Menu Close

German Time Measurements

As if the German language weren’t twisted enough with its random gendered articles and convoluted syntax, even simple time structures can mess up your whole schedule. Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, German time, die Uhrzeit auf Deutsch, Deutsche Sprache schwere SpracheIn the spoken language, 3:00, 3:05, 3:10 and so on are easy: drei Uhr (three hour), fünf nach drei (five after three), zehn nach drei (ten after three). But when the minute hand reaches “half past”, Germans take the next full hour as a reference. In German – unlike most languages – “halb drei” wouldn’t be “half past three” but “half past two”, in the sense of “we are half way to three”.

This incident made me realize two things. First, the reason why Germans think of foreigners as “tardy people whose idea of being on time is showing up an hour late”. If you don’t know how time works and get all your appointments at “half”, you are bound to perpetuate the stereotype of the lazy, unpunctual foreigner.

The other thing I realized is that Germans live in the future. Instead of taking the current hour as a reference, they jump on to the next, as if they were anxious to get past the present. For 3:25 they’ll say “fünf vor halb vier”, literally “five before half way to four”. With such a rush to beat time, no one can really enjoy the present. No wonder everyone is so stressed out.

Expat Gone Foreign, linguist, travel and language comics, life abroad


  1. Kieran

    Uli, no, in English halfway means half the way, 1/2.

    I think Arek is confused, or I am confused by his post. I read it as 8 +
    1.5 x 20 (halfway to 3, multiplied by 20), or 30
    That would make only 38.
    Alternatively, 8 + 1/2(3×20) would be 8 + 1/2(60) or, also, 38.
    Maybe he was joking that, since “halfway to three” (halb drei) in German *clock* language is 2:30 (or “two and a half” as it would be in many other languages), 8 + (halfway to three) x 20 is equivalent to 8 + (2.5 x 20), which would indeed be 58.

  2. Wayne

    The last explanation is actually partly correct. It has nothing to do with German time telling, though. 58 in Danish would be “8 and half-of-the-third-20″… “8 + 20 + 20 + (½ × 20)” But, instead of saying all that, it got shortened to “eight and half third”.
    Which, if taken literally, makes no sense. Just like “half three” meaning 3:30 makes NO SENSE. (I’m not German :-) ) But if you just decide to leave out the preposition “past”, then you change the literal meaning of the expression. It is not the German system that is confusing, but the English one…? If, hypothetically, you said “That guy wears half jeans”… you wouldn’t understand that they’re full-length-with-an-extra-half, would you?

  3. Frank Harr

    There seems to be a thing about subtracting in some I.E. languages. Both the anchient Roman and Greek calendars had that a a feature. The Hindi number system has a lot of “60-1” and similar in it.

    Subtraction is a thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *