So many words, so little time!
When you’re first starting out, exactly which words are going to be useful outside of hello and goodbye is likely to be so klar wie dicke Tinte (as clear as mud).
Believe me, I’ve been there.
Maybe you’ve just enrolled in a course, gotten yourself a textbook and are all set to go?
Or maybe you’ve just touched down in a German-speaking country and are summoning up the courage to order ein Bier for the first time?
A big step towards getting confident listening to and speaking German is having some basic words at your disposal in everyday situations—whether it’s at the supermarket or the pub. To make the going easier, I’ve compiled some words and phrases to get you started.
40+ Genuinely Useful German Words That Tie Conversations Together
The words in this section are multi-purpose words that you’ll hear often, with definitions broad enough to apply in a variety of contexts—it’s handy to have these guys around.
I must confess to having a soft spot for this one as it’s the only word I ever learned from a German-speaking housemate years ago, long before getting serious about learning German. It means “agreed,” “right” or “true,” and is often used to affirm a comment someone else has made. It seems to work in a surprisingly wide range of contexts and can be modified very slightly to expand its meaning, e.g.:
Is that right?
Das stimmt nicht
That’s not right
Keep the change (handy in restaurants/cafes if you’re feeling generous).
Meaning “exactly,” this word works in a similar way to stimmt. It also serves as something of a filler or sentence connector when you’ve paused between statements, similar to the way you use “so” in English. Unlike stimmt, you’ll often find it used as an adjective too, e.g.:
No, it doesn’t mean what you think, but bear with me! Translated as “well” or “so” and used in pretty much the same way as its English equivalents, this is a great one to have on hand. It stands alone or functions as a sentence opener.
Also! Fangen wir an?
Well, shall we get started? (Expression of enthusiasm)
Also…ich weiß es nicht.
Well…I don’t know. (Expression of uncertainty)
Combine it with Äh (pronounced “eh,” the German version of “um”). If you have to sound uncertain—and let’s face it, you’ll be doing a lot of this to start with—you might as well do so like a native!
Means “or,” but it’s also very often thrown onto the end of a statement, where it means “right?” or “isn’t it?”.
Although English has significantly more words in total than German, my guess is that German’s in front when it comes to verbs. Learning German verbs opens up a whole new world of possibility—and confusion. Many are incredibly similar to one another, yet an innocent little prefix can change the meaning dramatically.
Amidst such a minefield, machen, meaning both “to make” and “to do” is a good go-to for many situations.
One can not only ein Kuchen machen (make a cake) but also Party machen, Fotos machen and eine Diät machen (go on a diet). If you break something, you “make it broken,” es kaputt machen, and to finish up is Schluss machen, which literally translates to “to make an end.”
Watch out though: You don’t “make” friends in German. Instead, you’d use something akin to Freunde kennenlernen (to literally “get to know” friends). You also don’t “make” decisions, you’d phrase this as Entscheidungen treffen (to reach a decision). But on the upside, you can now chuckle knowingly when your German friends enthusiastically tell you in English that they’re “making the party.”
Q & A
When you’re out and about in the German-speaking world, there are certain phrases that you’ll hear time and again. In my case, early contributions to basic interactions with German speakers ranged from embarrassed silence to a mumbled danke or OK. Getting familiar with a few simple phrases, questions and responses will go a long way to boosting your comfort level in these situations.
Einen schönen Abend/Tag noch
This phrase is used for polite leave-taking, usually between strangers or acquaintances. It literally means “a lovely evening/day still” and is basically the equivalent of “have a nice day.” You’re likely to hear it at the supermarket checkout, along with schönes Wochenende, “have a nice weekend.”
You can say this in reply to a polite leave-taking phrase such as the above. This means “likewise” or “same to you,” and it’s the appropriate catch-all response to all manner of well wishing.
The German equivalent of “pardon?” which is the polite way of asking someone to repeat themselves, if you haven’t heard or understood.
Was geht (ab)?
This is how you’d informally say “what’s up?” or “what’s going on?” to a friend.
Was ist los?
Hast du was (etwas)?
Is something wrong?
It’s also a good idea to brush up on your Umgangsprache (slang) here.
It’s reassuring to know that you’re going to regularly come across many German words that you recognize. One reason is that German and English share the same roots, stemming from the Germanic language family (you’ll find an interesting and rather beautiful illustration of this here).
In addition, just as English has absorbed many German loanwords, such as Zeitgeist and Schadenfreude, a growing number of German words are direct imports from English.
Like all languages, German continues to evolve with time. Some purists are less than pleased with the growing anglicization of Hochdeutsch, especially in cases where an English word has entered common usage to replace an existing German word. The product of this exchange is often derisively referred to as Denglisch (that is, German-English). Nevertheless, for the English-speaking German student, these words are small blessings.
They are also known, for obvious reasons, as “true friends” (as opposed to “false friends,” like Also above).
Take these verbs:
These have all been effectively adapted from English to the German grammatical structure. As you can see, many come from relatively recent developments in digital technology. But you’ll also find:
surfen (on the net as well as at the beach)
Sorry (is it really surprising when Entschuldigung is such a mouthful?)
Finally, here’s a fairly exhaustive list of English loanwords in German.
Take Your Conversation Skills to the Next Level
Though it will take a while to learn how to use them properly, it’s useful to know from the outset about flavoring particles. You’ll find they pop up at seemingly random intervals everywhere—and they are, in fact, the key to speaking German like a native.
There are several, but we’re just going to dip our toes in the water with a few common examples: doch, mal, eigentlich and aber.
German speakers pepper their speech with these little guys all the time.
Each has a definition in its own right, but, much like the Senf on your Wurst, will also be used regularly in the middle of a sentence to alter its emphasis or “flavor.” Usually this means adding emphasis or toning something down. There’s no real equivalent in English, which may be one reason why native German speakers can come across as a little blunt when speaking English!
Means “yes” when at the start or end of a sentence, but only to refute a negative assumption, i.e. affirming an instance where doubt has been expressed.
Trinkst du kein Kaffee?
Don’t you drink coffee?
Yes, I do!
See if you can pick up how it’s used in this short film. Doch can also be used to soften an otherwise rather blunt question or statement.
Komm doch mit!
Why don’t you come with us?
This little word pops up all over the place and is possibly the most over-used particle. Literally a shortening of einmal (once), it is, like doch, commonly used as a softener.
Gehen wir mal ins Kino?
Why don’t we go to the movies?
Das ist aber gut!
That is (surprisingly, or contrary to what you just told me) good!
Actually means “actually,” but can also mean “by the way” or “by chance.”
Hast du eigentlich die Zeit?
Do you have the time by any chance?
Relax: getting the hang of flavoring particles will take time. But even with only a vague grasp of how they work, at least now you’ll be prepared to listen out for them—and you’ll be a step closer to speaking like a native! If you think you’re game to venture further into the woods, what better way to do so than with a Grimm’s fairytale?
Just for Fun…
You’ll need to have a giggle from time to time. Lucky for you, German has plenty of amusing yet functional words to offer. Here’s a few that might make you smile.
Rubbish (e.g. Das ist Quatsch “that’s rubbish.” Also quatschen “to talk rubbish” or to talk about nothing much.)
Stupid. It just feels good to say it!
Teehee. If someone asks you if you have Lust auf Schockolade, they’re not prompting you to expose your burning desire for the stuff, but rather whether you feel like eating it. Similarly, ich habe keine Lust darauf simply means “I don’t feel like it.”
Used to express a divided opinion. Yes and no in one—who but the Germans could be so efficient!
You’ll find more hilarious words here. Enjoy!
And One More Thing About Learning German Words…
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You’re not going to get it all from your textbook. You need to go straight to the source.
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