Updated: Feb 24, 2022
When you start to learn about German grammar, you quickly realise that our Teutonic cousins are kind of obsessed with movement, and with time. But what about the word for time itself? Correction: words. Given that “time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language, there are inevitably many different ways to use it, so it is hardly surprising that translating it into foreign languages can be problematic.
Some common expressions
What’s the time? Wie spät ist es?
Literally: How late is it?
At what time does it start? Um wie viel Uhr geht es los?
Lit: At how much of the clock goes it loose?
I have no time Ich habe keine Zeit
It's my first time in Germany Ich bin zum ersten Mal in Deutschland
I go to the gym three times a week Ich gehe dreimal die Woche ins Fitnessstudio
Uhr or Stunde?
‘Uhr’ is itself an interesting word. In the above sentence it means clock time, but it can also mean the physical clock:
The clock die Uhr
The wall clock die Wanduhr
The watch die Armbanduhr Lit: the armband clock
‘Uhr’ is of course a cognate word of ‘hour’, but be careful, when referring to the length of time represented by 60 minutes, the German word for hour is ‘Stunde’.
Some German idioms with time
And how about some idioms to enrich your German speech? Some of these have direct equivalents in English, whereas others require some explanation, as they are based on cultural references:
Die Uhr tickt... The clock is ticking...
'Besondere Zeiten erfordern besondere Maßnahmen.'
Extraordinary (special) times call for extraordinary (special) measures.
Wenn nicht jetzt, wann dann? If not now, then when?
Der frühe Vogel fängt den Wurm The early bird catches the worm
Kommt Zeit, kommt Rat 'When the time comes, the advice will come'
This is a literal translation, which doesn’t sound very snappy in English. It’s an idiomatic way of saying that things will turn out ok, in the fullness of time. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ is in the right ballpark, but is a bit too heroic-sounding. ‘Only time will tell’ is closer, but the German version suggests a more active sense of optimism.
Es ist fünf vor zwölf 'It is five to twelve'
There is the obvious, literal usage of this phrase, and it is reminiscent of the rhetoric used by politicians who want to sound like they are on-message in terms of climate change, evoking the amount of time we have left to save the planet, if 24 hours represents the history of the earth. However, the origin of this phrase, when used idiomatically, is not what you might think: in comes from the days of building high clock towers; when the craftsmen who were up high on the scaffolding and someone realised it was “five to twelve”, they had five minutes to scramble down in order not to be deafened by the pealing bells. So, the expression has come to mean that it’s high time to be getting on with something – or face the consequences!
Es ist Kaffeezeit A bit easier to explain this one. The Brits have tea time, Germans have coffee time
Wie die Zeit vergeht! How time passes! En exclamation: Time flies!
Die Zeit heilt alle Wunden Time heals all wounds. Time is a healer.
General grammar-nerd point. Die Uhr, die Stunde and die Zeit are all feminine nouns, and die Zeit is an abstract noun, which means that the definite article (the / die) should not be omitted. This explains why, in the last line of the above list, the phrase requires 'Die Zeit...' unlike the English translation.
Andrew Wenger has been teaching about time, manner and place - the three cornerstones of German grammar since 1997 - and would love to give you the benefit of his knowledge.
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