German is a tricky language – all the articles (der, die, das), cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive), plural endings, irregular verb conjugations, capitalized nouns, and umlauts – there’s a lot to remember! When I first started learning German about 7 years ago, I was mystified by all the grammar rules, unfamiliar pronunciations (it took a long time for me to get the ‘ch’ sound just right) and of course the confusing proverbs. Some were essentially the same as ones I’d heard in English, while others were so bewildering that I could only guess at their meaning.
I’ve collected a pile of my favourite German proverbs for you and I attempt to explain their meaning below.
1. Andere Länder, andere Sitten.
Literal translation: Other countries, other customs.
This was the first German proverb that I learned in my beginner German class. Quite simply, this proverb sums up the idea that different countries have their own customs, traditions and cultures which may be different than the customs you’re used to in your own country.
2. Ich kaufe doch nicht die Katze im Sack.
Literal translation: I’m not buying the cat in the bag.
Recently my husband and I have been looking to buy a new car. After browsing online for a few weeks, we found one that we were interested in. When my husband called the dealer to express interest, the dealer suggested that we buy the car as soon as possible since it would get sold quickly. After he hung up, my husband muttered, ‘Ich kaufe doch nicht die Katze im Sack.‘ In other words, he doesn’t plan to buy anything sight unseen!
3. Die Felle schwimmen davon.
Literal translation: The furs are swimming away.
This proverb conjures up the most hilarious image in my mind. It derives from the craft of tanning or leather making. If the worker wasn’t careful during the tanning process, his newly-made skins would drift away while he was washing them in the river. This proverb is used to point out that a situation is worsening.
4. Du hast wohl einen Clown gefrühstückt!
Literal translation: You ate a clown for breakfast!
My husband often says this proverb to me if I’m being particularly silly for an unusually long period of time. Unfortunately, this saying is not really a compliment but rather a gentle rebuke on one’s childish behaviour.
5. Was man im Kopf nicht hat, muss man in den Beinen haben.
Literal translation: What one does not have in one’s head must one have in one’s legs.
Imagine this: You bring out the trash and want to pick up the mail on your way back inside. Once you’ve trudged back inside and sat down, you realize that you actually forgot to look inside your mailbox to collect the mail. Therefore, when you forget something, you have to get up and go take care of it.
6. Lügen haben kurze Beine.
Literal translation: Lies have short legs.
Ever heard that it’s simplest to tell the truth? This proverb points at the fact that lies are easily spotted and quickly fall behind the truth. (Does anyone else picture tiny lies running around on little legs when they read this saying?)
7. Klappe zu, Affe tot.
Literal translation: Close the lid, the monkey’s dead.
Said with a wink, this proverb is the English equivalent of ‘The show’s over, folks’.
8. Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen.
Literal translation: No master has yet fallen from the sky.
Said as a form of encouragement, this saying is used to reassure beginners that masters aren’t created in a day and that it takes time to perfect a skill or craft. Many of my teachers have uttered this phrase to the class throughout the course of my German language learning.
Though usually peculiar and unfamiliar at first, proverbs are a fantastic introduction to a new language. Since proverbs often derive their roots from the culture where the language is spoken, they can also teach you something about the history of the country, the way people once lived, and what they valued. At the very least, most proverbs prove to be memorable!
What’s your favourite German or foreign language proverb? I’d love to hear in the comments below!