The German language certainly has its quirks – that’s common knowledge. However, words that fill philologists with enthusiasm often leave German learners rather baffled. A recent viral post about the various meanings of the verb “umfahren” underlines one of these pitfalls. “Umfahren” can mean to knock/run somebody or something over, but can also mean to drive around or bypass something or someone.
This linguistic phenomenon is referred to as a homonym. Homonyms are words that sound the same but mean different things.
In German and in other languages too, words exist that mean more than one thing. In Spanish, the word ‘capital’ refers to both the capital city and capital letters, while in English a ‘foot’ is both a part of the body and a unit of measurement. The intended meaning of the word is usually explained by the context of the sentence, but sometimes the meaning can only be conveyed through the use of linguistic variety.
Homonyms: a challenge for non-native speakers
There are countless homonyms in German. Verbs are a particular source of puzzlement. “Durchkämmen”, for example, can be used to mean combing one’s hair, or to comb through an area in search of something. The phrase “einen Zug nehmen” can likewise lead to confusion. If you want to travel from one place to another, then taking a train (“einen Zug nehmen”) will certainly help. The less healthy version is to take a draw (“einen Zug nehmen”) on a cigarette. Another popular homonym is the verb “anhalten”. If your car or bicycle “hält an”, it has ceased to function properly. However, if you say the rain “hält an”, the situation has not changed for it is simply continuing to rain.
A further point that makes life even more difficult for language learners is that homonyms are not only limited to verbs. Nouns can also have drastically different meanings. A good example of this in German is the word “Bank”: this is either an establishment where you can pay in or withdraw some money, or a bench on which you can sit down and have a rest. A “Kiefer” is something you will likely encounter on a walk through a forest – a pine tree – but you can also use your “Kiefer”, meaning jaws, to chew on the packed lunch you have brought with you. “Futter” can refer to the kind of food given to animals, but can at the same time mean the cloth lining of your coat. The German language certainly contains plenty of traps for non-native speakers, but without them it would just be too easy – don’t you think?
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