German Prepositions: Far Too Many Ways to be Right

Dear German people of the world,
I would like to speak with you about your prepositions.

Prepositions — those words which describe the temporal, spatial or logical relationship of an object — can be tricky in any language. In the German language, however, prepositions are both predictably and unnecessarily complex. What follows is a story I hope will illustrate my point:

Back in the summer of 2011, during a trip to Germany, The Wife and I drove in a tiny car from Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) to Berlin. I made my wife drive the entire time, and I did this for two reasons:

  1. The car had a manual transmission, and I hadn’t touched a stick shift since 1997. (That sounded naughty, didn’t it.)
  2. I am afraid of driving on the Autobahn because you Germans in your fancy BMWs like to haul ass at like 120 mph. (Or 193.12 km/h, if you want to be an Arschloch about it.)

We had a TomTom navigation system with us, and since my wife was driving, we set its verbal instructions to German. I knew a whole lot less of the language back then, but I did realize we seemed to be taking a lot of right turns after the TomTom said “rechts,” and a lot of left turns after it said “links.” Naturally, I concluded these two words meant “right” and “left,” respectively, and went about the rest of our trip feeling proud as hell of myself for being such a quick study of the German language.

Since returning to the States, I’ve operated under the assumption that I knew how to say “right” and “left” in my wife’s native language. However, thanks to Mango Languages, I just discovered “rechts” and “links” mean, very specifically, “on the right” and “on the left.”

Furthermore, I am now required to learn another kind of “right,” which is “gleich” — a more immediate “right” — as in “right next to it.” And if I want to say “right” in order to describe something that is correct? Oh, for that one I get to learn, “richtig” or “genau.” And what if I just want to affirm something, like, “Learning German sucks, right?” Well, that sort of “right” demands I memorize the words, “nicht wahr,” “korrekt” or “gell.” On top of all this, some of these words are slang, and others are only used in certain regions of the country.

German people of the world — would you like to know exactly how many words we have in English for the word “right?” …ONE. Just one. We have many uses for it and several decent alternatives, but only one we ask you to memorize.

Aww hell, we love you anyway, you Teutonic sons of bitches. Sprechen sie Deutsch, baby.

Click here to read about some other things those wacky Germans are into.

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50 responses to “German Prepositions: Far Too Many Ways to be Right

  1. Both brilliant and hilarious. Thank you for making me feel a little bit less stupid about my ongoing (futile) attempts at learning German.

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  2. I remember the Autobahn well. The one night it was raining, and those german roads are so nice, not all bumps and patches and potholes like in US, and our wimpy rental pocket sized car did not grip the slick pavement well. Some arschloch went speeding by us links so fast we were nearly blown off the road by the wind of its wake. We both screamed and looked for the nearest ausfahrt.

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    • Right??

      This is why no one survives car accidents in Germany.

      I’m glad you were okay though!

      What kind of rental car did you have?

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      • Hmm, so many years ago. A tiny VW of some sort, seemed so small compared to our pickup trucks we drove at home. Back when gas was affordable and we were allowed to ruin the environment without feeling guilty of course. And before the minivan full of kids. Yes, so many years ago.

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      • Haw! Nice.

        Those Europeans and their tiny cars… so much more efficient with gas mileage… so much more deadly in a wreck.

        Of course, if there were no giant trucks or hummers on the road, the accidents wouldn’t be so deadly to begin with. :)

        I just want to teleport straight from the shower to work. Thin towel covering my junk on my way to the coffee maker. “Mornin’ Bill…”

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      • Heh, One of the many perks I enjoy with working from home – no dress code for teleconferences! Why did you name your junk Bill though, I wonder? :)

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      • Haw haw haw haw!

        Touché.

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  3. If I’m to understand you correctly, you prefer adding a variety of prepositions to the word “right” instead of incorporating prepositional meanings into a single word that varies according to the preposition being used. But you also prefer having alternate meanings for the same word, depending on context, regardless of whether a preposition is involved, as in your last example. I’m thinking you should “flip” your thinking and view the English language from the perspective of a non-native English speaker. Learning a different word for a different meaning can be much more precise than sifting through a variety of meanings for a single word. I’m thinking your German wife should be allowed to share her 2 cents on how insane the English language is.

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  4. That does it. I am never going to learn any more German than the 4-line child’s prayer my Volga German mother taught me when I was only 3. I shall stick to my high school Français entirely. Or that made-up polyglot thing we resort to when abroad, which we term “speaking Euro.” Good enough.

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  5. Except for getting the articles right in the various cases, I think German is pretty logical and straightforward, as languages go. And our word “right” has at least five different meanings. Come on, you can’t tell me that’s not confusing to non-English speakers!

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    • Thank you for visiting and for the comment, Jim! Please come back often!

      Our loaded English words with their multiple meanings must be confusing for non-native speakers, but at least they only have to memorize one word, as in the case of “right.” Memorizing 5 words will always be more difficult, and harder to retain, than 1. Hell, with a word so open as “right,” you can just fire off a sentence wildly, attempting to use one meaning of that word or another, and you have a decent chance of being understood based upon odds alone.

      I do agree, however, German is quite logical (and surprisingly eloquent), especially where word order and verb placement are concerned, but we must not forget it is a language based entirely upon nouns with unnecessary genders. So, unless I grew up as a little kid in Germany, I am very likely going to screw up every sentence I say because I have no way of knowing “the Sun,” for example, is female. :)

      If you’d like to read more about this, I went off on a pretty heartfelt rant on German articles here:

      http://ohgodmywifeisgerman.com/2011/08/22/an-initial-impression-of-the-german-language-articles/

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      • Articles are no problem after you learn the fine art of mumbling them all!

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      • Haw haw! People keep advising me to do that!

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      • But you can same the same of Spanish or French gender assignations. German is not unique in that sense.

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      • Correct, German is hardly the only language to use gender-based nouns. English, however, does not, and this is why I argue it is simpler on the whole. Oh, and the fact that English has fewer cases than German (which, of course, change according to the gender articles involved).

        I do appreciate the total lack of silent letters in German, however — and the fact that all nouns are capitalized. Though these are but minor traits, they are helpful for the German language beginner. :)

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  6. But driving slowly on the Autobahn is the best way to learn obscene German gestures from the BMW drivers as they pass you by. Have to look quick, though!

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  7. You have my sympathy and respect for trying to learn German. Husband has all but given up I think…

    By the way, I know it’s not a preposition but right can also mean ‘Recht’ (a noun, in other words) as in ‘the law’.

    However, I have most fun when discussing with my English husband who of us is actually driving on the ‘right’ side of the road. Right is such a nice little word.

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    • Don’t let your husband give up! Just get him Mango Languages! It’s only like $79 bucks or something. I realize cost is less meaningful than motivation, but still — it’s an awesome product. http://www.mangolanguages.com/store/passport-german/

      And thank you for the encouragement! It’s a challenge, but I really do love learning German. I bitch about it a lot here on our blog, but mostly because it’s such an easy target. :) Oh, and it makes my wife laugh her German ass off. :)

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      • I agree, motivation is the key. So he stopped when he had learned all the important words like ‘Pobacke’.

        He is also soaking up whatever our little monster is learning, so his skills right now are about the level of a 3-year old’s. Not too bad for an old man.

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      • Right on! My German skill level is about that of a 3 year old as well… one that has been hit in the Kopf a few times.

        Ooo! Would you mind sharing with the group in which context your husband learned the word ‘Pobacke?’ :)

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  8. I hate prepositions. Usually I just guess one and hope the other person understands me. (Since the other person is almost always my fiance, he does understand, but he also laughs at me.) I have a separate set of flash cards that I made just for the prepositions, with different sentences to show all the different ways they can be used. Heck of a lot of good that’s done me…

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    • That’s a great idea! I’ve also been advised by Jim Grey to practice the fine art of mumbling them all. :)

      Which part of Germany is your fiancé from?

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      • He was born in Australia, but his parents were from Bavaria and Saxony.

        I also mumble all the articles because I can never remember which gender all the nouns are.

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      • Nice! I am trying to mumble them as well, and my wife, bless her soul, lets it slide.

        I want to get them right though! You know? Perfectionism. Oh God, my wife’s teutonism is infecting my sweet, lazy, American brain. :)

        So, does your husband have an Australian accent or a German one?

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      • He has sort of a mix. His family spoke German at home, but obviously he went to school with English speaking Aussies, so he doesn’t sound especially German or Australian. Which is nice because I don’t find either of those accents especially pleasing to listen to, but the way he speaks is lovely. Wish I could say my German sounded as nice as his English!

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      • Nice! And I totally hear you on speaking German. However, my wife says my American accent is “cute,” which I assume is meant in a thoroughly condescending way. :)

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  9. You have lots of fun with languages and their complexities, don’t you?
    Great post!

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  10. I remember driving on the autobahn from Frankfurt to Stuttgart after a twelve hour plane ride and no sleep for almost twenty four. I was doing about 85, and noticed a car in my left mirror coming up quickly. The BMW passed me like I was standing still, with a guy in red leather drafting on its bumper on a motorcycle. Both had to be doing 150. I found it odd, yet oddly pleasing, in a country predicated upon retentiveness and order. Germany rocks!

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  11. I know, right! :D haha, and I thought English was hard!

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  12. Tell me about it!!! I’ve got a few articles on learning Germans, please give me your opinion ;)

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  13. Why would the BMW only go 193 km/h? I would say 200 – 215 km/h is standard for BMW I believe.
    Meine bessere Hälfte will love you for this article!
    Hilarious!!

    ~Anja~

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    • Nice! Please return to us with his comments! We’d love to hear them! :)

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      • I will do that. One thing he always complaints about are the long words that are basically set together in English like: Beibehaltungsgenehmigung or Lieblingsbuchhandlungen. That’s why it is important to read simple literature first in order to recognize the single word within the words. Like
        >> Der Struwwelpeter << ;)

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  14. Hey, prepositions in English are equally as confusing for my wife, and she speaks English half and half since we live with my in-laws (long story, but good one).

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  15. Sandra Stelmach

    Hey there. Enjoied very much your little essay about the german autobahn and the prepositions. It’s so funny to get another perspective of your country, your folks and the charachteristics of your native language!
    But referring to american interstates (does the “i” mean interstate?) – when my boyfriend and I visited Seattle in summer 2010 I learned to know the car pool lane. Great idea America! Most fascinating about it: you are allowed to use this car pool lane when you are just two persons. Never would work in Germany. Not neccessary to mention that we were almost alone on this lane, nicht wahr (right)?
    Btw: I like to drive the “stick shift” here in Germany (and I am capable of it) but in Seattle I was really happy about having an aoutomatic rental car (medium size – when you ever get the chance to?)
    Think I will read a little more in your blog und “mir ins Fäustchen lachen” (I will laugh up my sleeve).
    So greats from Leipzig, Germany!

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    • Hi Sandra! Thank you for such a wonderfully positive and thoughtful response!

      I made sure my wife saw it — especially that little bit of denglish about “laughing up my sleeve.”

      Yeah, those car pooling lanes are pretty cool, but in Seattle they freak me out because they veer away from the rest of the freeway, like you’re taking an exit or something. :)

      Thank you for your reply and please follow us! We’d love to hear from you often!

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  16. blamethemonkey

    After extensive research, I’ve concluded that this is the funniest blog in the world.

    The word “just” has confused me a bit while learning German. “I just heard that he died” (Man hat mir gerade gesagt, dass er gestorben hat) and “I’ll have just a little” (Ich möchte gerne nur ein Bisschen).

    Like

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