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When words wander

Are there any German words in your language? It’s no coincidence. Here we explain the reasons and reveal a few fun facts.

Felicia Ehrmann, 19.02.2021
Words wander into other countries and languages.
Words wander into other countries and languages. © Pixel-Shot -

While learning German have you ever noticed that you know some words, because they already exist in your language as well? Maybe kindergarten or wunderkind, if you come from an English-speaking area, or Butterbrot (Buterbrod) in the Slavic-speaking area?

Words with a migrant background

There are numerous reasons for this. Usually the words arrived with people who travelled to other countries because of work, trade and migration. We call them loan words. In German they are called Wanderwörter, or jokingly, words with a migrant background.

This collection of words is based on entries to the competition “Ausgewanderte Wörter” run by the Deutscher Sprachrat I Kindly supplied by the Goethe Institute.
© Goethe-Institut


However, these words don’t always have the same meaning in the original and the new language environment. For instance, in Russia you may find all kinds of cheese, sausage or caviar on a Butterbrot, but no trace of butter. And under no circumstances should you venture into an office in Bulgaria in an Anzug, because rather than denoting a stylish suit, it means a plain tracksuit.

Signs of a networked world

The fact that language is constantly evolving and that words spread through various language areas, is a sign of a networked world. German compound terms in particular are currently establishing themselves in other languages, because the conversation surrounding them has spread from Germany to those countries. This is the case with terms such as Waldsterben in French, or Weltanschauung and Zeitgeist, which have become established in several languages. And in English the adjective zeitgeisty has now been invented.

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Of course, the movements of words don’t always simply go in one direction. German is also constantly integrating new words, especially from English, but increasingly from North Germanic languages, such as Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. Whilst people in the USA might talk about Gemuetlichkeit during a Kaffeeklatsch, young people in Germany have long since referred to this feeling as hygge. It’s a Danish word that in their opinion describes the feeling of Gemütlichkeit much better. In other words, curled up on the sofa with woolly socks on your feet, surrounded by genuine wood furniture and sipping a cup of tea.


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