How to become a German

Weier, deutscher Spargel mit glatter Petersilie auf Holztisch

It’s happened! My valuable source of English quirkiness is henceforth lost. I regret to inform you, dear readers, that Mr K, formerly known as ‘My English Husband’, has now reached the ultimate stage of naturalisation. On Wednesday, 6 April 2016, at 11:49 hrs, he bought a Jack Wolfskin all-weather jacket. Meanwhile he has received a ‘welcome-to-the-club’ letter from Angie.

So, I said, ‘So now that you’re a proper German, do some German things! He came up with quite a few. Here’s a to-do list for those among you who are still practicing.

  1. Use ‘Na?’ as a universal greeting.
    Never underestimate the power of this Tardis of a word. It may only have two letters, but depending on the length and intonation of the vowel – which, believe you me, can be stretched to the duration of a cricket match – as well as the facial expression going with it, it can mean anything between Whaddup? and Wipe that cheeky smirk right off your face, you bum! You still owe me an apology for standing me up last Tuesday! Again, German is easier than you think. Some more examples of what ‘na’ may stand for:
English German
Good morning. Na?
How are you? Na?
Fancy seeing you here. Na?
Good to see you. How did your date go last night? Na?
Does that Matjesbrötchen still repeat on you? Na?
How’s work going? Na?


  1. Find something to moan about.
    Anything. There’s always something. The weather: it’s always too hot or too cold. Das gibt’s doch nicht!
  2. Give a stranger a hard time out of the blue.
    Preferably, yell at a child riding his bike on the pavement, ‘Das hier ist ein Bürgersteig und kein Radweg!’
  3. Confirm any piece of information saying ‘Genau!’
    The Germans’ favourite word ever.
  4. Do The Pout.

For more advice, turn to How To Be German In 20 Easy Steps.

Then again, my German husband still drinks his tea with milk and comments on our little one’s bowel movements with ‘My word, what a ripper!’ And, to be fair, he only bought the Jack Wolfskin fashion item at the recommendation of Which? magazine. Perhaps he may still be blog material after all …

See you next week, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

The Pommes Buddha says: Ich habe keine Zeit.

> Audio version


Raven mothers

Garden snail reaches for a drop of dew on the grass

The other night I went out with a new German friend who had not long returned after living in the US for several years. When I asked her how she found life in Germany, she said the most difficult thing to do here was being a mother. I was intrigued and asked her to elaborate …

‘Well,’ she said, ‘in the US both my children went to daycare from the age of six months. Daycare closed at 6pm, and that’s when I picked them up. Once a week, our babysitter would pick them up and put them to bed while my husband and I went out. This was perfectly normal. In Germany, the Kita closes at 5:15pm. If I pick up my daughter at 4:45pm, she’s one of the last children there.’

So we established there was a certain undercurrent of ‘expected motherly duty’ in German society that causes mothers to be extremely hard on themselves – and judgemental about one another. In Germany, it is not uncommon for complete strangers to comment on your childrearing practices.

Another German friend living in Belgium reports that, there, it is perfectly common for your child to go to crèche from the age of three months. This seems to be the case in most European countries. According to the public study Familienleitbilder from 2015 on how parenthood and family are perceived in Germany, more than 80% of Germans reckon it is not okay for an 18-month-old child to be in care for more than 6 hours a day.

We Germans seem to be unable to shed our quintessentially patriarchal image of motherhood. We even have a word for ‘underperforming’ mothers: Rabenmütter.

On the other hand, there may also be surprisingly positive aspects about being a parent in Germany, as American mum Sara Zaske writes in TIME magazine. I recommend Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent for further reading.

Should you ever be tempted to think of yourself as a Rabenmutter, or Rabenvater, I invite you to adopt my four-year-old’s pragmatic view. In an episode of classic cartoon series Biene Maja, a snail, upon urging her young to venture out into the world on their own, was dubbed a Rabenmutter. My daughter cast a skeptical glance at the telly and declared, ‘Das ist keine Rabenmutter, das ist eine Schneckenmutter!’

Next week, learn which classic of film history most Germans don’t know.

The Pommes Buddha says: You’re not a raven mum, you’re a human mum.

> Audio version


The name

Two businesspeople in office with a handshake.

At times, the smallest word can make a world of difference. We’ve looked at the indefinite article before (‘Ich bin ein Berliner’). Today, let’s look at the power of the definite article. Not thrilled? Wait ‘till you meet Birgit!

Imagine you’re a Brit who’s just moved to Germany. On your first day at work, you meet the colleague with whom you’re going to share an office. She smiles at you, extends her right hand and says, ‘Ich bin die Birgit.’ The Birgit??? What Birgit? ‘If she’s the Birgit, why have I never heard of her before,’ you will rightly wonder.

To all other readers, whose native language is not English, it’s helpful to know that, in certain contexts, the definite article can equal a label of universal significance. It denotes something or someone of which or whom there is only one at a time in the world. Like the Dalai Lama, the Pope or the Pommes Buddha.

In colloquial German, however, it is rather common to place the definite article in front of a name. This conveys an air of, often anticipated, familiarity. It makes the situation more casual and the other person feel more at ease. You would never siezen die Birigt. (Compare the once-popular song Ich bin der Martin ‘ne.)

It’s not compulsory, of course. Many Germans use their name without an article. This can be confusing if the name of the person introducing herself sounds like it starts with a definite article. If you hear, ‘Ich bin Dilara,’ you may identify it as die Lara. The same is true for Diana (die Jana).

By the way, the pronunciation of the in English (/ðə/ vs /ði/) is largely a matter of emphasis. To lend special weight to a word, say /ði/ (‘thee’), otherwise /ðə/ (‘tha’).

The variant /ði/, however, is also used whenever the subsequent noun starts with a vowel sound (ocean, end, internet ‒ but not year, ewe or Europe because the starting sound in all these cases is /j/).

In these cases, the indefinite article, too, changes from a to an. In this respect, I love the grammatical consistency of Cockney, the London accent. Londoners drop the letter h at the beginning of virtually every word, turning words such as history, hotel, house etc. into words beginning with a vowel sound. Consequently, they say an ‘ouse instead of a house. That’s just brilliant!

So, here’s a new entry for your book of the most German phrases ever. Next time you want to come across particularly German, just say, ‘Aber der Dieter hat gesagt, ich soll das so machen!’

Next week let’s meet a very special Australian bus driver.

The Pommes Buddha says: My favourite band? The The. The who? No, The The.

> Audio version


You can say ‘you’ to me

question sprechen sie deutsch? do you speak german?

When my English husband first learned German, he told me time and again of his dilemma to choose between the formal Sie and the informal du when addressing someone. To his great disappointment, I was unable to offer him a clear-cut set of rules. Let’s look at some examples and try to find out more …

In Germany, the default, I think is fair to say, is siezen while using Herr/Frau and the person’s last name. Children and youngsters should address most people older than themselves using Sie. As an adult, you use Sie with most other adults, unless you know them better or if you are among a group of people which make a point of being laid-back, such as TV producers, PR managers and almost everyone in Cologne, or comradely, such as metal workers’ unionists. It may suffice simply being in the same place as those people, for example at a hip bar, Brauhaus, trendy shop etc.

If you do your grocery shopping at a large supermarket, even in Cologne, you would normally siezen the person at the till, and he would siezen you back, unless you are a minor.

Let’s look at some examples of the most common usage of formal and informal address in British English and German. (Note that there are, of course, regional, local and even individual varieties.)

Person British English German
Boss You + first name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name) / in some cases: Du (first name)
Colleague You + first name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name) / Du (first name)
Judge in court You + My Lord / My Lady Sie (Herr/Frau Vorsitzende(r))
Shop assistant You (+ first name if known) Sie (Varies according to region and trendiness of venue!)
Waiter/waitress You (+ first name if known) Sie (Varies according to region and trendiness of venue!)
A friend’s parents whom you meet for the first time You + Mr/Mrs + last name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name)
School teacher addressing you (age 16+) You + first name Sie (to be agreed between teacher and students: either ‘first name’ or ‘Herr/Frau + last name’)


Dear Germans, may I please point out that the fact that English businesspeople are on first-name terms with each other does not mean that you would automatically duzen them in German.

What the German Sie and the English you have in common is that they have no grammatically correct plural form. If you wish to formally address several people in German, you have to say something along the lines of Sie alle. Speakers of the English language in some regions of the world have come up with colloquial varieties of you to mark the plural, such as y’all (regional US American), youse (Ireland, Australia), you guys (originally US American but now widely used elsewhere too).

When one is on Sie terms with a German, as a rule, the older person would normally offer to change over to the informal address at some point. This may be accompanied by some type of ritual. It used to be common to go through the motions of Bruderschafttrinken, consisting of the following steps:

  1. Linking arms with, while sitting opposite, each other and taking a sip from your own glass;
  2. Kissing (yes, smack on the lips!);
  3. ‘Introducing’ yourself formally by your first name.

These days, this custom is pretty out-dated, at least in standard situations. The normal thing would be for the person offering the changeover to say something like, ‘Wir können ruhig ‘du’ sagen,’ and then to introduce herself again, even if you know her first name already, and even if she knows you know it. She may say, ‘Ich bin (die) / Ich heiße + first name’ or simply say just her first name.

There is an intermediate step between formal and informal in German, but it is not very widely used, i.e. using Sie in combination with a person’s first name. I’m sure the Knigge has rules for this.

If in doubt, use the formal address and let the other person initiate any changeovers. If nothing else, Sie is way easier to use, as the 3rd-person plural verb is identical with the infinitive, e.g. gehen: ‘Gehen Sie schon?’

Read more on this topic here.

Next week we’ll indulge in some easy listening.

The Pommes Buddha says: One for du and one for Sie.

> Audio version


Magnum in distress

Microphone And Singer

As most of you know, in Germany films are dubbed (see “An mein Ohr kommt nur Wasser und O-Ton”). So on TV and in most cinemas, Daniel Craig and Jennifer Lawrence speak German while their lips form English words. But of course, this being Germany, voice-overs are not services purchased randomly for each film project. No, there is method in this madness. Read on and see for yourself what this entails and why Herr Lehmann is not just a good book.

Each popular American and English actress has her very own German voice, i.e. she is usually dubbed by one and the same voice-over artist in whatever film or series she stars. Voice-over artists may have several actors, but each actor generally has one voice-over artist and thus a recognisable German voice.

Consequently, Germans, unless they are either proper cinema aficionados or interpreters and watch every film in its original version, would never recognise, say, Sean Connery by his real voice.

On the other hand, who’d expect that the unsuspicious-sounding name Manfred Lehmann belongs to the German voice of not only Bruce Willis but also Dolph Lundgren, Gérard Depardieu and Kurt Russell, among others?

As for animated films, the UK, in its own productions, and Germany both make it a crucial part of a film’s PR to use famous actresses and actors for voice-over. For example, the little snowman Olaf in Frozen is spoken by German ‘household-name’ comedian Hape Kerkeling. And UK-produced films such as Arthur Christmas or Flushed Away feature celebs such as Hugh Laurie, James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet.

Sometimes, well-known voices can play tricks on you. Do you remember the American TV series Magnum, P.I.? A friend of mine knows a guy who works as a handyman for a film production company. One day, that guy comes home to find an answerphone message by Tom Selleck’s German voice saying, “Hey, Andreas, I have some computer trouble. Could you please give me a ring”? How cool must this Andreas be if Magnum calls him for help!

So voices can definitely leave quite an impression. As an interpreter, I’m very aware of that. Try my podcast to see if you like this text being read to you.

And now get in gear for next week’s road trip.

The Pommes Buddha says: The name is Bond. James Bond.

> Audio version


Germans are everywhere

hiking in the mountains

During my time in Australia, some of which I spent travelling around the country, I realised that there’s no escape. I was picturing a secluded part of the world, literally the furthest away from my home country, where I would be left in peace and have a chance to immerse myself into a different culture, completely unfettered by my roots, for a while. But no!

Not only did I not feel secluded at all because, obviously, there was e-mail and Skype – and even people on the telephone in Europe sounded like they were just around the corner. But also, wherever I went, on every last bloody jeep safari into the remotest part of the bush, I would bump into fellow countrymen and women.

Germans do like to travel. The World Tourism Organization UNWTO says that until 2011 Germans were the world champions of travelling, at least based on the money spent in tourism.

Whenever my English husband and I are hiking abroad, he takes mischievous pleasure in a little pastime he calls Spot the German. Having trotted the odd part of the globe, he says you can always recognise Germans by their top-notch, super-organised equipment. And by their Jack Wolfskin coats – which, he assumes, will expand into a fully-equipped tent or ready-to-use canoe at the hassle-free pull of a strap.

I was surprised to hear he’d never heard of Jack Wolfskin before going backpacking. I thought it came from some English-speaking country, but it is actually a German brand.

‘You would never see a German on a hiking trail just wearing a pair of old trainers,’ says Mr K. Yes, we like to be prepared. That makes us feel safe. And when we’re prepared and feel safe, most of us will be in the right mindset to actually let our hair down.

When I went on a trekking tour in Tasmania, I was incredulous at one Irish girl wearing trainers. It did say on the equipment list that rain and mud were to be expected. And this poor girl ended up with very, very, very wet feet, while my feet were nicely dry and snug in my Meindl leather boots. Sometimes it’s nice to be German.

But, oh, what woe if we fall prey to imponderabilities! Imagine … ‘Liebling, I’ve lost my Swiss Army knife. Go, go, you can make it without me!’ – ‘But Schatz, I think we’ll be fine. It’s only the Cologne Zoo cable car.’

Now get your pickaxe, coz next week we’re going on a pub crawl.

The Pommes Buddha says: When in doubt, ask a German. (There’ll probably be one right next to you.)

> Audio version




Last week, we looked at ‘squeaky bum time’ as a potential candidate for a loan word in German. The beautiful German word ‘Mogelpackung’ would be an excellent choice for a loan word in other languages. What exactly is a Mogelpackung and what does it have to do with citrus fruit?

Recently, I heard a programme on BBC Radio 4 about excessive packaging of ordered goods. One customer complained, for example, that she had been sent one bottle of nail varnish in a box that was big enough to accommodate a large TV set. ‘The Germans,’ said one of the presenting journalists, ‘have invented a nice word for it: Mogelpackung. It means “deceptive packaging.”’

According to the German spelling bible Duden, the word ‘Mogelpackung’ refers to feigning a larger quantity of content than the package actually contains. This is commonly used for product packaging on supermarket shelves. So the term may also refer to hoodwinking customers into paying more for a product.

Along with schummeln, mogeln is a somewhat old-fashioned verb meaning ‘to cheat.’ When we were children, my nan used to warn us against mogeln or schummeln during a nice round of Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht, the godmother of German board games.

At any rate, Mogelpackung is a wonderful word. You can also use it in a figurative sense, for example if government reforms or bills don’t live up to the electorate’s expectations – or even in personal relationships (‘Der Typ war ‘ne echte Mogelpackung!’).

There is another German expression for the same phenomenon. You can say ‘Außen hui, innen pfui’ – meaning something is ‘wow!’ on the outside and ‘phooey!’ (American English ‘yuck!’) on the inside.

The first English expression that came to my mind in this context was ‘bad apple.’ It equally denotes something that turns out to be lousy without showing any sign of lousiness at first sight. However, ‘bad apple’ contains a rather comprehensive and general devaluation, similar to a schwarzes Schaf (‘black sheep’) in German.

And then there’s the lemon. ‘Lemons’, however, are more specific and often refer to cars with hidden faults.

A search for Mogelpackung on yields paraphrases such as ‘bluff package,’ ‘misleading packaging’ or the above-mentioned ‘deceptive packaging.’ But there is no true equivalent in English. So, dear Brits, how about the German Mogelpackung?

To those of you who would like to know more about German loan words in other languages, I recommend the diverting blog From Auspuff to Zeitgeist by my dear colleague Birte Priebe.

Next time, let’s find some good apples for a change.

The Pommes Buddha says: When life deals you lemons, make lemonade.

> Audio version



symbolic picture for gobbledygook

Learners of German have quite a cross to bear. Not only are they studying a language with complicated grammar and tons of irregularities and exceptions, but they are also incessantly told so by pitying native speakers of that language. Now here’s something new. Even German has a silver lining! Read on, and I’ll let you in on a big secret.

The secret is: even Germans don’t understand German – because it’s not necessary to understand it. German is all about smoke screens and mirrors. It sounds disarmingly professional and convincing. However, most of the time, people are not entirely sure what they’re talking about.

The best example of this are compound nouns. As Paul Sullivan illustrates in his text How to piss off a German (‘Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz’), these words can get quite long in German.

And legal German is even worse. Let’s take a real-life example. When, during my interpreting work for patent law firms that I frequently do, I first came across the expression ‘immaterialgüterrechtlicher Zweckübertragungsgrundsatz’, I had, quite frankly, no idea what that means, even in my own language. So what did I do? I asked someone who is in the know.

When my more senior colleague Obi Wan explained it to me, I realised that, to translate German into English, you must first dissect and analyse it. In this respect, English is much more precise. In English, this expression reads something like ‘the principle of special-purpose transfer under intellectual property law.’ Suddenly, all references are clear. It’s magic!

By implication, this means, my poor, suffering learners of German, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. You can translate complex English concepts into German by simply condensing them into the longest-possible compounds. Easy-peasy! ‘Our jam contains large amounts of freshly-picked fruit’ will single-handedly become ‘Wir bieten pflückfrische Vollfruchtmarmelade’ (a tribute to Loriot).

English, however, is often underrated and misunderstood. Especially Germans seem to judge the quality of a German-English translation by the exact number of words that match and think if a text is intellectually comprehensible it does not dignify the Fachlichkeit of the original.

Here lies the major difference between the two cultures: academic or scientific texts in German are expected to impress by their complexity while in English they are supposed to be accessible to as vast a readership as possible. Encryption vs decryption.

For those interested in the dynamics of technical texts in English, I recommend Prof. Dirk Siepmann’s book Wissenschaftliche Texte auf Englisch schreiben (2012, Stuttgart, Klett) for further reading.

Next week, we’ll get squeaky.

The Pommes Buddha says: Your water pipes will love zerstörungsfreie Rohrleckortung.

> Audio version


Schöne Bescherung

Tannenbaum in stimmungsvoller Schneelandschaft

When days grow short and snowflakes fall (not!), many people like to snuggle up in cosy cotton and enjoy a cuppa. Others prefer to explore a different kind of Gemütlichkeit abroad. One of the big German winter tourism attractions are the Christmas markets, the most famous one being the Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg. But who or what is Christkindle and how do Germans celebrate Christmas? Let’s take a peek …

Historically, in Germany, 6th December (St Nicholas Day) was the day when Christmas presents were given. This tradition changed in the 16th century when the Protestant movement, turning away from the cult of the saints, focused on the Christkind (literally ‘child of the Christians’, i.e. Jesus) as the bearer of good tidings, and henceforth the Bescherung (handing out of presents) took place on 24th December. (See Wikipedia.)

Yes, we know Jesus was born on 25th December. But if you’ve lived in Germany for a while, you’ll know that Germans like to reinfeiern, meaning to start celebrating the night before an actual event and work up to a midnight climax when ditties are due and gifts are given.

And, as many things in Germany, celebration is serious business. The Bescherung must not take place before 5pm. (My English husband cringes in agony and disbelief at the idea of having to wait the entire day to open presents, especially as a child.) And we dress festively. And we don’t wear silly hats or use other paraphernalia such as Christmas crackers.

Dear Germans, be aware that, in England and many other countries, Christmas presents are given on the morning of the 25th December and unwrapped bum-style, i.e. in pyjamas. Most of these presents, the children are told, are deposited through the chimney by Santa, or Father Christmas.

The little ones traditionally leave a glass of milk and a mince pie on the side for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph (the red-nosed reindeer), as these two appreciate a small break and some refreshments on their tiresome journey. Miraculously, the milk will be drunk and the mince pie and carrot half-eaten in the morning!

These days in Germany, the question of whether presents are brought by Christkind or Weihnachtsmann is largely a matter of personal (or intra-familial) preference. My sister and I waited impatiently outside the living room door until we heard ‘the bell.’ Then my mum would say, Das Christkind war da, and explain that this angel-like creature had just flown back out of the window.

Today, my husband and I find it easier to hop on the Weihnachtsmann bandwagon, as this is also the prevailing notion at nursery school and in our children’s friends’ families.

No matter how you celebrate, dear readers, have a very merry Christmas!

Next week, witness the ultimate end-of-year showdown: England vs. Germany!

The Pommes Buddha says: You’d better watch out! You’d better not cry!

> Audio version


Nimble fingers

Zwei Hnde drcken die Daumen

This week’s text is a sequel to my German entry Fingerfertigkeit. Have you ever seen a German shake their fist at someone? No, I don’t mean in the menacing wait-till-I-get-you! kind of way of James Bond villains. I mean in a kind, encouraging manner, smiling and wishing the other person luck. How does the luck get into the fist is what you’re asking? You’ll find out in a minute.

Well, first of all, it’s not a real fist. It’s a fist that as a child in my first ju-jitsu class my teacher told me not to make, i.e. one with the thumb inside all your other fingers. If you punch someone like this, you’ll sprain, if not sever or worse!, your thumb. This type of fist is referred to as Daumen drücken (‘pressing thumbs’) in German. And it’s not a fist for fighting. It’s a fist for wishing.

A Canadian friend, who suggested this gesture as a blog topic, said when she first heard this expression, she was not sure what to imagine. She thought perhaps people pressed their extended thumb against the thumb of their other hand – or someone else’s.

It’s not clear where the thumb-pressing comes from. In one of its episodes, the popular children’s TV show Wissen macht Ah! by regional broadcaster WDR, which explains all kinds of phenomena and is generally a good source of information for learners of German, explains a thing or two about Daumen drücken.

For those Germans who haven’t (Brit slang alert!) cottoned on: Brits, Canadians and Americans (and certainly many others) don’t ever press their thumbs for any reason. When they wish someone luck, they cross their fingers. So when you mean to say ‘Ich drück’ dir die Daumen!’ to native speakers of English, you need to make an entirely different gesture (cross index and middle fingers) and say, ‘Fingers crossed!’

This gesture, which is said to be based on the Christian symbol of the cross, is not unknown to Germans. We use it to secretly break a promise we make (this being a common variety of use in several English-speaking countries as well) or to emphasise that two people are really close or get on very well (‘Die sind so!’).

Wieder was gelernt, as your German friends will say. Or Man lernt nie aus – you live and learn. Well, fingers crossed you’ll know who’s behind you next week!

The Pommes Buddha says: It’s not evil. It’s magic.

> Audio version