Prefabs in construction are relatively new, having been used since the middle of the twentieth century. Prefabricated components in language, on the other hand, have been in use for centuries in the form of idioms and expressions. Like other languages, German has a large spectrum of phrases at its disposal, and new phrases are regularly added. For anyone learning German who would like to demonstrate their articulateness, it is advisable to acquaint themselves with some of these.
Typical for these linguistic prefabs is that they do not need to be altered or changed; hence they can be easily memorised and utilised in colloquial language. Many relate to dissimulation, customs, and traditions, often building a cultural and linguistic bridge to bygone times.
Phrases are used in a syntactical function that can either be the subject, the object, a prepositional phrase, or an entire sentence or used attributively or predicatively.
Many German phrases and idioms originate in the animal kingdom, and primates lend themselves perfectly to be used. For example, the monkey (der Affe) is prone to cause chaos and upheaval when mixing with people, and das Affentheather describes preposterous, annoying and excessive doing. Mich laust der Affe describes the feeling when baffled or dumbfounded. The idiom originated when fairground people used monkeys to attract crowds. To the surprise of their audience, the monkey would jump onto the shoulder of an off-guard punter to delouse their victim to their bafflement and others’ bemusement.
Der Esel, the donkey, an animal not known for its cleverness but its stubbornness, is well predestined to compare some of the human species. Die Eselsbrücke, compounded from Esel (monkey) and Brücke (bridge) – we build the donkey a bridge to lead him across – is not an insult in German but the word for aid-memoire.
Other German idioms stem from geography. Das sind mir Böhmische Dörfer is used when someone cannot understand something and originates in the Czech names of Bohemian villages, which sound alien and opaque to the German speaker. Die ägyptische Finsternis refers to a power cut and has less so geographical but biblical roots; where it says in the bible: And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt. The third book of Moses (the book of Leviticus) contains many dos and don’ts – Jemanden die Leviten lesen in German means to read someone the riot act. To go from pillar to post in German is von Pontius zu Pilatus gehen, another idiom with its origin in the bible.
It is hardly surprising that a fruit native to Germany, the apple (der Apfel), finds linguistic use in German idioms: der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm describes when children behave similarly to their parents. Äpfel mit Birnen vergleichen refers to the impossibility of comparing apples with pears, which are similar in looks but differ in taste. Für einen Apfel und ein Ei / für ’n Appel und ’n Ei describes something cheap. Apples and eggs can be found in abundance on farms and are thus of no real value, hence cheaply available. In den sauren Apfel beißen is a German idiom for having to do something unpleasant – the English equivalent would be to bite the bullet.
Learning German can never be described as having to bite the bullet. But if that is all Greek to you, then the term Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof could be used. Bahnhof (station) used to be associated with holidays; that is all people had thoughts for before going on leave. The incomprehensible announcements over the station tannoy could also explain the idiom. Should German still sound like an unintelligible station announcement to you, then it is perhaps high time to employ the services of a German tutor. Do get in touch!