German (including Austrian German) is the unloved stepchild of the European language family. It isn’t as easy on the ear as French. There is none of the passion of Italian or Spanish. It doesn’t offer any of the mysterious, sibilant charm of a Slavic tongue. Nor does it have the easy flexibility of English.
With its harsh-sounding words and unyielding grammar — German tends to scare people off in fairly short order. It is a functional language that lends itself to engineering and philosophy — not poetry. To the uninitiated, it seems less like the language of love than the language of loudly barked orders.
But I love both German and Austrian German and have spent the greater part of my life learning and perfecting my skills in the language — even making my home in it. And I have found it to be simply bursting with brilliant terminology. English may have adopted words like “Doppelgänger” and “Schadenfreude” — but the well of wonderful German words is so much deeper and more abundant.
It’s time the world knew more about German! So, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite words…
This translates literally as “sitting meat”. Someone is said to have “Sitzfleisch” when they have great staying power or endurance — they literally have enough meat on their bottoms to keep sitting on them until they get the job done.
This is the word for a toilet seat. It translates literally as “toilet spectacles”. German can be said to be overly direct and irony-free…but if that approach gives us fabulous words like this, I’m not complaining.
A Schuhlöffel is a shoe horn, but translates directly as “shoe spoon”. Let it never be said that German doesn’t tell it to you how it is!
Having worked in the Austrian legal sector for many years, I am intimately acquainted with the concept of the Schachtelsatz. Because lawyers seem to love them and use them wherever possible. To obfuscate, feign cleverness, or because they believe them to be necessary to communicate complex technical concepts.
A Schachtelsatz is an overly long and complicated sentence. The kind that has so many sub-clauses that you forget what the basic subject matter was by the time you get washed up to the next full stop, gasping for air.
Literally translated, it means “box sentence” and conjures up a kind of pass-the-parcel language structure whereby every box you open simply reveals another one inside. The nesting tables of the linguistic world.
I am from Austria
Since I live in Austria, I am most familiar with Austrian German. The German spoken in the Alpine Republic is still recognisable as standard German (unlike its Swiss cousin), but is divergent enough in terms of words used and dialect that many northerners still find themselves perplexed when they come here on holiday. Sometimes, I joke that if High German is a piece of straight wire, Austrians have made a paperclip out of it.
Here are some gems from the rocky uplands of Austrian German:
There is no better way to start my introduction to the German of the Alpine Republic than with this amazing concoction. Even if you have no idea of German, simply saying this word out loud will give you a clear indication of its meaning, as it is so deliciously onomatopoeic.
Schiach (pronounced “shirch”, with the “ch” at the end spoken huskily from the back of the throat, like the “ch” in “loch”) means ugly, unpleasant, or nasty. I challenge you to use this in an English sentence (“Oh, look at the rain! The weather is so schiach today”) — I’ll bet my bottom dollar that non-German speakers will know exactly what you mean.
Pronounced by many Austrians as “oag” (these guys love to maul vowels like dogs with bones), this scrappy little word is tough to translate into English. The most accurate description which I can think of is a combination of “bad” and “annoying”. It is used to describe things which are not just negative, but which make you grind your teeth in frustration at the same time.
Pronounced “vappla”. The finest (British) English translation of this is “pillock”, although “fool” and “idiot” would fit the bill too. A Wappler is anyone who recklessly cuts in front of you on a traffic roundabout, gesticulates so wildly that they accidentally smack you in the head when you try and pass them on the escalator, or makes a spectacle of themselves in public. Prince Harry is the undisputed King of the Wapplers.
This is a great word which means to irritate, pester, bother, or annoy someone. It comes from the Italian word “seccare”, meaning to dry or dehydrate. The idea behind the word clearly being that if you make someone dry or dehydrated, then they will become irritable. Like skin.
There is no word more Viennese than this. In fact, the Viennese culture and mentality is so brilliantly encapsulated in these 8 little letters that all I need to do is to say it to myself and I can instantly “feel” the city and all its beauties and foibles.
Granteln means to moan, grumble or be grouchy. But even those words don’t really do granteln the justice it truly deserves, as none of them transport the aggression and the feeling of having been wronged or unnecessarily inconvenienced which granteln entails.
A true Viennese will “granteln” about anything and everything. Even if everything in his/her life is otherwise perfect, granteln is still mandatory. Granteln is something to do to pass the time. You have truly integrated in Vienna when a) you no longer really notice other people doing it, because b) you’ve started doing it yourself without thinking.
Nicht geschimpft ist genug gelobt
A phrase to finish. English does not have a phrase which properly encaptures the spirit of “nicht geschimpft ist genug gelobt”. But it tends to occupy the same emotional space in my own inner linguistic world as “to damn someone with faint praise”. It is the same sort of non-compliment and carries the same curmudgeonliness.
It translates as “not having told you off is praise enough”. To me, it is the most Austrian of all Austrian German phrases — capturing as it does the fluent, low-level grouchiness that natives do so well.
This stubborn refusal to indulge anyone without good reason can be interpreted as meanness. And it must be said: Austrians aren’t the kind of people to rush towards strangers with open arms. Their culture has none of the service-driven effusiveness of the Americans, nor the informal chit-chat of the British. Austrians remain quite reserved until they know you a bit better. But when you are accepted then you know the friendliness is genuine. It has its own, unique charm!
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