When you start learning a new language, you suddenly find yourself conversing with people at the level of a small child.
Feels weird, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s time to turn that all around.
Are you ready to tell time like the smartest kid in kindergarten?
36 Essential German Time Phrases and Expressions for Beginners
The common question, “do you know what time it is?” is one of the golden nuggets of human interaction. It is used by shy people everywhere as an excuse to talk to strangers. It is uttered breathlessly and wide-eyed by those late for appointments.
It gets used in rap songs so frequently, you feel like more hip-hop artists should wear giant clocks around their necks.
Describing the time of the day sounds simple, but is often difficult to get used to for new language learners. Different languages often employ different systems for stating the hour and minutes. The numbers may be small, but they can generate huge confusion.
Here, we’re going to take you through several ways of telling time in German. By the end, you’ll never fumble for an answer when being chatted up by a nervous stranger.
First things first
One step at a time. Before we go ahead and learn how to say what time it is, we’ll first take a look at how the typical German would ask for the time. Someday, you’re going to need to ask someone this question! Besides, it’s no use being able to give the exact minute of the day if you don’t understand somebody else’s inquiry.
Typical ways to ask for the time are as follows:
Wie viel Uhr ist es? (literally: how much o’clock is it?)
Wie spät ist es? (literally: how late is it?)
Kannst Du /Können Sie mir sagen wie spät es ist? (Can you tell me what time it is?)
Hast Du /Haben Sie die Uhrzeit? (literally: Do you have have the time?) This one is a little old fashioned.
Secondly, it’s important to know that Germany uses a 24-hour time system, or what is referred to in the U.S. as “military time”. In casual German conversation, people often stick to the 1-12 time telling method. For more formal purposes, 24-hour time is the standard.
That means there’s no A.M. and P.M. After noontime, the hours continue with numbers 13 to 24. So if you’re used to P.M., you will have do a little math: add 12 to the hour after midday. By this logic, 3:00 P.M. is translated to 15:00, and so on. Play with using the 24-hour system until you become comfortable with it!
Basic vocabulary for telling time in German
To get you started, we’ll first go over some basic vocabulary for talking about time. After that, we’ll look at each word in detail and explain how to use it in context. Apart from the words below, you’ll also need to know the German numbers 1-59 to state minutes precisely.
Uhr – The German equivalent of o’clock, used to denominate full hours.
um – Means at as in “Let’s meet at four o’clock”.
vor – Before like in “Seven minutes before midnight”.
nach – The antonym of vor, of course meaning after.
viertel – This means quarter like in quarter past/quarter to.
halb – meaning half and is used to denote the half hour intervals between full hours. More on this below.
Stating full hours in German with Uhr
When talking about full hours, German is pretty much the same as English. Just substitute the German word Uhr for the English o’clock with the respective number in front of it. The only special case is one o’clock which is NOT the expected eins Uhr but instead turns to ein Uhr.
Examples of how to use Uhr
Wieviel Uhr ist es? – Es ist sieben Uhr (What time is it? – It’s seven o’clock)
Wann sollen wir uns treffen? – Wie wäre es um 17 Uhr? (When should we meet? – How about at 5pm?)
Wann beginnt der Unterricht? – Um ein Uhr. (When does class start? – At one o’clock.)
As can be seen from the examples above, in German it is also possible to state times in the 24-hour cycle. Not everyone will do that in reality. In everyday language a lot of people will forgo using numbers past 12 and instead add morgens (in the morning), mittags (at noon), nachmittags (in the afternoon), abends (in the evening), and nachts (at night) to clarify.
Examples of how to use time identifiers
Es war schon zehn Uhr abends, als ich zu Hause ankam. (It was already 10pm when I got home.)
Wir treffen uns um drei Uhr nachmittags zum Fußball spielen. (We will meet at 3pm to play soccer.)
However, this will often be omitted if it is clear from the context which time of day or night you’re talking about. You’ll be hardly make an appointment for playing soccer at 3 A.M., therefore if you agree to meet um drei Uhr, everybody will understand that you’re talking about the afternoon.
Precise like clockwork – vor/nach
Now that we know how to use the German o’clock, the next step is to learn how to state minutes to and past the hour. In the German language, these instances are expressed with the prepositions vor and nach.
Examples of how to use vor and nach
Es ist siebzehn Minuten nach ein Uhr. (It’s seventeen minutes past one o’clock.)
Zwanzig Minuten vor sieben Uhr. (Twenty minutes to seven o’clock.)
In everyday speech, Minuten are often omitted (as is Uhr). However, this is more common when stating even minute intervals such as five past, twenty to, and ten to, though uneven numbers are also possible.
Es ist siebzehn nach eins. (It’s seventeen past one.)
Zwanzig vor sieben. (Twenty to seven.)
Fünf vor zwölf. (Five to twelve.)
As mentioned before, it is typical to use 12-hour time format in everyday life. Saying something like achtzehn Minuten vor fünfzehn Uhr is very uncommon. Germans like to be efficient in everything – including their language. Drei rolls off the tongue faster than fünfzehn.
Viertel, halb, dreiviertel (I’ll have this watch quartered!)
In German time telling, hours are divided into parts of four. That means you have a quarter past (viertel nach), a quarter to (viertel vor), and a half hour (halb). There’s also something like three-quarters to the hour, however, this is a special dialect which you’ll learn more about below.
If you speak English (which I will assume you do if you have made it this far), viertel vor and viertel nach are pretty straightforward. Merely place them in the same sentence position as you would quarter to and quarter past and you are golden.
Examples of how to use viertel vor, viertel nach, and halb
Um viertel nach vier am Nachmittag. (At a quarter past four in the afternoon.)
Es ist schon viertel vor neun?! (It’s already quarter to nine?!)
The German half hour is slightly different however. Instead of saying it is half past the last full hour, the language looks ahead to the coming one and expresses that it’s already halfway toward that time. So a German does not think it is half past ten but that it is halfway eleven.
Wir treffen uns um halb zehn. (We will meet at half past nine.)
Jetzt ist es halb vier. (It is now half past three.)
As you can see, Uhr is left out in all of the sentences above. There is no such thing as viertel nach drei Uhr. If it’s clear from the context, you can even omit the hour altogether. If your interlocutor is sort of aware about the hour of the day, zehn vor halb or viertel nach can be entirely sufficient.
Interestingly, viertel and halb aren’t used with 24-hour time. There’s no viertel nach zwanzig or halb siebzehn. Instead you would go for viertel nach acht and halb fünf.
Time thresholds: when to use what
There are some conventions as to how to tell time around the hour. Thresholds exist at which the expression of time changes. Typically you’ll use nach and state the minutes until 25 minutes past the full hour. In that case it becomes fünf Minuten vor halb. Likewise, you’ll say fünf nach halb at the 35-minute mark and not fünfundzwanzig vor. You then switch to the vor format when it strikes twenty minutes before the full hour.
If we go around the clock in five-minute steps, it looks a little bit like this:
- 12:05 > fünf nach zwölf
- 12:10 > zehn nach zwölf
- 12:15 > viertel nach zwölf
- 12:20 > zwanzig nach zwölf
- 12:25 > fünf vor halb eins
- 12:30 > halb eins
- 12:35 > fünf nach halb eins
- 12:40 > zwanzig vor eins
- 12:45 > viertel vor eins
- 12:50 > zehn vor eins
- 12:55 > fünf vor eins
Going military: telling precise minutes
If you want to get really precise about the time of day, the military format is the way to go. Should you not be familiar with using numbers higher than 12 for full hours, no worries, it’s really not that complicated. All it takes is a little practice.
The easiest way to think about 24-hour time is to visualize it displayed on a digital clock with a colon between the numbers. Merely replace the “:” with Uhr and you have the time.
Examples of telling precise minutes
13:21 becomes 13 Uhr 21 (dreizehn Uhr einundzwanzig)
20:45 turns into 20 Uhr 45 (zwanzig Uhr fünfundvierzig)
23:11 is 23 Uhr 11 (dreiundzwanzig Uhr elf)
Easy, right? This format is most often used in official time statements such as on the news, for movie play times, and in other places where being absolutely clear about timing is crucial. However, especially with the ubiquity of digital clocks many people also give the time in this manner in everyday life.
***Special dialect alert***
This part is mostly for fun and not obligatory to learn as it’s non-standard German. In some areas of Germany, particularly to the East, another form of telling time exists using viertel.
Instead of viertel vor and viertel nach they work with only viertel and dreiviertel (three quarters). These take the function of halb, meaning they denote the time being a quarter or three quarters toward the next full hour.
Wieviel Uhr ist es? – Viertel zwölf. (What time is it? – A quarter past eleven.)
Wir treffen uns um dreiviertel fünf. (We will meet at 16:45.)
As mentioned, this isn’t very common. Many Germans, who aren’t used to this format, find it just as confusing as foreigners. However, it’s always fun to learn the many kinks, quirks and regional slang words in the German language.
Congrats, you can now tell time! Keep practicing, and remember that you can always just show someone your watch or phone display in a moment of doubt.
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