Seeing Germany through English Eyes-Life in Germany

Seeing Germany through English Eyes-Life in Germany

A humorous look at adjusting to life in Germany

The linguistic and cultural misunderstandings between German and English are an endless source of amusement. After almost 20 years in Germany, I have come across plenty. Join me now as I explore another four everyday topics that have created opportunities for confusion and embarrassment for English speakers in Germany.



Walk into a German kitchen and you’ll find a utensil that you wouldn’t find in any British kitchen: it looks like a short, dirty sock strung on to a wire. It’s usually drying close to the sink. And it’s obvious that the sock used to be white, but is now brown. This is a “tea sock” — a cotton filter used for making tea. You might also find a “tea egg” if you’re lucky.

Now, Germans like tea just as much as the Brits, but they drink much more herbal tea. Tea in Britain is usually black, but we don’t call it “black tea”, we just call it “tea”. Black tea with milk still isn’t popular in Germany. If you ask for tea with milk, you’ll often get a little container of Kaffeesahne (coffee cream), unless you specifically ask for fresh milk.

When you watch a Brit making a cup of tea, it seems very unceremonious, careless even. They put the kettle on, get out a mug, throw in a teabag and get the milk out of the fridge, ready to pour it into the mug once the teabag has been removed. The teabag is then left to drain in or near the sink. What you can’t tell from the process alone is just how important the brand of tea is, how long the teabag must be left in the mug and how much milk should be added. These personal preferences are adhered to religiously and respected by others. Attention is always given to this when making tea for someone else. Which is why, after 25 years in Germany, I’m still offended when someone offers me Kaffeesahne for my tea. Don’t they know by now how I like my tea?

While whole supermarket aisles in the UK are filled with simple black tea of various brands, in Germany, there are speciality tea shops, where you can buy loose-leaf tea and tea-making accessories, such as eggs and socks. You can buy all the usual sorts of tea by the gram — from Assam and lapsang souchong to black teas with flavours like caramel or apple strudel. Supermarkets and chemists also sell row upon row of boxes of tea, but there are far more types of herbal tea than “black tea”. Many relaxation teas are also available, which makes me think that Germans are super stressed. There’s Kopfentspannungstee (head relaxation tea). Does that make your head floppy but not the rest of you? And Einschlaftee (tea for falling asleep), Antistresstee and Beruhigungstee (calming tea), to name just a few. You’ll also find teas for all sorts of minor ailments — from Hals- und Rachentee (neck and throat tea) to Magen- und Darmtee (stomach and bowel tea). This sort of tea is very personal, it seems, and not the sort you serve up with a plate of cucumber sandwiches at five o’clock.

No place for wusses

Wussy behaviour is generally frowned upon in Germany and it seems to be a national pastime to come up with nasty words for people who don’t exactly live life on the wild side. The best known are Warmduscher (someone who takes only warm showers), Sitzpinkler (a man who sits down to pee), Frauenversteher (a man who understands women) and Schattenparker (someone who parks in the shade). There are many more of these terms. On one website, I found 600 terms! Here’s a sample: Beutelreiskocher (someone who cooks boil-in-the-bag rice), Blasenteetrinker (someone who drinks bladder tea — see above), Handbuchleser (someone who reads the instructions) and Wunschkennzeichenfahrer (someone whose car has personalized number plates).

More traditional terms for a man who isn’t considered to fit into the traditional testosterone-fuelled image of masculinity is a Weichei (a soft-boiled egg) or a Pantoffelheld (literally “a hero in slippers”). In English, we would call him a “wuss”. In German, there’s also Schlappschwanz, which sounds really rude. It just goes to show how flexible the German language is and how specific the insults can be.

Spießer, short for Spießbürger, is another German word with no adequate equivalent in English. If you describe a neighbour or a colleague as a Spießer, anyone will understand that you’re not thrilled about their company. In English, you might say that they’re boring or

narrow-minded. But that doesn’t really get across exactly what makes this person boring. A Spießer is someone who is a conformist, is set in their ways, who sticks to the rules, doesn’t think outside the box, lets routine rule their life and believes there is one way of doing things.

I recently had a run-in with a Spießer in the village I live in. He was wondering about the number plates on our cars. In Germany, it’s quite common to have personalized number plates — they’re called Wunschkennzeichen. (See above.) Mr Spießer: Don’t you have your initials on your license plate? Me: No. Mr Spießer: Normally, people have their initials on their number plates. Me: Yes, I know. But we don’t. Mr Spießer: Don’t the letters stand for anything then? Me: Yes, they do. When the cars are parked side by side, the letters spell the name of our dog. Mr Spießer: (silence)

To give the guy credit, he seemed satisfied with the explanation because now he knew what the letters stood for and was probably relieved that they weren’t merely some crazy, random selection.

“Berry me” or “bury me”?

What still worries me a little after all this time in Germany is what German sometimes does to my English. I find myself changing the way I pronounce English words when I use them in a German sentence. Let’s say I want to meet someone at a camping site, then I’ll say: “Treffen wir uns am Campingplatz?” Only I won’t say “camping” the way I would say it in English, I say it like this: “cämping”. Or if I’m ordering a sandwich, I might say: “Ein vegetarisches Grill-sandwich bitte,” but instead of saying “sandwich”, I say “sändwich”.

Why do I do this? I say the words like my German friends say them and that’s because of received pronunciation (RP), which is the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England. Received pronunciation is the accent that is taught in German schools, so most Germans — unless they’ve picked up a different accent on their travels — speak English with this accent. And obviously, I don’t because I’m neither English nor did I learn English in Germany. Only around two per cent of the UK population have an RP accent, but nevertheless, it’s necessary to have a standard, even if it has become somewhat outdated.

Growing up in Scotland, I didn’t even know that received pronunciation existed, until I did a teacher-training course in Edinburgh. I was in a phonetics class, trying to understand why the phonetic transcription of the sentence the teacher had dictated to us didn’t look anything like the way I was pronouncing it. And I wasn’t the only one who was confused. After the teacher suggested we try pronouncing the sentence as if we were the queen, the symbols suddenly made sense. For the next four weeks, every time we had a phonetics class, eight Scots and a guy from Northern Ireland would sit in class putting on posh English accents as they tried to learn the phonetic symbols.

In the Lindt chocolate range “Nice to sweet you”, some of the English seems a little strange to me, not quite English. There’s “Every bit makes crum, crum, crum”, for example. Do they mean, “Every bit is yum, yum, yum”? I don’t really know. And how about, “Just say yes and berry me”. When I read this, I understand, “Just say yes and bury me,” which is rather macabre. I’m guessing this is a pun and is supposed to remind the person who’s looking at the chocolate wrapper of “marry me” rather than “bury me”. But when I speak English, “marry” doesn’t rhyme with “berry”, so in order to get the point, I have to pretend I’m back in my phonetics class and speak like the queen.

English and German mixed up

English is everywhere in Germany — in advertising, on products and in pop songs. The German language has also adopted a lot of English words, called loanwords, such as party, baby, cocktail, pullover and hobby, to name a few. But some of the loanwords, although they may sound English, aren’t used in the same way that English native speakers would use them. These are called pseudo-anglicisms.

“Spießer is a word with no equivalent in English”

Let’s have a look at some German and then see how we would say it in English: “Ich gehe heute Abend zum Training ins Fitnessstudio. Ich mag den Trainer, weil er ein richtiger Sunnyboy ist. Danach gehe ich zum Wellness — ich lass mir ein Peeling machen, denn morgen habe ich ein Fotoshooting.”

An English native speaker would say: “I’m going to work out at the gym tonight. I like the trainer because he’s always in a good mood. Afterwards, I’m going to the spa to have my skin exfoliated, because I have a photo shoot tomorrow.”

Almost the same, really.

I can’t help wonder what a strange experience it must be for people living in Germany who know very little English, or even for those who do know a bit of English. They are constantly confronted with English in the language of marketing. If marketers started emblazoning German on British products, there would be loads of letters to The Times, and riots, and everything! You just have to visit your local Drogeriemarkt — which is like a chemist’s without the chemist’s counter — to see what I mean. As you stroll down the personal hygiene aisles, you notice all the English — it’s all “active energy”, “luxurious volume”, “inner power”, “ultra soft” and “cotton feel”. This isn’t beginner’s English, either. I’d say it was at least B1 or B2 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

There’s often a mixture of languages on the packaging, for example: “Wake-up Sofort-effekt Gel”. Is this a super-strength coffee gel? Smelling salts? What?

With such a mix of languages on products, it’s easy to get confused. What is “After Shave Balsam”? Is this the English “after” or is it the German After? Could this be a cream to soothe the irritation caused by shaving your anus or is it for your face? Probably the latter. You might be surprised to read “extra dick” on a packet of moist toilet paper. Don’t worry, it’s just German for “extra thick”, not a free gift.

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