Word of the Day – “sonst”

sonst-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day and today we’ll take a look at the meaning of:

sonst (pron.: zonst)

And be it in the smallest of all talks, at the  fruitest of all stands at the farmers market or in the momest of all “do-your-homework-or-no-TV”s, sonst is certainly there and does its small word magic. What that? Oh… momest is weird you say? It is not a even a word you say…  well,  I have one word for you: minivan.… uh… actually uh… it’s not the word that matters but the link.
So …. sonst is an important word, it is all over the place so it deserves no less than the explanast of all nations, an explanation that is even more in-depth than Lehmann Brothers right before it collap… oh wait…  that was in debt…  Anyway… let’s start with sonst, shall we?

If you look up sonst in a dictionary you’ll most likely find else as the main translation. This is correct but  sonst can also be used as usually, before or besides and I have heard from quite a few people that they find sonst rather hard to grasp. Maybe a look at the origins can clear things up a little.
There are 2 different hypopota… hypothem… uh… ideas as to where the word  comes from. One really makes a lot of sense and helps a great deal at understanding the meaning of sonst …. the other theory… well… not so much.
So we’ll talk about this one first. It basically says that sonst comes from sus and is related to the English thus, which basically is a form of this.  Well, that makes sense when you just look at the sounds but sonst kind of means the opposite of thus and I don’t really see why this change would have taken place.
The cool theory about the origin comes from the Duden, which is kind of the German Merriam Webster and it says that sonst used to be 3 words a few hundred years ago… so ne ist (so nicht ist)… means something like “if it is not so“. This was then slowly fused together and became the sonst that we have today… but the original idea of so ne ist is still alive and fits all the different situations in which sonst is used… but maybe let’s flesh out this idea a little more before we look at examples.

sonst in use

  • Sonst basically refers to everything else BUT the thing you have said before

it or in other words it means “if not that then…”… hmmm … you look confused. Let’s go to a bakery then to buy some things

  • “Guten Morgen”
    “Morgen, na, mal wieder am Deutsch erklären?”
    “Haha… ja, genau”
    “Was darf’s denn sein?”
    “Also, ich hätt’ gern 5 Brötchen und 1 Stück Mohnkuchen.”
    Und sonst noch was?
    “Nee, das war’s.”
    Dann sind’s 3 Euro 75 bitte.
  • “Good morning”
    “Hi, teaching German again?
    “Haha… exactly.”
    “So what will it be today?
    “I’d like to have 5 buns and a piece of poppy-seed-cake.”
    Anything else?
    “Nah, that’s all.”
    Then it’ll be 3 Euro 75.”

Here, the sonst refers to all items in the bakery I haven’t bought yet. This usage of sonst is really common and I am sure you’ll here the phrase “Darf’s sonst noch was sein?” if you buy things in Germany. The short form sonst noch was can also be used if someone piles up task for you to do…

  •  I need you to do this, this this and this and then that and that and that, too.

When your boss says that to you you can just secretly mumble…

  • Sonst noch was?

Which means something like.

  • Are you done yet? Will there be anything else my king?

So again we see that sonst kind of refers to everything but what has already
been said.
Now, in the examples we had so far we had sonst noch as a fixed phrase and you can’t really skip the noch. I think the reason is that we’re talking about countable items here and the noch helps getting the idea of “more items” across… as opposed to just “everything else” which can be also a topic… yeah… I didn’t really understand that last part either :). The whole point is that sonst can be used without noch, too… for example in small talk.

  • “Na, wie läufts auf Arbeit?”
    “Oh, gut gut ich hab’ gestern erst blah blah blah blah blah….”
    “Hmm, ja….”
    “Ja ja…”
    “Und sonst so?”
  • “So, how’s work going?”
    “Oh good, good, just yesterday I blah blah blah blah blah …”
    “Hmmm, yeah…”
    “Well, well..”
    And else/otherwise/besides?”(lit.)

With the und sonst so the person is asking for the other aspects of the persons life… like family or hobbies or pets or stuff… so it is asking for other thing than the one they have already talked about. The phrase und sonst so? has become kind of a fixed phrase that you can use to break a somewhat long pause in conversation in a mildly ironical fashion… like, you sit around, you discuss something and then you’re done with the discussion and no one says anything… then people sometimes say und sonst so? to break the silence and at the same time acknowledge that they might have run out of topics.

And as we’re in conversations… another example sonst often occurs in conversation about what people do…. like someone is explaining his job in detail and the other person wants to know about the rest of the day…

  • “… blah blah blah… und ja, das ist meine Arbeit.”
    “Oh, klingt interessant. Und was machst du sonst so?”
  • “blah blah blah … so yeah, that’s what I do for living.”
    “Oh sounds interesting. And what are you doing when you’re not working?”

Sure, I could use else as a translation but sonst feels a little more open and a little less like listing things to me but I might be wrong… anyway
So far we have used sonst to refer to other items, other topics or other activities. What else can it do…
It can also refer to other points in time… or other occasions.

  • “Wo ist Thomas? Es ist schon 10 nach.”
    “Komisch. Er ist sonst immer pünktlich.”
  • “Where is Thomas? It is 10 past , already.”
    “Weird. Usually, he is always on time.”

So here, sonst refers to basically all other meeting except this one. Here is another example.

  • “Ich trinke sonst immer Kaffee aber heute trinke ich Tee.”
  • Normally, I always drink coffee but today I’ll drink tea.”

Now be careful. Sonst is not really a translation of normally or usually. It only is if THIS time things are different. So if you just want to make a statement about how something is in general… do not use sonst. Use normalerweise. You can also use it instead of this temporal sonst but not the other way around.
All right. What else have I mentioned in the introduction… ah yeah… the mom-one.
So sonst is also used to announce consequences.

  • Mach deine Hausaufgaben, sonst kündge ich deinen World of Warcraft Account.
  • Do your homework or (else) I’ll terminate your World of Warcraft account.

So here, sonst refers to all situations in which the homework is not done and in all those realities, there will be no more level 80 Night Elf “Legolas’ Reckoning” with his +50 awesomeness bracelet…. but couldn’t we just use oder in that case? Well we can but sonst sounds more serious. that mom means business and  That kid is certainly going to sit on ass and do ‘dem fractions.
But anyway … of course not all consequences have to be as severe.

  • Zieh dich warm an sonst erkältest du dich.
  • Dress warm or you will catch a cold.
  • Ich nehme meine Sportsachen direkt mit auf Arbeit. Sonst muss ich nachher nochmal nach Hause vor dem Sport.
  • I’ll take my sport wear to work with me. Else, I would have to go home again before sports. (probably not the best English phrasing… sorry)

All right. So… I hope you have a good impression now of what idea sonst carries. Now we need to talk about some related words and some other things you need to know.

In English you can ask:

  • What else?

if you really want to know what else is there. The German question

  • Was sonst?

is not the same. In general the combination

  • Was/wo/wer/wie/warum sonst?

expresses, that you actually consider all those alternatives somewhat useless… like the version you already have is the best and most obvious one.

  • “Wo ist dein Kühlschrank?”
    “In der Küche. Wo sonst?
  • “Where is your fridge?”
    “In the kitchen. Where else (if not there)?”

And this happens also for was

  • “Was für eine Pizza nimmst du?”
    “Salami. Was sonst?”
  • “What pizza are you gonna get?”
    “Salami. Of course (because I always and exclusively take salami)”

So… if you want to ask what else you need to add a noch and actually leave out sonst completely or it won’t mean the same.

  • Wir brauchen Eier, Mehl und Zucker … was (sonst) noch?
  • We need eggs, flour and sugar … what else?
  • Wir brauchen Eier, Mehl und Zucker… was sonst?
  • We need eggs, flour and sugar… duhhh /of course.

All right.

words based on sonst

Now let’s get to the related words and the first one is ansonsten. The usage of ansonsten has been increasing in the recent decades (while sonst is going downhill) as you can see here and it is kind of a synonym. However, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and I can’t really explain it. I’d say, it works fine in longer sentences that are NOT questions.  

  • “Wie war’s gestern im Club?”
    “Och naja, wir mussten ziemlich lange anstehen und Marie war total betrunken und hat auf die Bar gekotzt aber ansonsten war es eigentlich ganz lustig.
  • “How was your night out?”
    “Oh , we had to wait in line for quite a while and Marie was totally wasted and uhm .. barfed on the bar (no pun intended) but other than that it was quite fun.”

And ansonsten is maybe a bit more general. So you wouldn’t use it for very strict cause-effect relations and also not for items… kind of like other than that  or a really general or.

All right. There is also an adjective of sonst which is sonstig (e/n/r/m/s)The meaning of this? Well… pretty much other.

  • Heute reden wir nur über die Frage von Thomas. Alle sonstigen Fragen müssen bis nächste Woche warten.
  • Today, we’ll only talk about the question of Thomas. All other questions will have to wait till next week.

Yeah.. I know it’s a stupid example. It is hard to find good ones for sonstige because in daily life most of the time andere just sounds better and you should go with that. Sonstige is, at least to me, a term for legal writing and it is used to denominate this all-the-rest-category in questionnaires or opinion polls or even in offices that collects all the rare options… like, in a poll when they ask “Why are you learning German?” they will list only the most common answers like “Because it sounds beautiful”, “Because I want to read Shakespeare in the original”, and “I always wanted to learn a language with 4 c… but I digress.
Don’t bother using sonstige in spoken German. It’s enough to understand it when you see it.

The next word is that is more useful… umsonst. Umsonst used to be 2 words… umbe sus and it meant “für ein sonst” or in English “for (a) so/this”. And here we actually see that the other origin story, the one that says sonst is related to thus and this, makes sense too. Maybe they’re both correct and sonst is the result of pronouncing 2 different words the same way. It doesn’t really matter though after all. So umsonst was “for this” which by itself doesn’t make much sense. But people back a few centuries used a gesture to accompany the words… waving your hand as if you are casually  tossing something to the side… man, sometimes I wish this wasn’t radio here… but anyway… together with the gesture umbe sus meant pretty much for nothing and that is exactly what it means today.  This gives it a double meaning though because for nothing can mean for free or in vain and umsonst is used for both.

  • Ich war gestern umsonst im Kino. Mein Bruder hat mich eingeladen.
  • I was at the movies for free yesterday. My brother invited me.
  • Ich war gestern umsonst im Kino. Der Film, den ich sehen wollte war ausverkauft.
  • I was at the movie theater for nothing yesterday. The movie I wanted to see was sold out.

Now… marketing and advertisement people don’t really appreciate this double meaning so the use words like gratis or kostenlos instead. And there are also some occasions in daily life when someone would correct me by saying:

  • Du meinst kostenlos, nicht umsonst.
  • You mean free of charge, not in vain.

But honestly, I think in daily life people use umsonst in both senses and only the context makes it clear what they mean.

  • Ich hab’ sooo viel gelernt. Trotzdem hab’ ich die Klausur verkackt. Alles umsonst.
  • I’ve been studying soooo much and still I flunked the exam. All for nothing.
  • Hey, in der Bar da ist so ‘ne Aktion… wenn du 2 Bier kaufst, kriegst du eins umsonst.
  • Hey, there is this special in that bar… if you buy to beers, you’ll get one for free.

The last example is of course the purest fiction… like … “Star Trek: beer special in Germany”… there is just no such thing :).
All right … I am getting a little tired and I feel like you are too so let’s quickly look at this last one and then call it a day…
.. we’ve already talked about question words followed by sonst. Now we shall talk about sonst followed by question words…  dun dun dun.

It doesn’t really work for all question words but for wo, wie ,  was and maybe wann it does and in spoken language you can hear:

  • sonst(e)was, sonstwo, sonst(e)wie, sonst(e)wann (the e is present in Berlin dialect)

Those words are not in the Duden and they might be written as 2 words but they feel so common to me that I would say they should be in there. They basically express, that I consider a place, or thing or manner really weird, far fetched and inconvenient…. and the best translation for me is god-knows-where/what/how/when

  • Ich hab’ keine Lust sonstewo hinzufahren, nur um diesen Art House Film zu sehen.
  • I don’t really want to go god-knows-where, just to see this art house movie.
  • Mein Boss hat mir soooo viel Arbeit gegeben… ich werd’ echt erst sonstewann Feierabend haben.
  • My boss gave me soo much work… I’ll be done god-knows-when.

If you dare try to use it in spoken language and impress your friends with your new “nativeness” :).
All right. That’s all. This was our German Word of the Day sonst. The theory about the origin says that sonst is just a mumbled, fused together so nicht ist which basically means “if not so”. If we say “if not this” instead, we basically have the meaning of sonst. It just refers to other things than what has been said before and the main translation is elf… I mean else.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. Ansonsten,  I hope you liked it and see you next time.