21 Inspiring German Proverbs for German Learners
Perhaps you’re a student of German who’s rock solid in German greetings and common German phrases.
Learning German proverbs can inspire you to take that final step and finally achieve fluency.
You don’t have to be an advanced learner to learn a few German sayings. Even as a beginner it is not a bad idea to add them to your repertoire early on.
In this article, we will equip you with a whole treasure trove of proverbs that you can use in everyday conversations.
- 1. Aller Anfang ist schwer.
- 2. Des Teufels liebstes Möbelstück ist die lange Bank.
- 3. Wer rastet, der rostet.
- 4. Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst.
- 5. Aus Schaden wird man klug.
- 6. Das Billige ist immer das Teuerste.
- 7. Du siehst den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht.
- 8. Erst denken, dann handeln.
- 9. Eile mit Weile.
- 10. Kümmere Dich nicht um ungelegte Eier.
- 11. Krummes Holz gibt auch gerades Feuer.
- 12. Man muss die Dinge nehmen, wie sie kommen.
- 13. Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund.
- 14. Selbst ist der Mann./Selbst ist die Frau.
- 15. Taten sagen mehr als Worte.
- 16. Übung macht den Meister.
- 17. Wer zwei Hasen auf einmal jagt bekommt keinen.
- 18. Wer A sagt, muss auch B sagen.
- 19. Wenn der Reiter nichts taugt, ist das Pferd schuld.
- 20. Der Hunger kommt beim Essen.
- 21. Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps.
1. Aller Anfang ist schwer.
Literal translation: “All beginnings are hard.”
No matter what you are undertaking in life, whether it’s learning a new language, embarking on a career or working on a project, if you start something from scratch, you will suck at it at first. That’s part of the natural order and the way it should be. Don’t worry too much about it and just keep at it until you get it right.
2. Des Teufels liebstes Möbelstück ist die lange Bank.
Literal translation: “The devil’s favorite piece of furniture is the long bench.”
In German, putting something on the “long bench” means putting it off (etwas auf die lange Bank schieben – another very good addition to your German slang phrases). Seems like Germans knew about procrastination long before the word was on everyone’s lips. What are you putting on the “long bench” that you could take care of right now? Don’t let the devil win.
3. Wer rastet, der rostet.
Literal translation: “He who rests grows rusty.”
This saying states that in order to improve your skills, you have to continuously work on them. It also warns that if you want to achieve anything, the most important thing is to take action. Too many undertakings never get accomplished and die because of lacking follow-through. So get off your behind before it gets rusty.
4. Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst.
Literal translation: “Starting is easy, persistence is an art.”
Starting something is much easier than seeing it through to the end. Haven’t we all had the experience to be full of enthusiasm at the beginning of a new venture or undertaking only to have it fizzle out as time progressed? Keeping up your motivation is an art form in itself, one that needs to be cultivated.
5. Aus Schaden wird man klug.
Literal translation: “Failure makes smart.”
Many of us live in cultures that are very avert to failure. Nobody likes to screw up or fall on their face. However, what a lot of people forget is that failure is a necessity for learning. Without making mistakes, you will never understand how to do it right. To quote Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.”
6. Das Billige ist immer das Teuerste.
Literal translation: “The cheapest is always the most expensive.”
This saying is a reminder to invest into quality. While the first impulse is often to go for the cheapest option, most of the time it is worth spending a little more. Whether on study material, tutors, services, you name it. It almost always pays off in the long run.
7. Du siehst den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht.
Literal translation: “You don’t see the forest for all the trees.”
In life it is important to see the big picture. If we only concentrate on the latest wins or failures instead of seeing our lives as a whole, we are vulnerable to fate’s whims and get frustrated easily. So don’t give up on German just because you had a bad vocabulary day. You can pick it up again tomorrow.
8. Erst denken, dann handeln.
Literal translation: “First think, then act.”
Although taking action is important, it is of equal importance to take the right action. Determining which one that is requires some deliberate thinking. This proverb reminds us to set the right priorities and make decisions about what we want instead of blindly rushing into battle.
9. Eile mit Weile.
Literal translation: “Make haste with leisure.”
While it is important to work hard toward your goals and not be idle (Wer rastet, der rostet remember?), you have to make time to smell the proverbial roses along the way. If we are too focused on the outcome and the end result, it is easy to miss out on all the fun getting there.
10. Kümmere Dich nicht um ungelegte Eier.
Literal translation: “Don’t worry about eggs that haven’t been laid yet.”
This one is a little bit like “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”. However, while the English version asks us not to rely on means which we do not possess at this time, the German equivalent expresses the futility of worrying about things that haven’t come to pass yet and never might. It is energy that is much better spent productively.
11. Krummes Holz gibt auch gerades Feuer.
Literal translation: “Crooked logs also make straight fires.”
The perfect is the enemy of the good. A lot of people wait for the elusive “perfect moment”. When the stars align and everything falls into place. But life doesn’t work like that. This saying tells us to work with what we have available, not what we would like to have. Or to quote Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
12. Man muss die Dinge nehmen, wie sie kommen.
Literal translation: “You have to take things the way they come.”
In the same line of thought, life will seldom play out exactly the way we planned. It is therefore important to cultivate an adaptive mindset and deal with current surroundings and conditions instead of wishing for things to be different. So take life as it is, not as it should be.
13. Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund.
Literal translation: “The morning hour has gold in its mouth.”
This might be the most weird-sounding translation on the list (which German is prone to, check out the German vocabulary with surprising meanings for more). It is one of the ways Germans stress the importance of getting up early to get a head start on the day. Many inventors and creators of our time have been early risers who have used the first hours of the day as their most productive period. Highly recommended.
14. Selbst ist der Mann./Selbst ist die Frau.
Literal translation: “Yourself is the man./Yourself is the woman.”
This saying is hard to translate literally. Its English equivalent is “Self do, self have”. Oftentimes we will use waiting for others as an excuse in order to not take action. The proverb says that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. While the original is the male version, Selbst ist die Frau is also widely used today.
15. Taten sagen mehr als Worte.
Literal translation: “Actions say more than words.”
In German actions don’t speak louder than words, they are just more verbose. Of course the meaning of this is to talk less and do more. A lot of people want to do great things and like to talk about their plans but lack follow through. Let your actions speak instead of your voice.
16. Übung macht den Meister.
Literal translation: “Practice is what makes a master.”
Mastery is hard to attain. It takes continuous honing of your skills to get really good at something. If you want to reach a high level of proficiency in anything, you will have to put in the time and practice. Whether that’s business savvy, physical skills or language proficiency, there are no shortcuts.
17. Wer zwei Hasen auf einmal jagt bekommt keinen.
Literal translation: “He who chases two rabbits at once will catch none.”
This is the German way of telling you to stop multitasking. Be focused. Concentrate on one thing at a time and then move on to the next. Well done, grasshopper. By the way, does anybody else think words like these should really be spoken by a wise kung fu master?
18. Wer A sagt, muss auch B sagen.
Literal translation: “He who says A also has to say B.”
No, this is not the slowest way to learn the alphabet. Instead, it means that if you commit to something, commit to it all the way. Don’t half-ass things or cherry pick. It is for those people who approach things with the attitude of Wasch mir den Pelz aber mach mich nicht nass (wash my fur but don’t get me wet), meaning they only want the outcome but not make the sacrifices that lead there.
19. Wenn der Reiter nichts taugt, ist das Pferd schuld.
Literal translation: “If the rider is no good, it’s the horse’s fault.”
Many times when we attempt something and fail, we will want to shift the blame away from us. We don’t want it to be our own fault but that of exterior factors and circumstances. The German proverb reminds us to take responsibility instead.
20. Der Hunger kommt beim Essen.
Literal translation: “Appetite emerges while eating.”
If motivation runs low, one of the hardest things to do is to get started. Yes, we want to learn German. Yes, we committed to this time for our studying session. But we just don’t feel like it. Do a little bit, study for just a minute. More often than not you will find that after working for a while and easing into the process, it actually becomes fun and you will want to continue.
21. Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps.
Literal translation: “Work is work and liquor is liquor.”
Even if we are doing work that we enjoy, it isn’t always all puppies and rainbows. Sometimes it’s just work. Accept it, put your head down and get through it. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. It is also a reminder to schedule periods of recovery. Just don’t overdo it with the Schnaps or you won’t feel too recovered afterwards.
This list of proverbs should help prepare you to hear some unusual phrases in everyday German so you’ll know when not to take a sentence literally.
So how can you review proverbs and other interesting sayings?
An online dictionary like WordReference can be very useful for learning about German slang and proverbs. Sayings can differ by dialect and change over time, so you can get some useful info from German speakers in WordReference’s comment sections.
If you want to understand these proverbs more deeply, you can seek out examples of them in German videos and other media. This will help give you a sense of how native speakers use proverbs and various turns of phrase in their casual speech.
One resource for such content is FluentU, a language learning program that teaches German using authentic videos such as commercials, music videos and cartoons. The videos all have interactive subtitles that let you read along in German (or English) and look up words and phrases for contextual translations and usage examples.
With this list of proverbs, along with some resources to find more, you’ll be well on your way to impressing native German speakers with your knowledge.
And, more importantly, you’ll avoid being confused by sayings that could sound nonsensical if you take them literally.
Hopefully these proverbs will give you a new insight into German language and culture.