Telling the Time in German - Unnecessarily Overcomplicated or Logical? Discuss

November 16, 2013

 
I remember clearly my Mum teaching me to tell the time. Think I was about 6. It was easy. She drew a clock, split it into segments and everything that was on the right side was something “past” the hour, and everything on the left hand side was “to” the hour. Analogue clock reading made easy.

So why 30 years later, am I still struggling to understand what time it is when I ask someone "wieviel Uhr ist es?" in Germany??

It is of course the German time “rules”.

Of course, it is totally logical to Germans, who have grown up applying these clock reading rules.

If you ask someone the digital time, it is simple ….what time is it? "12.24 – twelve twenty-four, zwölf Uhr vierundzwanzig"….no probs….

It’s the analogue rules that take me right back to that bewildered and helpless feeling I had in most of my school maths lessons.

The first confusing thing is understanding that if a German says it’s “half nine”, (es ist halb neun)…it’s actually 8.30. I remember vividly the German lesson where we learnt to tell the time, we were all seriously flummoxed by this apparent lack of logic. Why say it’s half nine, when it’s actually half past eight? ….why oh why??

But hey! This is Germany - land of reason, logic and Ordnung - and "natürlich" there is a logical explanation! As my teacher explained when Germans say it’s half nine, they mean it’s “half TO nine”!!!!! A totally new time telling concept!

You must however always err on the side of caution when arranging a date with a German. Because if a German writes in English…”meet you at half nine”…you as an English native speaker will almost certainly turn up at 9:30 rather than 8:30 which the German meant. Should English time-telling rules apply when communicating in English and vice versa with German? My advice: always arrange meetup times in digital format!

So here is the "Steigerung" - the next level of complication in German time-telling.
If you want to say it’s twenty-five past nine….in German you say it’s “five to half ten” meaning “five to half TO ten” (fünf vor halb zehn)…..So there have been times when I've tried and arrange a doctor's appointment and the receptionist will say in German how about “five to half ten” and I need to write this out in words on a pad in front of me and literally draw myself a 6-year old tell-the-time diagram before I can accept or decline the appointment.

So in German “ten to half five” is 4.20 and “Ten past half four” is 3.40!

Geddit?


The ultimate time-telling stumbling block is the following…

The other day, I asked my mate Andi what the time was.
His answer was “viertel elf” (literally quarter 11)…..but it doesn’t mean “quarter to eleven”, nor “quarter past eleven”....no.... the time was quarter past ten!!!!!!!!!! When he said that I made my maths face and asked him for the "digital time please"....And if he had said “dreiviertel elf” (three-quarters eleven) the time would have been “quarter to eleven”!!! TOTALLY CONFUSING.

The logic is as follows: in spoken German you refer to the next full hour, in other words, it names the fraction of the currently passing hour. So for example, "dreiviertel drei" (three-quarter three), means "three quarters of the third hour have passed".
 
If you happen to be in the company of a North German whilst complaining about this complicated logic they will roll their eyes and say they completely agree with you. So in conclusion - I reckon South Germans must be maths champions... thank goodness that with us all glued to our smartphones there's less and less reason to ask another human what the time is :-)
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