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German vs. English Vocabulary

English may have more vocabulary than any other language, but that doesn’t mean it has a word for everything. Every language has words and expressions that are unique and very difficult or impossible to translate into another language. The Eskimos, contrary to popular legend, do NOT really have fifty words for snow, but German gemütlich takes several words to explain in English: cozy, comfortable, warm, inviting, and hospitable. Sometimes these words or expressions are adopted wholesale into another language — Kindergarten and Gesundheit (health), for example, from German into English. But more often the word is just unknown in other languages. German is a rich language that has words and turns of phrases that have no equal in English. (The reverse is just as true, of course.)

German makes certain distinctions that English does not. For English “to know” German has two words, each reflecting the difference between knowing something through understanding (wissen) and knowing something through recognition (kennen). A German can also understand immediately from the use of one of two distinct verbs whether an object has been “put” on a surface in a standing (stellen) or a lying (legen) position. When it comes to eating, animals and humans in German have two different words: fressen is used for non-humans, while people essen.

Some German expressions, such as Schadenfreude (a malicious pleasure or gloating over another’s misfortune), don’t really have an English equivalent. (“Crocodile tears” — Krokodiltränen — aren’t really the same thing.) The adjective überfragt (lit., “over-asked,” as in “Da bin ich überfragt.” – You’ve got me there. I don’t have the answer.) has no one-word English equivalent either.

German language-learning tip

Try not to think in English when you are speaking or writing German. Especially with slang or idioms, but also in many other situations, this is the one thing that leads to the most trouble. If you are translating in order to write or speak, then something is wrong. Translation should only be used when you are learning or can’t make it on your own in German. You don’t really know German until you can hear it in your head.