The Curiosity of the Plural of “das Wort” Posted by Sten on Nov 8, 2016 in Grammar, Language
This post is about the German word “das Wort”. What’s the plural?
No, not bird! The plural is Wörter. Sounds right. And Worte. Sounds right. Wait, what? Which one is correct? Is there another form? What’s going on here? Let’s find out!
What does the Duden say?
The Duden, a prestigious German Wörterbuch (dictionary) gives the following explanation about the plural of das Wort:
Der Plural »Wörter« wird meist für Einzelwort oder vereinzelte Wörter ohne Rücksicht auf den Zusammenhang gebraucht:
- sag mir drei Wörter, die mit »ex-« anfangen
- dieses Verzeichnis enthält 100 000 Wörter
Der Plural »Worte« wird meist für Äußerung, Ausspruch, Beteuerung, Erklärung, Begriff, Zusammenhängendes oder bedeutsame einzelne Wörter gebraucht:
- sie sprach einige Worte zur Begrüßung
- dies waren seine [letzten] Worte
- ich will nicht viel[e] Worte machen
- geflügelte, goldene Worte
- mit ander[e]n Worten (Abkürzung m. a. W.)
- mit guten, mit wenigen Worten
- drei Worte nenn ich euch, inhaltsschwer
Before looking at each plural individually, let’s digest for a second what the Duden says here. It makes the difference between the plurals in the Zusammenhang (context) in which it is used. An easier explanation is that the word das Wort has two different definitions, and one meaning gets the plural Wörter, the other gets the plural Worte.
Definition 1: Wörter – single words outside of context and meaning
Definition 1: das Wort refers to any single word outside of any particular context, such as hallo, gehen, Supermarkt, Bleistift – these are all words, or as the Duden calls them: Einzelwort. In this way, Wort gets the plural Wörter. This is also reflected in the German word for dictionary: Wörterbuch – a book with words. The words by themselves do not have any particular contextual meaning, and so it is only about the word itself.
Definition 2: Worte – context and meaning
Definition 2: das Wort refers to a words in context, in basically any other way that you would use Wort where it does not refer to the word itself. For example words spoken in a speech – Worte. In the example the Duden gives, it also says “Drei Worte nenn ich euch, inhaltsschwer” (I will tell you three words, with content). What is meant here is that the meaning of the words that will be given matters – the words are bedeutsam (meaningful).
A rule of thumb
Confusing enough, right? Yeah… What makes it even more confusing is that the Duden says that the different plurals are used meistens (usually) – not even always – for the different definitions. You may then say that it doesn’t matter much which plural you use, but it can obviously have quite a different meaning. If you are in a conversation, it is not such a big deal. If you are writing it in a letter or message, you wanna get it right! How?
Well, let’s make things a bit easier with a simple rule of thumb. Ask yourself this question:
Do I refer to the words in context?
If the answer is yes, use Worte.
If the answer is no, use Wörter.
Or inversely: Do I refer just to the words, regardless in what context?
If the answer is yes, use Wörter.
If the answer is no, use Worte.
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