Just enough German to be paranoid: hören vs. gehören

Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I’ve “been studyingGerman for over 20 years!

But, of course, that misleading statement represents one academic year of university courses in the language, then a decade’s gap, and eventually picking it up again as an autodidactic hobby when one of my kids started to study German in school.

Ich verstehe nur ein biβchen Deutsch.I don’t know where I stand as far as the state sanctioned “level” of my ability to understand the language, but I am almost finished with the Pimsleur Level II audio course.

PimsleurI think my official designation is probably something like “rank amateur,” or “what’s lower than A1?”

Case in point: I was researching a future trip and using the Wiener Linien website to download a PDF map of the public transit system. I found this tag line printed on the bottom of each map:

Die Stadt gehört Dir.

Die Stadt gehoert DirThis gave me pause. The more learned amongst you can chuckle knowledgeably while reading through my thought processes in the rest of this post.

I’m quite clear on what “Die Stadt” means. Die Stadt*is “the city.”

FlashSticks German deployed1

Die Lego Stadt, or Lego City

“Dir” is the second person informalpronoun for “you.” It’s used when the word “you” is the indirect object in a sentence.

I frequently make mistakes about when to use the accusative and dative cases as I create (i.e., speak) my own sentences, but I always know who we’re taking about when I hear du, dich, or dir.

German pronounsIt was the verb that confused my weak grasp of the German language.

I know the verb hören pretty well. It means “to hear.”

verb conjugation hoeren

Naturally, I leapt to the conclusion that the Vienna transit authority was telling me:

The city hears you.

Or, giving it a creepier meaning, because I’m a bit paranoid:

The city is listening to you.

Even that might be a well-intentioned statement. My son also misread the sentencemaking the same mistake that I did. He thought Wiener Linien was indicating a customer service orientation with the same language I associated with eavesdropping.

Perhaps I’m the only one whose thoughts turn immediately to Big Brother in 1984 and “his” perpetual observation of the hapless citizens in that dystopian classic?

Google translateMy friend, Google translate, taught me the error of my ways. In fact, Wiener Linien would like me to know that:

The city belongs to you.

That’s so much better, right? Especially if I’m just visiting as a tourist. I mean, how generous, but, really, Vienna, you needn’t go to so much trouble!…

The verb that is actually being used in this sentence is gehören. I should probably learn it. “To belong to [someone]” is an incredibly helpful thing to be able to say when traveling.

I recognize that I am easily tricked by German verbs that begin, in the present tense, with “ge-“ because of how the past perfect (Perfekt) tense is formed. I.e., usually, by adding “ge—” and doing some other stuff to the end based upon rules I’ve read but not memorized.

Please consult someone who actually knows German instead of trying to learn any grammar specifics here. Otherwise, you, too, could frighten yourself as to the actually well meaning intentions of public transit authorities in German speaking countries.

A little knowledge clearly is a dangerous thing. Which somehow forces me to conclude with “the rest is commentarynow go study!

*Stadt being a false friend for the English word “state,” but clearly a related word in the sense of historical precedents such as the Greek “city-state” concept.

My apologies to Maimonides.

8 thoughts on “Just enough German to be paranoid: hören vs. gehören

  1. As a native german speaking I never thought of those odd things…but then english has weird things to..raze / raise record/record , etc …..languages are really fazinating, someone did a TED talk about it recently talking how other languages assgn gender and how people describe it differently based the gender.

    • I love to ponder how some words that seem unrelated might actually be. This is part of the fun of having my son learn at home; a lot of our vocabulary work this past year was about word roots/stems from Greek, Latin (and occasionally old English or German.) I got to sit around a table for a couple of hours every week and think Deep Thoughts about word origins.

      Sometimes, it is very obvious how our modern word came to have its meaning, but, others, you see how something literal became a strange echo or even inversion of itself. Or you come to realize a totally different interpretation of some aspect of something in the past.

      Gender in language is a completely fascinating thing. I’ll have to look for that TED talk. I do think our thoughts shape our words, but the shape of our words also influences our thoughts.

    • With the rather obvious confounding factor that “hören” sounds a lot like our English word for “hearing”—of course I can remember that!!

      German has so many of those comfortable, familiar words that show the strong relationship between it and English. I get to feeling nice and complacent in my learning, and then… WHOMP! A reminder of how little I know.

      🙂
      Thanks for reading!

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