Things that come in pairs

One downside of knowing multiple languages is that you always get confused and overcomplicate things.

See in English, things like Pants and Glasses come in pairs, and are plural. French is similar, although often the singular works as well.

So when it comes to German, I often get confused about words like “die Hose”, “die Brille”, because I instinctively think they’re plural. Turns out, they’re not.

How do you say CHICKEN in German?

One of the things that are always hard for a German learner is the huge number of words for food items. So many foods have multiple names. Karotte/Möhre. Orange/Apfelsine. Lauch/Poree.

A thing that really confused me is Chicken. Huhn, Hühnchen, Hähnchen… So many words, which ones are right?

So I looked up all the terms for Chicken and found that the terms for living animals (hen, rooster, chick) were all pretty clear. It’s only chicken meat that varies between Hähnchen and Hühner. So in comes Google, and here’s a chart comparing the frequency of Google results for terms using Hähnchen vs Hühner.

Why German grammar is so hard

I often get asked whether learning German is easier because I know French and English already.

The answer is NO.

And the best example is possessive pronouns (my, your, their, etc.)

See, in French, you choose which possessive based on the object. “Mère” is feminine, so it’s always with the feminine possessive (ma mère, ta mère, sa mère). Similarly with “père”: mon père, ton père, son père.

In English, possessives are based on the person doing the owning. My mom, my dad. Your mom, your dad. So you need to worry about the 3rd person: he, she, it. His mom, his dad. Her mom, her dad.

In GERMAN, it’s based on both who’s doing the owning and what’s being owned: the pronoun you choose is based on the subject, the ending is based on the object. Thus, “ihrE Mutter, ihR Vater”; “seinE Mutter, seiN Vater”.

And that’s just for the nominative case. Don’t get me started on all the cases.

What’s a CUP called?

OK So this whole thing started because I had a glass teacup and got into a debate on whether it’s called a Glas because it’s made of glass or a Tasse because it has a handle.

Table comparing the words for various drinking vessels in English, German, French and Chinese.
Just call it a Glastasse.

Der/Die See

Sometimes, German has too many words, sometimes, not enough.

Who was the brilliant person who decided “Hey, let’s use See to mean both sea and lake, but just to avoid any confusion, Der See is the lake and Die See is the sea.”

What’s a BAG called in German?

After the dive into wallets, I realized that German has A LOT of words to describe bags!

Table listing the words for different kinds of bags in English, German and French.

Turns out, most of the BAGs are clustered around a few words: Tasche, Beutel, Sack and Tüte, with some overlap. Which only means one thing: It’s Venn Diagram Time!

Venn diagram showing the grouping of different types of bags under the words Tasche, Beutel, Sack and Tüte.

What’s a WALLET called in German?

One of the everyday words that have been tripping me is WALLET. What’s the German word for it? I hear it called so many different things: Portemonnaie, Brieftasche, Geldbeutel, Geldbörse…

I decided to settle this once and for all, and ask Google, via Image Search, to give me answers.

1. I looked up all the translations for Wallet

2. I plugged the words into Google Image and looked at the number of search results AND the images shown

3. Collect the data

4. Look up regional differences

5. Make a nice graph for you guys

Results: Portemonnaie is used in the north, Geldbeutel in the south. No real distinction on the kind of wallet (the small kind where bills are folded or the bigger kind where bills are flat).

What’s a CAKE called in German?

A Kuchen, of course.

Except when it’s a Torte. Which may be a Tart but definitely not a Pie. Fruit pies are not really a thing in Germany.

So when does the Kuchen end and the Torte start?

It turns out to be easier than I thought. A Torte needs multiple layers. A cake is just one piece, possibly with bits of fruit on top and/or icing.

Fun fact: Germans traditionally bake their Kuchen in a sheet pan and cut them into rectangular portions. If you go to the bakery and get Kuchen, that’s the format they usually come in.

What are BALLS called in German?

I was teaching my 2yo how to say ball in French, and he got really confused because a ballon in French is a Ball in German, and a German Ballon is a balloon, or as the French French say, a baudruche (we Quebecers just call it a ballon).

It got me thinking, what are the different words for Ball-like things?

I made a chart with my results:

Conclusions (approximate, I’m not a linguist):

  • English pretty much calls everything a ball, except it they float
  • German seems to distinguish things that roll, bounce and float
  • French boules roll, balles are thrown, and ballons are filled with air

Flowchart: Canadian Supreme Court Determines Whether Text Messages Are Still Private After Reaching Recipient’s Phone

Ever wondered what a Supreme Court judgment says, but did not have the courage to read through one?

Well you’re in luck, because I’ve diagrammed a recent Supreme Court of Canada judgment which determined whether Canadians had a reasonable expectation of privacy over SMSs that have reached the recipient’s phone.

In this case, police arrested two suspects and illegally searched their phones. This meant the evidence from each phone couldn’t be used against the phones’ owners. At trial, the prosecutor used, against one of the suspects, the copy of the SMSs recovered from the accomplice’s phone, arguing that the suspect couldn’t contest the illegal search of someone else’s phone. The case was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Some notes, if you’re not a lawyer:

Civil rights are all about limiting State interference in people’s lives. The Supreme Court often defines civil rights principles in the context of a criminal case, as it is the most common situation where people and the State collide. As such, civil rights are often decided on cases where the defendants are not the most sympathetic ones and it is possible that criminals will be set free.

Cases that reach the Supreme Court are often very complex. Even when the question is not that complex, the ultimate ruling often depends on a chain of arguments, where any link in the chain may break the whole case. In the case below, for example, from a technical point of view, the actual ruling on privacy of SMSs is an accessory to the bigger question of whether a piece of evidence is admissible in court. Yet the reason this case went all the way up to the Supreme Court is exactly on this specific point.

If you do read the full judgment, which I recommend you do (the majority ruling is only 82 of the 200 paragraphs), you’ll notice that the Supreme Court does not take civil rights lightly. On the contrary, it adopts a point of view that tends towards broadening, rather than restricting, privacy rights. The following quote illustrates this point of view:

To accept the risk that a co-conversationalist could disclose an electronic conversation is not to accept the risk of a different order that the state will intrude upon an electronic conversation absent such disclosure. “[T]he regulation of electronic surveillance protects us from a risk of a different order, i.e., not the risk that someone will repeat our words but the much more insidious danger inherent in allowing the state, in its unfettered discretion, to record and transmit our words”: Duarte, at p. 44.