Four Words for What is Down Below

Körner-Park, Neukölln, Berlin

Recently a student of mine went to the Deutsche Oper Berlin to see an opera. After she settled in her seat in the upper tier of the theater, she looked to the stage and mused about the many unt words that have to do with the world down there.

unten, runter, unter, drunter.

Why four words for what is down and never comes up anyway? They all have to do with things below oneself (otherwise it would be about oben) but they belong to a different category of words, describing differently what happens and where it happens.

The word unten is a “Lokaladverb”, an adverb that tells us where things happen, of a destination or a source of an activity.

Unten ist das Parkett (theater parquet). Meine Freunde sitzen unten, ich sitze oben.

Of course, besides unten and oben, there are other “local adverbs” like links, rechts, da, drinnen, draussen.

The word runter is an adverb that describes the direction of a movement. It is the short form of herunter. There is also a hinunter. The use of these words depends on the position of the speaker. The prefix her- leads to the speaker while hin- describes a movement away from the speaker.

Meine Freunde rufen: “Hier unten im Parkett ist noch ein Platz frei. Kommst du herunter?”

Ich antworte: “In der Pause nach dem ersten Akt gehe ich hinunter.”

This would be an ideal dialoge in some ideal high-German speaking areas.

However, often you will hear:

“Kommst du runter?”

“Ich geh’ runter nach dem ersten Akt.”

The word unter is a preposition, leading to both, an accusative and a dative which means that unter always comes with a noun.

Ich stelle meine Tasche unter den Theaterstuhl.

Wo ist die Tasche jetzt? Unter dem Theaterstuhl.

The word drunter belongs to a group of words with the name “Pronominaladverb” which sounds like a new hot pharmaceutical product against cough. Drunter is actually a short form of darunter. It replaces a group of words that is known to the speaker and the listener.

Siehst du das Bett von Donna Anna? Weißt du, wer drunter liegt? Don Giovanni.

This means: Don Giovanni liegt unter dem Bett von Donna Anna.

The phrase drunter und drüber describes chaos, lack of organization in a room, on the workplace or in someones life.

“Sie ist eine disziplinierte, fleißige, erfolgreiche Sopranistin, aber in ihrem Privatleben geht alles drunter und drüber.” She’s a great singer but she has tons of debt; a week ago her house burned down, her boyfriend just left her for an actress and she just has discovered that there is a life-changing genitive in Konstanze’s aria “Martern aller Arten”.

Next update on Sunday, May, 27th: All you need to know about the genitive.

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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