What’s with…? / Was ist mit…?

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

What’s with…?
Was ist mit…?

This phrase is complicated to deal with because it has two meanings in both American English (AmE) and German, as illustrated in the table below. Both of the AmE examples are taken from the Dictionary of American Slang (via Dictionary.com), which dates What’s with…? to the ‘late 1930s+’ and attributes it to the Yiddish phrase Vos iz mit…? The German examples in the table are my own, as are their English translations.

whats-with-table-screenshot-paint3

As you can see, the type 1 usage (red) has the same meaning in both AmE and German, while type 2 (blue or green) has different meanings in AmE and German. German type 2 is probably more commonly used than German type 1, but it has no equivalent in AmE.

As I haven’t lived in the UK for many years now, I don’t know to what extent – if any – What’s with…? might be on the rise in British English. When I was growing up, it was still uncommon enough to be perceived as an Americanism. However, it clearly does occur in BrE, as a search for What ’s with in the British National Corpus returned 28 results. The earliest of these was from 1978, although most were from the 1990s.

Come on already! / Komm schon!

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Come on already!
Komm schon!

In English, already is used to express something that happened before now or earlier than expected. In German, schon is used the same way – as an adverb. But it can also be used as a modal particle, adding various shades of meaning to a sentence depending on the context and speaker’s attitude. In the German example above, schon adds emphasis to a command, suggesting impatience on the part of the speaker. The fact that American English can use already in exactly the same way is usually attributed to the influence of the Yiddish word shoyn (see here, here, and here) rather than that of German schon (see here), although the principle is the same.

British English, on the other hand, has to rely on intonation (‘Come ON!’) or question tags (‘Come on, will you?’) etc. to convey a similar sense of urgency.

Noodles / Nudeln

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Noodles
Nudeln

Both the American English and German terms above can refer not only to what British English understands as noodles (i.e. the type used in Asian cuisine), but also to some types of what British English would call pasta. Lynne Murphy has a detailed blog post on the ‘pasta/noodle distinction’, in which she mentions the German origin of the word noodle and the significance of this in the American context:

» …I suspect that my default understanding of the word noodle may be more common in the parts of the US that had more northern-European settlement. (…The word noodle comes from German Nudel.…) «

Do you want to come with? / Willst du mitkommen?

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Do you want to come with?
Willst du mitkommen?

Some regional varieties of American English treat come and with as two elements of one compound verb, which is exactly how German treats kommen and mit in the verb mitkommen. Standard English, however, treats come as a simple verb and with as a preposition, which must be followed by an object, as in ‘Do you want to come with us?’

The verb come with has its own entry in Wiktionary, where it is described as:

» American English. From a substrate of several Germanic immigrant languages that feature the same construction. «

The ‘immigrant languages’ referred to in the citation are Dutch, German, Norwegian, and Swedish. A discussion thread at WordReference.com mentions the influence of those languages, too, and also suggests bring with and go with as verbs which may be used in the same way as come with in relevant regions of the US. My wife, who is from Illinois with relatives in Minnesota, confirms this to be true and would even add take with to the list. All of the aforementioned American English compound verbs have direct equivalents in German: mitbringen, mitgehen, mitnehmen.

Germanisms in American English

Abbreviations: AmE = American English; BrE = British English

Being a Brit married to an American and living in Germany puts me in a good position to compare British and American English with German. And over the years I’ve been struck by the number of American English expressions that have close equivalents in German, but are not typically associated with British English. For example:

AmE:        Can I get a coffee?
German:  Ich bekomme einen Kaffee (bekommen = to get)

In British English it’s more traditional to order a coffee (or other food and drink) using phrases like Can I have…? or I’ll have. Admittedly, Can I get…? now seems to be fairly well established in BrE, too, but I can remember a time when that usage was only familiar from American TV and films. The same applies to some of the other expressions on my list below.

But before we come to the list, let’s look briefly at some historical reasons why there might be more of what I call ‘Germanisms’ in AmE than in BrE.

Firstly, during the 19th and early 20th century, the United States absorbed several million German immigrants, whose native language influenced the way they spoke English. It has to be said that some of the AmE expressions featured below may not have originated exclusively from German, but also from other immigrant languages with similar constructions. For instance, the fact that many Americans say ‘Do you want to come with?’ (without adding an object such as me or us) is attributable not only to the German verb mitkommen, but also to equivalent constructions in Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish.

Another group of immigrants that contributed Germanisms to AmE were Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, who also began to arrive in the US in large numbers in the 19th century. One feature of AmE attributed to Yiddish is the emphatic use of already (e.g. ‘Come on already!’, ‘Enough already!’). However, since the Yiddish word shoyn (=already) is so similar to German schon – which can be used in just the same way – I consider this usage to be a Germanism in the broader sense, even if Yiddish happened to be the main vehicle through which it became widespread in North America.

Germanisms need not be linked to a critical period of mass migration to warrant inclusion in this blog. Some of them may have entered AmE much later (e.g. foosball / ghost driver). In fact the only criterion for including an AmE word or phrase here is that I once happened to notice that a parallel expression existed in German but not in BrE. Whether or not all these so-called Germanisms can actually be traced back to German influence is another matter. And at this point I should make a few disclaimers:

  • There may well be AmE expressions on my list whose resemblance to supposed German counterparts is purely coincidental.
  • In some cases, even if the resemblance is not coincidental, the direction of influence may turn out not be from German to AmE, but rather from AmE to German. For instance, which came first: Have a nice day or Schönen Tag noch?
  • There may also be items on the list whose similarity is not due to borrowing, but due to the shared West Germanic origin of English and German. This may be the case with the phrase What gives? which looks like a loan translation of German Was gibt’s? although the two phrases may in fact originate from the same early Germanic root. When such forms are found only in AmE and not BrE, it may mean that they died out in BrE but survived in AmE – as was the case with the past participle of get: gotten.

For now, at least, I consider it beyond the scope of this blog to ‘prove’ that the AmE expressions listed can be attributed to German influence. Entries 1–7 on the list have already been cited by other sources as having German or Yiddish origins (see the links in the list for details), but the remaining entries have not, as far as I know. So if any readers can share evidence to support or challenge the Germanism hypothesis with reference to specific cases, I look forward to your comments.

Finally, I should say that the following list is by no means exhaustive. Wikipedia has a much longer list of German terms commonly used in English, many but not all of which it says are ‘used in American English, under the influence of German immigration, but not in British English.’ However, Wikipedia’s list consists mainly of isolated nouns, whereas my list is more focused on idiomatic phrases and informal speech. Some of the entries below link to separate posts in which I discuss the language points in detail. Ultimately I intend to add links for all of the entries, but this is still a work in progress…

List of AmE expressions with close equivalents in German:

    1. Do you want to come with? / Willst du mitkommen?
    2. Noodles / Nudeln
    3. Come on already! / Komm schon!
    4. What’s with…? / Was ist mit…?
    5. From your lips to God’s ears / Dein Wort in Gottes Ohr
    6. Foosball / Tischfußball (Kicker)
    7. Ghost driver / Geisterfahrer
    8. Sports fan / Sportsfreund
    9. My eyes are yellow! / Meine Augen sind schon ganz gelb!
    10. Can I get…? / Ich bekomme…
    11. And I don’t know what all / Und was weiß ich nicht alles
    12. I’m through / Ich bin durch
    13. I guess / Ich schätze
    14. Would…would / Würde…würde
    15. Side stitch / Seitenstich
    16. Out of… / Aus… (originating from)
    17. Have a nice day / Schönen Tag noch
    18. Happy holidays / Schöne Feiertage
    19. You know what? / Weißt du was?
    20. To go eat / Essen gehen
    21. To forget sth. somewhere / etw. irgendwo vergessen
    22. With the car / Mit dem Auto
    23. Super (+adjective) / Super (+adjective)
    24. It’s all good / [Es ist] alles gut
    25. Powdered sugar / Puderzucker
    26. Far-sighted / Weitsichtig
    27. Say! / Sag mal!
    28. We won’t melt (in the rain) / Wir sind ja nicht aus Zucker
    29. Three to two / Drei zu zwei (saying the football score ‘3-2 ’)
    30. Grilling weather / Grillwetter
    31. What gives? / Was gibt’s
    32. To wait on someone / Auf jemanden warten
    33. Math / Mathe

The verb ‘to be’ or not the verb ‘to be’?

Have you ever noticed how many verbs there are in German that mean to be? Apart from the verb sein (which literally means to be) there are plenty of other verbs that can be translated as to be in certain contexts. I’ve listed ten of them below, illustrating their use with authentic examples. Note that in each case, no matter how specialised or formal the German verb might seem at first glance, its most idiomatic English translation is simply to be:

1    bestehen

Es besteht kein S-Bahnverkehr zwischen Köpenick und Karlshorst.

There is no S-Bahn service between Köpenick and Karlshorst.

Another good example of when this verb means to be is the phrase ‘Besteht die Möglichkeit…?’ meaning ‘Is it possible…?’ or ‘Is there any chance…?’

2    betragen

Die Kündigungsfrist beträgt 3 Monate.

The notice period is 3 months.

This is a phrase typically found in the language of rental agreements. In this guise betragen is like a specialised version of the verb to be which is used for referring to exact numbers of things.

3    liegen

Aber wo genau liegt denn der Unterschied?

But what exactly is the difference?

Although it is possible to say that the difference lies somewhere, it sounds much more formal in English than it does in German, even a little old-fashioned. And in certain combinations it doesn’t work at all, as Peter Littger demonstrates with the phrase The devil lies in the detail – the title of his book on common errors made by German speakers in English.

4    sitzen

Ich sitze im Zug.

I’m on the train.

This has been the classic rail travellers’ refrain ever since mobile phones became widespread. Of course it’s equally possible to say ‘Ich bin im Zug’ or ‘I’m sitting on the train’, but the above examples are the default phrases. (Unless, of course, there are no seats left on the train and you are in fact standing.)

5    vorkommen

To illustrate the use of vorkommen, I have chosen this excellent tweet:

and my humble translation:

“The most annoying Star Wars character has got to be Jar Jar Binks.”
“Excuse me, there was no Jar Jar Binks in any of the three Star Wars movies.”

Here @felltomate is willfully denying the existence of the Star Wars prequels, which he clearly sees as vastly inferior to the original trilogy. In this example the meaning of vorkommen is close to the English verb appear, although to me it would sound unidiomatic to say ‘No Jar Jar Binks appeared in any of those movies.’

6    vorliegen

Hier liegt ein entsetzlicher Irrtum vor!

There’s been some terrible mistake!

Sticking with the Star Wars theme, this is a quote from one of those very prequels mentioned above, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The words are spoken by C3PO, whose head has been attached to the body of a battle droid, as he realises with horror that he has been programmed to march into battle. In this example it is the English sentence which is the original version and the German which is the translation (not my own, I might add, but the translation from the official dubbed version of the film).

7    sich befinden

Das Gerät befindet sich außerhalb jeglicher Garantie.

The device is not under any kind of guarantee.

Der Ausstieg befindet sich in Fahrtrichtung links.

The exit is on the left in the direction of travel.

The first example was printed on a document from the German Apple retailer Gravis. I added the second example (a commonly heard announcement on Deutsche Bahn trains) to show that this phrase can be used in the physical as well as the abstract sense.

8    sich um etwas handeln

Bei dem nachfolgenden Text handelt es sich um eine redaktionelle Fassung.

The following text is an editorial version.

This German construction is an elaborate way of providing additional information about something. To put it another way, it allows the user to say what something is without resorting to the boringly straightforward verb sein!

9    sich verhalten

Mit der wahren Liebe verhält es sich wie mit Geistererscheinungen: alle Welt redet davon, aber nur wenige haben sie gesehen.

True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.

This quote is attributed to the 17th century author François de La Rochefoucauld. Since the original language was French, both of the above sentences are translations (neither of them my own). The German verb here is used as part of an elaborate construction for comparing two things with one another: sich verhalten literally means to behave, so sich verhalten wie means to behave like (in other words to be like).

10    zu etwas kommen

Es kommt zu zahlreichen Sperrungen.

Many roads will be closed.

This example comes from information about traffic restrictions during the Berlin Marathon.

Finally, there are two verbs which are conspicuous by their absence from the above list: darstellen and gelten (or gilt als, to be precise). I have not included them here because they have been criticised as problematic alternatives to sein, despite commonly being used as such (see Juliane Topka on the use of darstellen and Fiete Stegers on the use of gilt als by journalists). By contrast, the verbs in my list would not normally – as far as I know – be considered pretentious or bad style by German native speakers, despite being rather long-winded in some cases.

All of the above translations are my own unless otherwise indicated. The translations of the Rochefoucauld quote in point 9 can be found here: German and English.