Bikes! Busybodies! Berghain!
When you’re visiting Germany’s gritty capital, chances are you’ll witness something surprising.
Berlin is a place where anything can happen, and anything probably will happen.
But let’s be honest: Visiting another culture and country is always a recipe for surprises and shocks. No matter where you go in Germany, and how much you’ve prepared linguistically for your trip, you’re likely to encounter something unexpected—and you’ll need to know how to respond.
Enter this list of ten exclamations for ten different situations that you might encounter in Berlin. Study this list, and you’ll be prepared to respond to whatever comes your way.
Note: Most of these situations are based on actual events experienced by yours truly. Do I wish I’d studied my German exclamations before all of these occurred? Absolutely.
Why It’s Important to Learn German Exclamations Before You Need Them
If something surprising happens, you want to be able to respond right away.
I’ve been in situations before where something annoying, surprising or interesting spontaneously occurs, and I’ve been rendered speechless—or, even worse, let loose with a string of English exclamations.
This may be understandable, since in momfents of shock we often revert to our native tongue, but still, don’t be like me! If you rehearse these exclamations, they’ll become natural to you, and you’ll be able to recall them instinctively at a moment’s notice.
Throwing back a German exclamation will impress whoever you’re talking to.
As we’ve established, it’s hard to come up with exclamations in a foreign language on the fly. Therefore, if you do manage to whip out an exclamation, the person you’re talking to or the people around you will be incredibly impressed.
Learning slang and expressions is an integral part of becoming a natural and fluid speaker.
Finally, being able to communicate casually and spontaneously is an integral part of becoming a fluent German speaker. It’s a lot easier to rehearse a phone call or perfect an email for hours than it is to whip out a German exclamation at a moment’s notice. But when you do whip out that exclamation, you’ll know you’ve arrived.
10 German Exclamations for Startling Situations
English translation: Anger/scolding!
Imagine this: You’re in Berlin on May 1, the traditional anarchist/communist day celebrating workers. You’re crammed into the crowds at Oranienplatz (the former epicenter of Berlin anarchism) and you accidentally step on a middle aged woman’s foot.
She becomes angry and starts hurling German invectives at you. (Doesn’t she understand anarchism? It’s not about keeping your feet safe, that’s for sure). Before you know it, you’ve let out a loud “Donnerwetter!”
Why use it: Donnerwetter can be used to mean “Gosh!” or “Golly!” but in this context, you can use it to mean “scolding.” Donnerwetter is often used by children to describe a parent’s potential or real anger, so in this context, Donnerwetter would be a sarcastic way to show that your enemy in the May 1 crowd is being condescending and unreasonable by treating you like a child.
Literal translation: Donnerwetter is an old-fashioned word for “thunderstorm,” but is now only used to indicate anger or surprise.
2. Heiliger Strohsack!
English translation: Holy smokes!
You’re at a bar/cafe in Berlin, and you and each member of your party have ordered quite a few alcoholic beverages, as well as cakes, sandwiches and other snacks. You brace yourself for your bill, but when the waiter brings it over, it’s much less than expected. “Heiliger Strohsack!” you exclaim.
Why use it: Well, it’s surprising to receive a cheap bill for food and drink in a European capital! Try buying that much food or drink in Paris or London. Heiliger Strohsack is an exclamation of surprise—perhaps a bit corny, but still a worthwhile way to express your pleasant joy at not draining your bank account over four liters of Berliner Pilsener.
Literal translation: Heiliger means “holy,” while Strohsack means “straw sack,” as in a straw bed that you would sleep on.
3. Ich glaub mich knutscht ein Elch!
English translation: I can’t believe it!
You’re out on the S-bahn in Berlin on a Saturday afternoon, doing some grocery shopping like a normal person does on a Saturday afternoon. You see some people decked out in their finest club wear, drinking beer and swinging from the poles on the S-bahn.
Are they getting ready to go clubbing now? It’s only 2 p.m.! Then you realize: They’ve been out since the night before. Ich glaub mich knutscht ein Elch!
Why use it: This American girl from a city that closes at 1 a.m. at the latest was shocked to discover the complexity and breadth of Berlin nightlife. I still “can’t believe it” when I hear stories of people clubbing for four days straight. If your sensibilities are anything like mine (and, to be fair, perhaps they are not) this exclamation will be well-suited for the revelers on the bahn.
Literal translation: The exclamation translates directly to “I believe I’ve been kissed by an elk” In other words, I’ve done something quite unbelievable and improbable.
4. Ach, nee!
English translation: Really?! / duh
You’re walking your friend’s dog, and he stops to relieve himself on the sidewalk. Plastic bags in hand, you wait for him to finish before you pick up his mess, but while you’re waiting, a passing woman stops and angrily declares that you’d best pick up the dog’s poop. “Ach, nee!” you say.
Why use it: Well, obviously, angry woman! You’re not an animal (unlike the dog) and you’re not going to leave the poop on the sidewalk—especially since you’re clearly holding plastic bags intended for picking up the pup’s doo-doo.
Literal translation: Ach means “oh” in this context, and nee is slang for “nope” or “nah.”
English translation: Hey! / Oi!
Young parents! They’re everywhere in Berlin. And boy, do they fancy those overlarge posh vintage-inspired strollers. You’re out and about in Prenzlauer Berg (one of Berlin’s epicenters of children) and someone knocks you with a stroller, and doesn’t apologize. “He!” you shout.
Why use it: Well, it’s rude to hit someone with a stroller! Besides, certain old-school Berlin elements (see: the punks and anarchists that flooded into the city in the 1990s following the fall of the wall) see baby strollers as a sign of the city’s inexorable gentrification. So by registering your discontent with the marauding stroller, you can strike a small but satisfying blow against gentrification—if that’s your aim, anyway.
Literal translation: “Hey” or “oi.”
English translation: Damn!
The S-bahn never comes when its workers are on strike. Perhaps you can catch a train every half an hour, if you’re lucky. That’s why you decided to leave early for the airport. You grab your suitcase and hurry to the station—only to watch the packed S-bahn rolling away from the platform. The forecasted next train? Forty minutes from now. “Mist!” you shout.
Why use it: When this happened to your humble author, she then arrived at Tegel Airport just five minutes before her flight left—and managed to get on the plane. But still, she hurled many a despairing invective during her journey to the airport. Mist is the perfect word in this situation. It’s not as extreme as the f-word, so you can feel free to shout it in a public place, but it’s still enough of a swear that you can air some of your frustration.
Literal translation: Mist’s translation is simple—it just means “crap.”
7. Es ist mir Wurst!
English translation: I don’t care.
There’s no bike lane on the four-lane road cutting through Neukölln, and the street is full of marauding buses and reckless taxis. You decide to take your bike to the sidewalk, where someone yells at you to ride in the street where you belong. “Es ist mir Wurst!”
Why use it: Perhaps this person is technically right, but should we be expected to take our lives into our hands based on what’s technically right and wrong? Maybe that’s a debate for another time, but if you want to register your displeasure with this person’s busybody ways, this is the perfect expression.
Literal translation: “It is to me a sausage.” I’ve heard other variants of this expression, such as the Berliner dialect version, Das ist mir total Schnuppe, which expresses the same idea.
English translation: Ouch!
You’re biking through Mitte, the tram track center of Berlin, on a rainy night. A car is double-parked, and you veer into the tram tracks to go around it—but your wheel catches on the slick track and you topple right over, hitting the pavement. “Autsch!”
Why use it: It hurts to hit the pavement, even when you’re only going about five kilometers per hour! Plus there’s the humiliation of falling on the tram tracks, which is literally the first warning given to any new cyclist in Berlin (don’t get caught on the tram tracks). Autsch is even more appropriate if, during this mishap, you happen to be wearing pants that you bought yesterday.
Literal translation: Autsch translates literally to “ouch.”
9. Zur Hölle damit!
English translation: To hell with it!
After a long German class, you return to the lamppost where you locked up your bike. You can’t wait to cycle home and crack open a beer. But where’s your bike? It’s not where you left it! A thorough examination of the area reveals that your bike has fallen victim to the most common Berlin crime: a stolen cycle. “Zur Hölle damit!”
Why use it: Bikes may be cheap and easy to come by here in Berlin, but still, theft is annoying and troubling. Zur Hölle damit is more extreme than Mist, and perhaps more appropriate for a theft situation.
Literal translation: Zur means “to the,” Hölle means “hell” and damit means “with it.”
English translation: Exactly!
You arrive back at your apartment, explain your bike situation to your roommate, and she says, “So you’ve had a rough day.” “Genau!” you say, glad that someone understands what you’ve been through.
Why use it: Hey, it’s an affirmative, as opposed to all the negatives we’ve learned in the previous examples. Genau works in a whole host of situations where you want to assure the other person that yes, they’ve really hit the nail on the head.
Literal translation: Genau means “exactly.”
There are plenty of surprising things that could happen to you in Berlin—or in any German city for that matter—both good and bad, and you need to be ready for them. But don’t worry: Memorize this list of exclamations and you’ll be ready for anything.
And One More Thing…
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