How to be brief in German


Außerhausverkauf = Verkauf aus dem Haus = zum Mitnehmen (maybe coffee? Food?). The construction site does not give any other option.

The German language is not famous for its brevity.

Ich wünsche dir (or Ihnen or euch – depend on your relationship with that person) ein frohes neues Jahr. These seven words mean: Happy new year.

You are invited to a birthday party of a friend. Flowers in your hand, you ring the bell. Your friend opens the door. You say, “Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag.” By the time you reach the end of this sentence, the party may be over. Birthday wishes need in German twice as many words as in English, altogether 34 letters, and you haven’t even mentioned the birthday child’s name.

Some of my students, eager to build more complex, more profound answers to my questions (Möchtest du Brünhilde singen? Magst du Regietheater? Gefällt dir Berlin in der Nacht?) ask at first, “Wie sagt man ‘It depends’?” Their eyes widen in disbelieve when they hear my response:

Es kommt darauf an.” Or: “Es hängt davon ab.”

Some of them try it, others backtrack to flat answers (Brünhilde: Vielleicht. Regietheater: Nein. Berlin in der Nacht: Ja.)

However, there are short versions for most phrases, since the day has as many hours for a German as it has for English-speakers. Life – or the possibility to lose it – has shorten expressions, and formed the language in many regions. For example, the dialect in the Ruhrgebiet, the Ruhr Area, where for generations millions of immigrants worked in coal mines and steel factories, merges words and cuts off word endings. If a coal miner attempted to warn his co-worker of a falling bowlder with a long, formal, well-thought-out phrase, the mining industry would constantly suffer heavy labor shortage.

“Pass auf!” Watch out!

Hochdeutsch offers short versions of many phrases, too. It helps the language learner to listen to people and imitate them.

Long: Es kommt darauf an. Short: Je nachdem.

Long: Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag. Short: Alles Gute zum Geburtstag. Shorter: Gratuliere. The verb is gratulieren. Here it is conjugated for first person singular: Ich gratuliere.

The phrase Guten Tag is already a short version of Ich wünsche Ihnen/dir/euch einen guten Tag. Notice the adjective gut, and its ending -en. It implies the accusative of der Tag:

Ich wünsche den Tag. Ich wünsche einen Tag, einen guten Tag.

Wie geht’s? stands for Wie geht es Ihnen/dir/euch?

The first phrase I heard from a Berliner in the new year was a short one: Gras? He tried to sell me marijuana.

The first nice phrase in the new year I heard from the sales lady in the chocolate department at a Berlin department store. (I am a regular customer there.) She wished me a happy new year by nodding at me, smiling and saying a tiny but heartfelt “Frohes!”

In der Kürze liegt die Würze: Brevity is the soul of wit.

Published by


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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