The unique challenges of learning German – Same/same… but different

One of the most annoying things people say to me when I tell them I’m learning German is something along the lines of the following:

“Oh! Cool. Yeah, well German is pretty easy. I mean, half the words are the same. When I was in Germany/Austria, I could understand all the menus/signs.”

I want to hurt you a little bit now.

Yes, you can see that Parkplatz is where you park your car. Well done. But once you get past signs that are more than two or three words, it gets a lot harder, believe me!

And while it’s true that many words are exactly the same, just to mess with your head a little (like mine is), here are ten examples of words that sound the same, and in some cases are spelt the same, when in fact, they are completely different.

  1. Marmalade

Jam marmalade
Nope, not Paddington’s favourite orange spread

No, this is not the sweet, orange toast spread that Paddington Bear loves so much – Marmalade in German is simply a word that means ‘jam’… of all sorts. If you wanted to say ‘raspberry jam’, for example, you would have to add ‘raspberry’: Himbeeren Marmalade. Same/same, but different.

  1. See

Not 'Sea'
Not ‘Sea’

No, See is not the ‘ocean’, that would be Meer. See is instead, to really confuse you, a ‘lake’.

  1. Halb 3

Half past the hour
Halb 3 is actually half 2

This is a timing thing. Halb 7, should be ‘half 7’, right? Half past seven. Wrong! Halb 7 translates to 6:30. Because it’s half of 7, get it? No? Me neither. I still don’t.

  1. Hell

Easter fire austria

It’s not the fiery place where bad people go when they die. No, in German hell simply means ‘light’. As in ‘light in colour’. Not the physical light. That would be: Licht

  1. Chef

He's only the chef if he's the boss!
He’s only the chef if he’s the boss!

Chef in German is definitely not someone who cooks your meal. No, it’s actually your ‘boss’. A male boss that is – if your boss is female, she’s your Chefin.

  1. Gift

Gift means poison
Please, no more gift!

Has nothing to do with a ‘gift’, unless you’re a very bad person. Because Gift in German means ‘poison’.

  1. Will

Will or want
I will… I want… ah I’m confused

As you might suspect by now, will does not mean ‘will’… instead it means ‘want’. There’s a really confusing phrase in German – Wenn du willst – which my parents-in-law say to me all the time. It sounds like it means ‘when you will’ eg. ‘Come and get these strawberries, whenever’. But no – this is actually: ‘If you want’. They’re not telling me I have to come and collect strawberries, they’re simply offering them to me, and only if I want. But to me, it always sounds like they’re telling me something I have to do, rather than something I can do, only if I really want to.

  1. Handy

Handy means mobile in German
This is your ‘handy’

Does not mean ‘useful’. And does not mean anything else you might be thinking of in your dirty mind. A Handy is simply the German word for a ‘mobile phone’. It’s a Handy – it goes in your hand. Duh!

  1. Feier

Not Fire
Feier, not ‘fire’

Pronounced ‘fire’, this has nothing to do with a burning ‘fire’. In fact, Feier means ‘celebration’. How confusing is that?

  1. Rat

Luckily not this creepy rodent

No, not some kind of rodent at all. Rat is simply ‘advice’.

So there you have it. Just a few of my favourite misunderstandings. Except for, of course: fahrt and dick. But I’ll save those for a later post. The one called German words that sound dirty in English. My 16 year old self will write that one gleefully.

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