Zu / An Weihnachten — Regionalisms

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Zu / An Weihnachten — Regionalisms

About a month ago I wrote a series of blogs on the different German prepositions, which we can all remember fall into the following four categories: accusative, dative, two-way, and genitive. Have you mantrafied and memorized them yet? 

Even if you have, as many of my students will ask, “How do I know which preposition to use when?” I wish there was a simple answer with a very simple rule. Alas there is not. But there is one thing that you can do to make it much easier on you. Listen for collocations. That is words that fit together. For instance my address is “Am Wasser” which means “at the water.” In a sentence, one could then say “Das neue Restaurant liegt schön am Wasser.” (The new restaurant is nicely situated on the water.)

So that would be my main suggestion. But then even that has one pitfall. German like English is full of regionalisms and what people say in one area, sounds odd to people from another. The classic example is Weihnachten. To say “at / for Christmas” which preposition should we use? Here there are three that are quite common, depending on where you come from.

In Northern Germany most people say “zu Weihnachten” and in the South (including Switzerland) people tend to use “an Weihnachten” and there are even areas where people say “auf Weihnachten”. So what should you do? Well interestingly you have three option in my opinion:

  1. Choose one of the prepositions and stick to it.
  2. Try and use the preposition that is most commonly used in your area, and constantly adapt if you move or address people from other areas, thereby trying to avoid any arguments as to which is the most correct.
  3. Don’t use any prepositions. Yes, this is also an option.

What is very important to remember when learning any language is to listen for phrases. Listen for which prepositions are being used with which words. If you’re going to try and translate, even using things like Google translate or Linguee, try and take a part of a sentence — the words you think belong together for the system to translate. You’ll come up with much better translations.

Last week we also learned where the word Weihnachten comes from. And as we have also learned, it is very important to learn new German nouns with their articles. So what is Weihnachten? der, die or das? The answer here is again not that simple. Concretely it’s das Weihnachten. But then you wonder why you read “Frohe Weihnachten!” everywhere and not “Frohes Weihnachten!” This has to do with the fact that it is often treated as a plural because it encompasses two days or nights to be exact. However, as the two nights (Nächte) are the same celebration (das Fest) the word itself is das. If anything, this is a further example, why it is important to listen for collocations and not always try to rationalize the use of language.

Have questions? Leave them below or send them to us and we’ll happily answer them.

Starting in January our school will also be offering Business German in Zurich, for those interested.

Happy Second Advent!

  1. SimonSimon12-04-2011

    Linguee is good but as you say, it is dangerous for one to learn single German words because that would leave your German fragmented,period.

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