Untranslatable German Words

Instructor: Penelope Heinigk

Penelope holds a doctorate degree in German and a professional teaching license in the state of Colorado. She has taught middle school through university, online and live.

In this lesson, we will explore untranslatable German terms. Let's take a look at fifteen German words that the English language has either adopted directly or for which there is no direct English translation.

The Untranslatable

One of the great things about learning a new language is that you gain access to a whole new range of words that don't exist in your mother tongue, boiling certain concepts down to an essence. German is infamous for having a lot of words that are untranslatable, or at least difficult to translate. For some of these, we have simply adopted the German word into the English language. Others require more clarification. Here is a list of 15 German words that do not have an English equivalent, along with their essence:

Weltschmerz

(pronounced: VELT-shmairts)

Weltschmerz, a word coined during the Romantic era in Germany, literally translates to world (Welt) pain (Schmerz), but it means so much more. Similar to the French term ennui, Weltschmerz is a rather pessimistic word capturing a feeling of pain and disappointment that the world is falling short of one's expectations.

Schadenfreude

(pronounced: SHAH-din-froi-duh)

You are driving on the highway and someone in another car speeds past you, cutting you off, and this speedy driver proceeds to ride other drivers' bumpers. A few minutes later down the road, you see the flashing lights of the police car with speedy parked in front of him. A broad smile spreads across your face with a feeling of smug satisfaction. That is Schadenfreude: the feeling of happiness at another's misfortune.

Doppelgänger

(pronounced: DOHP-uhl-GANG-air)

Doppelgänger is a term that refers to the double of a living person. It stems from German folklore and originally had a sinister connotation, as it was bad luck to meet your Doppelgänger or spirit double. In modern usage and the adopted English version, it simply refers to someone who is your splitting image.

She found her Doppelganger.
twins

Sehnsucht

(pronounced: ZAIN-zukt)

Sehnsucht is a difficult word to translate. The term encapsulates a desperate longing for something we can't quite put our finger on--a driving yearning for something that is missing in our lives. It is more than just wanting; it is a deep emotional state.

Kindergarten

(pronounced: KIN-dair-gahr-tin)

You might think Kindergarten isn't a foreign word, as it is quite commonly used in English. In fact, you probably went to kindergarten as a child. It comes from the German language, however, and literally means 'children's garden.' The term was first coined by Friedrich Froebel, a German educator who opened the first Kindergarten in 1837. It is worth noting that today, Kindergarten in Germany more commonly refers to the American preschool, an option for younger children before starting their required education.

Abendbrot

(pronounced: AH-bend-broht)

Literally, Abendbrot means the bread you eat in the evening. However, the term generally means a light supper and is often used in place of Abenessen (dinner).

Fernweh

(pronounced: FAIRN-vey)

Many languages have a word for homesickness. In German it is Heimweh. Fernweh is the exact opposite of homesickness. It is the longing to get far, far away.

Verabredet

(pronounced: fer-AHP-ray-det)

It is well known that Germans are punctual people. Verabredet means to have not only an appointment or date, but a punctual appointment or date. So, 8:00 means 8:00, not 8:15.

Geborgenheit

(pronounced: guh-BORG-in-heyt)

The English dictionary translates Geborgenheit as 'safety' or 'security,' though this translation does not fully capture the emotional essence of this word. Geborgenheit describes a condition in which one feels comfortable and warm, as if, for example, in the safe protection of your mother's arms.

Poltergeist

(pronounced: POLT-air-geyst)

Thanks to Hollywood and television, most of us are familiar with the mischievous and destructive Poltergiest ghost. The word derives from the German verb poltern, which means 'to knock or rattle,' and the noun Geist, which means 'ghost.'

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