wasser” ‘I drink water’. So the conjugated (finite) verb is in the second position (not necessarily second word: “Die zwei bösen Männer klauen Geld” ‘the two bad men steal money’ – all translations are literally).

When you’re dealing with a compound verb, the first part of the verb phrase is in the second position and the second part (either past participle, separable prefix or infinitive) is in the final position. For example: “Ich werde morgen singen” ‘I will tomorrow sing’.

For emphasis, the sentence can start with something other than a subject (“topicalization”), which then comes straight after the verb. No matter what begins the sentence, the verb is always in the second position. For example: “Wasser trinke ich” – ‘water I drink’, “Geld klauen die zwei bösen Männer” – ‘money steal the two bad men’, “Morgen werde ich singen” – ‘Tomorrow will I sing’).

The only cases where the verb doesn’t follow this “second-position-rule” and the word order changes to SOV are in dependent or subordinate clauses. For example: “Das ist Richard, der viel im Internet schreibt.”  ‘This is Richard, who much in the Internet writes’, “Ich tanze, weil ich Tanzen mag” ‘I dance, because I dancing like’.

To cut a long story short:
The classification of German is a little tricky because the verb often consists of two parts that are found at different positions in the sentence (second and last respectively). In subordinate clauses, the subject and verb have a fix position and the parts of the verb cannot be separated (say it was a separable verb such as “anfangen”; in a main clause it would be separated, as in “Ich fange an” – ‘I start’, but in a subordinate clause it wouldn’t, as in “Ich will, dass wir anfangen” – ‘I want that we start’). So frequently the word order of the subordinate clause is taken to be the basic word order, classifying German as an SOV-language.

I hope that this wasn’t confusing but clarifying and that we’re all now agreeing on GG (assuming this stands for German Grammar) being jawsome 🙂