gewöhnt vs. gewohnt

In English, if we say we are used to something, we mean we are accustomed to that thing and find it normal, e.g.:

I’m used to getting up early.

In German, there are two ways of saying used to: gewöhnt and gewohnt.

This post looks at how gewöhnt and gewohnt are used, the extent to which they may differ in meaning, and how this affects their English translation.

1. The English perspective

From an English perspective there is no difference in meaning between the following two German sentences:

Ich bin an das frühe Aufstehen gewöhnt.
Ich bin das frühe Aufstehen gewohnt.

They only differ in that gewöhnt requires a preposition (an) while gewohnt does not, but this makes no difference to the English translation, which in both cases is:

I’m used to getting up early.

The same translation would apply if you reworked the German sentences using an infinitive verb + zu (aufzustehen) instead of the nominalised verb (das Aufstehen):

Ich bin daran gewöhnt, früh aufzustehen.
Ich bin (es) gewohnt, früh aufzustehen.

2. The German perspective

Although the German sentences in section 1 are so close in meaning that their English translation is the same, writers in German on this subject tend to agree that there is a subtle difference in emphasis between gewöhnt and gewohnt. According to this view, gewöhnt is associated with the idea of a process – of becoming used to something – while gewohnt suggests simply being used to something with no hint of the process involved in arriving at that state. This nuance is discussed in ‘Fragen Sie Dr. Bopp!’ – a forum hosted by canoonet, an online dictionary and grammar reference for German (see citations in the table below).

SOURCE: canoonet: Fragen Sie Dr. Bopp!

gewöhnt-gewohnt table

Similar citations – in which the difference in meaning is explained, but its importance played down – can be found in gewohnt / gewöhnt? and in the comments section of gewohnt oder gewöhnt? (comment: 6 Nov. 2015, 10:46).

The idea that gewöhnt and gewohnt can be interchangeable in terms of meaning is also supported by Duden online, which lists an etwas gewöhnt sein as a synonym of etwas gewohnt sein (see under the section ‘Wendungen, Redensarten, Sprichwörter’).

So far, then, we are still safe in claiming – as I did in section 1 – that any difference in meaning between gewöhnt and gewohnt is so subtle that it is not reflected in English translation. However, this is not always the case (see below).

3. be used to vs. get used to

Sometimes the process-oriented meaning of gewöhnt (discussed in section 2) is so distinct that it cannot be ignored in translation. This is the case when gewöhnt is used as a verb:

Ich habe mich an das frühe Aufstehen gewöhnt.
I’ve got used to getting up early.

Compare that to our sentences from section 1:

Ich bin an das frühe Aufstehen gewöhnt.
Ich bin das frühe Aufstehen gewohnt.
I’m used to getting up early.

In the red-highlighted sentences, both gewöhnt and gewohnt can be said to function as adjectives, with sein (in this case bin) acting as a linking verb. But in the blue sentence, gewöhnt is the past participle of the verb sich gewöhnen, and as such takes an auxiliary verb (haben). This verbal construction clearly refers to a process by which the speaker has become used to getting up early. And the idea of process – of becoming – is rendered in English by the verb to get (past participle: got), rather than the verb to be.

‘Verbal gewöhnt’ – if we may call it that – doesn’t have to be a past participle. It can also be the third person singular of the present tense:

Man gewöhnt sich an das frühe Aufstehen.
One gets used to getting up early.*

Or the second person plural familiar form (i.e. ihr), seen here in the imperative:

Gewöhnt euch daran!
Get used to it!

*A more colloquial rendering of this sentence in English would be with the generic you rather than the formal one, but I have retained the third person here just to demonstrate the grammar of the original German.

4. A historical perspective

In section 3, we saw gewöhnt as a conjugated form of the infinitive verb gewöhnen. Gewohnt, on the other hand, has no corresponding infinitive verb and is usually considered an adjective rather than a past participle. Gewohnt used to have an infinitive counterpart in Middle High German: gewonen –  but there is no such form in modern German. (For more etymological information, see Duden online under the ‘Herkunft’ sections of the entries for gewöhnen and gewohnt, respectively.)

5. Summary

Here are the two main points to take away from this post, from an English translator’s point of view:

  • both gewöhnt (an) and gewohnt, used as adjectives in combination with the linking verb sein, mean be used to;
  • gewöhnt means get used to, rather than be used to, when it appears as a conjugated form of the verb gewöhnen rather than an adjective with the linking verb sein.

6. Further reading

If you’re researching  gewöhnt and gewohnt, you’re likely to come across the following article by Bastian Sick: Zwiebelfisch-Abc: gewöhnt/gewohnt, published by Spiegel Online. Sick’s approach is as follows: after a brief introduction, he presents six example sentences – three for gewöhnt and three for gewohnt. Unfairly, in my view, all three of his examples of gewöhnt show that word in its verbal guise. The reader is thus kept in the dark about the fact that gewöhnt can be used as an adjective with the linking verb sein – in other words just like gewohnt, and with practically the same meaning. Sick himself does not explain the difference in terms of verbs and adjectives, preferring to let his examples speak for themselves. I would encourage you to read his piece, despite my misgivings about it, as you may find it helpful in ways the author had not anticipated. In my case, trying to understand what I found frustrating about Sick’s piece gave me a fresh insight into the subject, inspiring me to write my own post.

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