When I was about thirty, I traveled around Germany with one of my uncles. A year or two before that, I’d taken beginner German classes for two or three months. You’ve heard the saying, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Well, my trip to Germany made that clear.
At the places we were staying, there was rarely a breakfast buffet. Instead, breakfast was served, and the centerpiece of the meal was always a split roll or a couple of pieces of bread with butter and a thin slice of cheese. Every morning I removed my cheese, so—not liking to waste food—I decided to ask for just bread and butter. No Google Translate on my phone in those days, although I had a little dictionary in my purse. But I had taken German lessons, hadn’t I? I knew exactly what to say.
So at the next hotel breakfast, when the waitress came to ask if we wanted tea or coffee, I ordered my coffee and then said, with a smile, “And I’d like bread and butter, please, but only butter.” I still remember the waitress staring at me, silent, a slight frown on her face, and my repeating in my careful German, “Brot und Butter, bitte, aber ohne Butter.” A few minutes later she came back and placed a plate of bread, butter, and cheese in front of me, no different from the breakfast of the day before. When I tried again the next day, it was just the same. How rule-bound these Germans are, I thought.
The third time I tried my breakfast phrase, we were at a different hotel in a different city. I repeated my order; this time I got a very puzzled look from the waitress and dry bread on my plate. At long last, I had the sense to check my dictionary. It turned out ohne didn’t mean “only”—it meant “without.” What I’d been telling these poor women I wanted was bread and butter without butter.
I think anyone who has tried to speak a foreign language has stories like this (although I suppose there are times when we tourists say nonsensical things and carry on, proud of ourselves, without realizing that our words were unintelligible.) This seems especially easy to do in German because some of the vocabulary is so similar (Haus/house, Buch/book) that we are lulled into thinking we know more than we do. Words like these that appear the same but aren’t are called false friends.
Those of you who speak German will already know a lot of English-German false friends, and those of you who don’t have no reason to care about them. Still, I can’t resist listing a few of these confusing pairs. (German nouns are capitalized).
aktuell doesn’t mean actually, it means up-to-date
Billion doesn’t mean billion, it means trillion
brav doesn’t mean brave, it means well-behaved
engagiert doesn’t mean engaged to be married, it means committed—to a cause, for example
Gift doesn’t mean gift, it means poison
Mist doesn’t mean mist, it means dung or, by extension, worthless junk. It’s also used as curse word.
ordinär doesn’t mean ordinary, it means vulgar
plump doesn’t mean plump, it means clumsy and awkward
Rat doesn’t mean rat, it means advice
See doesn’t mean sea, it means lake
spotten doesn’t mean to spot something, it means to tease someone
winken doesn’t mean to wink, it means to wave
wer doesn’t mean where, it means who
Ah, the joys of foreign tongues! In fact, I do believe in the fun and usefulness of learning to speak another language, but there’s no way to do it without feeling like a fool time after time. After thirty-five years of using German every day, I still ask my husband to explain a word in the newspaper article I’m reading, hunt for phrases when I’m speaking, and misunderstand what people are saying to me, especially on the telephone. But the pleasure of being able to feel completely comfortable in Bern makes every second I’ve spent learning German worth it.
Denitsa Kireva took the photo of the rat.