Germany: The country of Lederhosen and Weißwurst, of beer and Oktoberfest, and – most importantly – the land of poets and thinkers. Great writers and philosophers like Goethe, Kant, Schiller, and Nietzsche are responsible for this impressive nickname. And the fact that the German language produced profound expressions like Weltschmerz and Fernweh definitely didn’t hurt its reputation either.
However, that doesn’t mean that Germans always talk like they just emerged from an old-fashioned poetry book: There are many words and slang terms that have nothing to do with the Hochdeutsch that is taught in schools and textbooks. In order to help you perfectly blend in on the streets of Berlin, we compiled a list of some of the most used colloquial expressions that will enrich your vocabulary and help you on your quest of speaking just like any of the Germans.
Tja is quite difficult to exactly pinpoint. Its meaning can range from indecision and thoughtfulness to resignation or indifference: basically a solid all-rounder and probably most comparable to the English “Oh well”. If you are ever at a loss for words or are unsure about the best way to respond, a short Tja will always be satisfactory for a while and buy you some more time to come up with a well thought-out reply.
There is no need to waste your breath on long salutations like Guten Tag! or even Wie geht’s? when two letters already suffice. Na? is a very common greeting among friends or colleagues and a question that can be answered with a Na! in return. Short, sweet, and simple.
Tschüss! is a universal way of saying goodbye. It can be used for colleagues as well as random cashiers at the supermarket. If you are feeling adventurous, you can even throw a Tschö! or Tschüssi! in the mix. And when you are parting from friends, a Mach’s gut (literally “Make it well”) is a nice way of telling them to take care instead of resorting to the formal Auf Wiedersehen.
Even basic words like “yes” and “no” have their own slang variants in German. Nö and nee are even more commonly used than their positive counterparts jo and jup. In fact, it is quite uncommon to actually hear a proper nein in Germany unless you are in a business meeting or are taking a very firm stand on a subject. Therefore, people can be a bit taken aback if you actually respond with nein, which is why nö and nee are vital for making small talk.
You disagree with a foolish idea or suggestion and want to express your dissatisfaction? “Das ist Quatsch!” will let everyone know that something is completely nonsensical and utter rubbish in your opinion.
Meanwhile, “Das ist eine Schnapsidee!” implies that the expressed thought is so daft that surely, only someone completely drunk on schnapps could come up with it. However, no actual alcohol needs to be involved in order to be accused of having a Schnapsidee, so being sober is never a good excuse.
Feeling unsure about a statement or a question? Na ja perfectly conveys that sentiment, similar to how the English use “Well” in the beginning of a sentence.
“Na ja, so würde ich das nicht sagen…” | “Well, I wouldn’t put it like that…”
Besides the standard toll and super, there are many more ways to properly convey happiness. How about spitze and geil? Spitze pretty much means “great” (however, it can also mean “top” and can therefore also be used to refer to the top of an iceberg or a mountain), while geil is a bit more complex. It can be used to convey simple enthusiasm or to comment positively on the physical appearance of another person, so a careful hand is advised when trying to fit that specific word into an everyday conversation.
Krass on the other hand is always a fitting choice when something seems extreme: extremely good, extremely bad, extremely unexpected… The possibilities are pretty much endless, which is why it’s another good staple for every German vocabulary list.
Finishing up with a proper sentence, this expression can be heard quite often in Germany. It literally translates to “Life is no pony farm” and cautions you not to expect things to go too smoothly. It can be heard especially often in a conversation when somebody seems to be overly complaining. It offers a very realistic and somber outlook on life – and therefore fits the no-nonsense German stereotype quite well.
German is definitely a tricky language to learn and all the colloquial words don’t make it any easier. However, most Germans are delighted when a foreigner is attempting to learn their language, so insecurity or embarrassment should never hold you back when trying to strike up a conversation. Most likely, your conversation partner won’t care about mistakes and will be happy to help you improve your language skills. Remember, nobody is perfect – and without practice, nobody can attempt to be either.