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The Curiosity of the German Word “Weg” Posted by on May 4, 2017 in Culture, History, Language

Wegisweg. That is the Dutch word for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Weg means “lane”, but also “away”. They sound exactly identical, though. The same word, weg, means the same both things in German. But they are pronounced differently. Why?

This is what weg sounds like:

This is what der Weg sounds like:

Ok, I already hear you say: But Sten, there is a difference here! Granted, the difference is that the Substantiv (noun) der Weg (“the lane”) starts with a capital and the Adverb (adverb) weg (away) does not. But a capital should not change pronunciation! And normally in a conversation, context reveals which meaning applies.

So why this different pronunciation?

History

As with many curiosities in the German language, this different pronunciation is rooted in history. Both Weg and weg come from the same Indo-Germanic root. In the 8th century already, the form wec meant “trace”. Only in the 12th century, the word enwec appeared, which meant auf dem Weg (on the way), branched off of the noun wec. Later, branched off of enwec again came wec. Over the years, the word wec would also be spelled weckwegk or simply wek. However, around the 15th century, the Substantiv (der Weg), was overwhelmingly spelled as it is today – der Weg. Because of the long e, this spelling made most sense for the noun.

For the adverb, the forms wegck, wegk, weck were also used. This also made sense for its pronunciation: multiple consonants at the end of the word suggested a short e. So everything was alright! We had Weg and wegk. Done.

But… No. It is German after all, so we cannot make things too simple!

In the following centuries, things changed again. By the 17th century, the writing was yet again the same: weg and Weg. Especially Luther, who used weg and Weg in his Bible translation, gave this writing a lot of weight.

The pronunciation was different early on already. This is probably due to the difference in meaning and the kind of word (Adverb vs. Substantiv). Personally, I find that a weak explanation, because the Dutch pronounce both weg exactly the same, even though they also have a difference in meaning and it is also an adverb and noun. Pronouncing it the same makes sense. So really, why the Germans do such a curious thing cannot really be explained!

Problematic?

Wegweiser (signpost). How would you pronounce that word?

Is it problematic that there are two pronunciations for a word that is written the same? Well, usually, this same writing but different pronunciation poses few problems, because the Weg is written with a capital, where the adverb is written with a lowercase w (weg). So then you know how to pronounce it when you read something.

But what about cases where the adverb is combined with another Substantiv? For example, Weggang (departure) or Wegfall (discontinuation) are pronounced with a short e, yet weg is written with a capital here. Listen to Wegfall below. You would find the same problem if weg is at the beginning of a sentence: Weg ist der Mann! (Away is the man!)

The same kind of problems arrive when der Weg becomes part of an adjective, for example: weglos (pathless), wegkundig (knowledgeable about the way).

And here is a tricky one: wegweisen. Pronounce it!

 

This is what it actually sounds like:

Why is it short here? Because you “send somebody away” – wegschicken. If you want to show somebody the way, you have to jemanden den Weg weisen. Did you get it right?

By the way: The signpost in the picture, that is a Wegweiser – a “way shower”, and therefore pronounced with a long e:

I hope this post was helpful for you to improve your German! Is there a German word that you find curious? Let me know in the comments, and I can make a post about it!

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About the Author:Sten

Hi! I am Sten, and I am half Dutch and half German. I was on exchange in the United States, and I really enjoyed that year! So in that sense, I kind of have three nationalities... I love all of them!


Comments:

  1. Rick:

    In English we also say Alleyway. Way from Weg.

    This is from when the AngloSaxon word was joined to the Norman French word to make a new word in Middle English.

  2. Clint:

    This kind off analysis with examples (spoken) is very helpful. Especially, I would think, for somewhat advanced learners who are looking for just this kind of insight to speak a little bit better.

    Thanks.

  3. Lori:

    English is no different in this regard. Just take INvalid and inVAlid. Even Aged and agED. Get those mixed up, e.g., the Aged INvalid, and you have an interesting picture.

  4. Alexis Klug:

    Hopefully I will be able to remember this, learning a new language is difficult, but thank you so much for this blog! The whole blog has been a lot of help to me! I really appreciate it. 😊

  5. Charles Weager:

    In your last example “wegweiser” you described it as a “way shower”. Not correct English, we would use something like “signpost” but that isn’t why I am writing. The word “Shower”, that is someone is showing you something is pronounced with the “o” as an open sound as in Hannover where a “shower” as in “dusche” is pronounced with the “o” as “au” as in “Schau”. English is full of these changes in pronounciation and needless to say I wasn’t aware of the pronounciation differences in german as illustrated by “weg”.
    Historically English had an event in the 15th century called the great vowel shift and there are many leftover legacy words, for example the City of Reading being pronounced Reding, and I wouldn’t be surprised if German was affected by a similar event around about the same time.

  6. Charles Weager:

    Correction to my previous comment. there should be a comma after something in “showing you something, is pronounced”. Otherwise I don’t make sense.

    • Sten:

      @Charles Weager I am full aware that “way shower” is not correct English, but decided to use it anyway to make my point clear. That’s also why I use quotation marks.

      Interesting points you make! And thanks for the correction 🙂