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Five to Halfway to Three Quarters After: Telling Time in German Posted by on Apr 6, 2016 in Archived Posts

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Telling time in German can be a wee bit confusing.

Yes, fünf nach halb sechs literally translates to “five past half six” (fünf = five, nach = after, halb = half, sechs = six) where in German “half six” means five-thirty, or “halfway to six” (Brits, however, use “half six” to mean “six thirty,” further confusing matters). “Half” in German is taken in the sense of “we’re halfway to,” not “halfway after.” Since saying halb sechs is actually pretty quick, they add “to” or “past” to that to make more specific times, hence “five past half six.” Sounds odd in English, but in German it actually makes sense.

But, of course, it gets more complicated.

Like in the comic, dreiviertel acht is literally “three-quarters eight” (drei = three, viertel = quarter, acht = eight) as though seven o’clock is complete, and now we’re building towards eight by stacking quarters on top of one another. Perhaps more confusing is viertel acht, literally “quarter eight,” which is not 8:15 (“quarter after eight”) or 7:45 (“quarter before eight”) as you might think, but 7:15 (“we’re one quarter of the way towards eight,” basically).

Now, to be fair, this “quarter eight” and “three-quarters eight” business far less common in Germany than hearing the usual viertel nach sieben (“quarter after seven”) or viertel vor acht (“quarter to eight”), which is of course the easier and more logical way to sound off the time.

But, of course, it gets more complicated.

Germans use both the 12 and the 24-hour clock when telling you the time. Usually you can count on the 12-hour clock (um acht Uhr Abends = “at eight o’clock [in the] evening”), but by no means always. You’re also going to hear a lot of um zwanzig Uhr (“at twenty o’clock”), or if you’re unlucky, dreiviertel zwanzig (“three-quarters twenty,” which is, if you’ve been paying attention…7:45pm) or fünf nach halb zwanzig (“five past halfway to twenty,” or…7:35). It won’t always happen, but it certainly can, so you’re better off finally learning what in the world 19:00 is supposed to be.

And I believe that’s as complicated as it gets in German! Once you get used to it, it’s not that difficult. Nowhere near as difficult as those poor suckers in Thailand, trying their best to decode the baffling nightmare that is telling time in Thai.

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Eugene:

    Hm… I am wondering if Russian got its casual time namings from German. “Half of sixth”, “eight without quarter”, that’s what I hear a lot.

  2. Cliona:

    So, if not a native speaker, and you meet someone cute and want to arrange a date, make sure you pick a whole hour, not a part thereof.
    Or, if you are a native speaker, and someone is trying to pick you up but you don’t fancy them, give them a difficult time to work out!

    I got totally confused living in south Germany. Didn’t end up with a German husband either!

  3. Anya:

    Haha, German time sounds similar to Russian time, maybe only a little more complicated (“three quarters till”–hehe). I’m used to Russian time, and it seems pretty simple and straightforward to me. After I moved back to the States, it took me about three years before I could hear someone in English say “It’s a quarter of eight” and NOT think that they were saying 7:15- the quarter of the eighth hour. I guess it’s all about what you’re used to.

  4. Gladys Mercedes:

    It happens in many languages. In Spanish, 6;30 is “seis y media.” It translates to six and one half, in English. A friend of mine, went to a shoe store (when she was just starting to learn English) demanding for a pair of shoes size 6:30! The clerk couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. She left the store crying.

  5. Bjorn:

    Never used the “viertel vor 20″. It would be always 19:45 or ” viertel vor 8″

  6. Inga:

    I’m a native German speaker. Nobody says Viertel vor 20 or 5 nach halb 14. Halb and also Viertel vor/nach in any of their possible combinations are always an only used with the 12 hour clock. 24 hour clock would be used like “20 Uhr 15” or “19 Uhr 30”.


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