I’ve been living in Zürich and therefore learning German for the last few years. Here are some things about German that are funny or interesting.

  • Some things are countable in German that are not in English. This quickly polluted my brain and now I find myself saying things like “can you pick up a bread from the shop” when speaking English.

  • “Willst du mich verarschen?” means something like “are you fucking with me? Literally “do you want to arse me?”

    (Actually, the prefix ver- is hard to translate but it gives a sense of over-arsing. Do you want to over-arse me?)

    See also this dril tweet.

  • The German for turtle is Schildkröte: shield-toad 🐢.

  • German treats snails and slugs as variations of the same concept: Schnecken. Slugs specifically are called Nacktschnecken: naked snails.

  • OK this one is pretty, like … cerebral. I think to try and get across why it’s funny, it’s best for me to just flail around trying to explain it.

    English has a thing called “phrasal verbs” where a certain verb, in combination with certain adjectives or prepositions, take on a specific meaning separate from or beyond the straightforward combination of those words.

    For example consider “take someone on”, “throw something out”, “get down with someone”, “pissed off”. If you were learning English, you’d have to learn explicitly what each of those phrases means even if you already knew their constituent words.

    German has a related thing called called “separable verbs”. These often look exactly like their English phrasal-verb counterparts, for example: “lass mich rein” translates very straightforwardly to “let me in”.

    The major difference between German’s separable verbs and English’s phrasal verbs is that the former are treated as a single word: “lass mich rein” is really just two words, reinlassen and mich - the former just gets split in two in certain syntactic contexts.

    This makes for a weird feeling where deeply idiomatic English has jarringly straightforward translations into German, followed by an uncanny-valley feeling from the difference in the grammatical structures and semantics of the verbs.

    A couple of examples that tickle me are :

    • abgefucked; this means “fucked up”, but that ge in the middle is weird. Ge- is normally a prefix that makes things past-tense. The -ed suffix fills that role in English, which is actually cognate with another inflectional suffix in German verbs, for example the -t in gesucht which is cognate with, and means the same as, “searched”. So we have two separate past-tense inflections, one from English and one from German, but they both feel necessary because of the shared linguistic ancestry. Also, why is ab the chosen preposition? It’s because it sounds like “up”!

      This whole thing is an incredibly dense knot of cross-language interactions that bears quite detailed linguistic analysis, yet at the same time it’s basically just people saying “fucked up” in a kind of German accent.

      Do you know what I mean…? Do you know what I mean???

    • anscheissen; “es scheisst mich an” means something like “I can’t be arsed with it” but has the literal structure “it shits me on”. Not “it shits on me” but “it shits me on”.

  • “Es ist mir Wurst” is a way to say “whatever”/”it makes no difference to me”. Literally: “it’s sausage to me”.

  • A puncticilious person is called a Korinthenkacker in High German: a raisin-pooper. In Swiss German it’s Tüpflishiiser: someone who shits little dots.

  • The German word for syrup is Dicksaft: thick-juice. lol, lmao

  • German adjectives are inflected depending on the gender and number of the noun they’re describing. In certain contexts this happens even when you don’t actually say the noun.

    For example if someone asks what cup you’d like, you might answer “eine blaue” - a blue one. To do that correctly you have to call to mind that the word “Tasse” (cup) is feminine. But you could also have said “ein blaues”, in this case the person who asked would have to deduce that you were probably thinking of the neuter word “Glas” (glass).

    I don’t think it’s at all unique to German but I had never really thought about it before; it’s pretty funny that absent words influence grammar like that, in my opinion.

  • Gums are called Zahnfleisch: tooth-meat. Or tooth-flesh, take your pick.

  • To (mostly ironically) threaten someone with violence in Swiss German you can say “Ich zeige dir wo dä Bartli dä Moscht holt”: “I’ll show you where little Bart gets the apple juice!”

  • The 2008 film In Bruges’s German translation is called Brügges Sehen… Und Sterben? - “See Bruges… and Die?”

  • The word for a queue is Warteschlange: wait-snake.

  • Pubic hair is called Schaamhaare: shame-hair.

    (Hair is another of those nouns that’s uncountable in German, so actually it’s shame-hairs).

And here’s some bonus content about Vietnamese.

  • Vietnamese is a totally analytic language; words aren’t inflected with varied endings or vowel-changes or anything like that. Instead you just convey complex meaning by combining many words.

    Most of the foreign languages English-speakers learn are more synthetic than English; the usual experience is to be dismayed at the size of a conjugation table when learning a Romance language for example. So it’s fun to experience a language that goes all the way in the opposite direction.

  • The Vietnamese for a shower is vòi sen: lotus-sprinkle; because a shower head looks a lot like a lotus seed pod.

  • According to my brief and shallow experience of Vietnamese culture, the question “how old are you” often comes right along with “what’s your name” in the social protocol. This is because you need to know someone’s age relative to you in order to know which pronouns you’ll use. Both for yourself, and for referring to the other person.

    Westerners might assume that this distinction is obviated in many modern contexts, like du/Sie in German or tu/vous in French. At least according to the Vietnamese teachers I asked, this is not the case at all! I was advised that defaulting to a “neutral” choice like bạn would come across as uncomfortably intimate, and that you should always strive to use a precise pronoun.

    (Be cautious about repeating this too confidently though, I didn’t successfully learn Vietnamese, it’s pretty likely I’m misunderstanding something.)