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The German language can be confusing for both, native and non-native Germans. There are three different genders (feminine, masculine, and neutral), endless compound nouns, four grammatical cases, various ways to construct a plural, a certain word order, umlauts and several false friends.
Having said that German language rules have fewer exceptions than English and, once you’ve learned the rules, there are few surprises. However, German does have some words that are virtually untranslatable directly and can provide a challenge for even the professional translators.
Here are our top five complex words, what they appear to mean and what they really mean.
Literally: muscle hangover
Although the name may suggest otherwise, this has nothing to do with drinking too much alcohol. Instead, it is the physical pain you get after (possibly unfamiliar) physical strain, usually after doing sports.
It does not occur right away, hours pass until this sensation comes into effect. The whole body is aching and to a certain extent, you feel unable to move. In English this is usually described as ‘feeling stiff and sore’ or, more formally, ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’, having simply one word in German is definitely easier and more vivid.
Literally: celebration evening
Originally, this was just the evening prior to a holiday but it turned into the definition for the time of day when you are off from work and are free to enjoy your leisure time.
It could include an actual celebration, but normally it does not, it can be a cosy evening at home. For most people, this is their favourite time of day, so it makes sense to have a descriptive word for it.
Literally: presentation effect
If you’ve practised something, like a new card trick or playing a song, over and over again until you have mastered it perfectly. Now, you want to show this to someone else and it’s a disaster – that’s the ‘Vorführeffekt’.
We have all experienced this at least once, something does not go smoothly because someone else is watching and you are put on the spot. As soon as you are on your own again, everything goes flawlessly. Frustrating! The nearest to this in English is the idiom ‘Sod’s law’ (if something can go wrong, it will goes wrong).
Literally: heat free
Every student during summer looks forward to being able to utter this word. It means that there is an early end to school attendance because of excessively hot weather (but only up to year 10 or 11). In other words, classes cannot continue because the external conditions do not allow the students to concentrate and participate properly, so they are free to leave.
Most students would use an afternoon of ‘Hitzefrei’ to go for a swim or to get an ice cream with their friends.
In some cases this concept even applies to the workplace.
This word merges the German yes (‘ja’) and no (‘nein’) into one word. It could mean ‘yes and no’, ‘maybe’, ‘kind of’ or is used conditionally and followed by an explanation for consent as well as an explanation for refusal.
It demonstrates that a speaker cannot or does not want to give a definite answer. It might also be used jokingly, but it clearly represents uncertainty. For example the question “Do untranslatable words exist?” can be answered with jein – the opinions on this question vary, some say “yes, they do exist”, others say “no, everything can be translated”, therefore, the answer in one word: jein!