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Today I’m going to talk a little about der Schlaf (sleep) or, more specifically, nightmares.
The reason I wanted to write this post is because someone sent me music by the German band Nachtmahr (‘Nightmare’) the other day. I have always known the German word for nightmare to be der Alptraum, so I came to wonder why there are even two words for nightmare in the German language: der Alptraum and die Nachtmahr.
In actual fact there are three words, because Alptraum is sometimes spelt Albtraum, with a B instead of a P. The way I learnt it was Alptraum. Apparently, Albtraum is the new spelling, following the Rechtschreibreform (German orthography reform), and Alptraum is the old spelling. It’s a little confusing, but both spellings are correct, so don’t be surprised if you happen to come across both of them.
ETYMOLOGIE: ALBTRAUM/ALPTRAUM = ‘ELF DREAM’
The word Albtraum/Alptraum contains the words Alb/Alp and Traum.
Der Alb/Der Alp: A mythical creature from Germanic folklore, similar to demon or goblin, believed to sit on and compress people’s chests as they sleep. The English equivalent of this word would be elf (in fact, the English word elf is cognate with the German word Alp), while the equivalent demon is an incubus or succubus. A related word is der Alpdruck, meaning elf pressure, which is used to refer to the feeling of pressure on one’s chest during a nightmare.
Der Traum: Dream.
ETYMOLOGIE: NACHTMAHR = ‘NIGHT MARE’
The word Nachtmahr contains the words Die Nacht and Die Mahr.
Die Nacht: Night
Die Mahr: The Mahr is basically another name for the Alb (see above). Sometimes it also appears with a masculine gender (der Mahr). The Old English word mare, meaning night-goblin/incubus, has Germanic origins. The English word nightmare comes from the German Nachtmahr, and is a direct translation of it. Nachtmahr is the old German word for nightmare, and is hardly used anymore. Alptraum (or Albtraum) is the new, standard word.
Granted it is a little confusing, but I hope this has clarified the terms somewhat! And I hope you’ll agree that it’s an interesting little bit of folklore. 🙂
More sleep-related words:
Der Nachtschreck/Die Nachtangst – Night terror.
Die Schlafparalyse – Sleep paralysis.
Die Schlafstörung – Sleep disturbance.
Der Nachtalb – Lit. night demon or night elf, a Nachtalb is another word for the Nachtmahr (the creature itself, rather than the nightmare).
Der Schlafwandler/Der Nachtwandler – Sleepwalker
Schlafwandeln – Sleepwalking
Der Klartraum– Lucid dream (lit: ‘clear dream’, also known as der luzider Traum – ‘lucid dream’)
Der Tiefschlaf – Deep sleep
Die außerkörperliche Erfahrung – Out of body experience
Süße Träume… (sweet dreams…)