The meaning of “deuten”

deuten-bedeuten-meaningHello everyone,

and welcome. First I want to say a quick thank you to everybody for the language school thing. Your questions are great and I’m definitely gonna use them in some form. Thanks for taking the time. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about… you totally missed out ;).
With that said, let’s get to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll have a look at the meaning of



And looking at deuten doesn’t only mean unlocking whole bunch of really cool and useful vocabulary like bedeuten or deutlich, it also means to learn about the origin of a word that is inseparably connected to learning German. And that word is: frustration.
Oh… hold on… I meant the other word, the one that is even more connecteterer  to learning German. The word for German itself… deutsch.

It all started with the super mega ancient Indo-European root tē̌u-. The meaning of that root was something along the lines of to swell and it’s the origin of words like thumb (looks swollen compared to other fingers), thigh (looks swollen after Christmas)  and thousand, which originally was just a word for large number, mass. Now, another spin off of the Indo-European root was the Germanic word þeuðō. No idea how to pronounce that but the meaning it had was kind of similar to the original idea of thousand: *þeuðō meant large number of people and later became one of the Germanic words for tribe, people, folk. The original meaning of deutsch wasn’t far from that – it meant  something like of the people, people-ish. With the people referring to the Germanic tribes as opposed to the Romans. One context it was used for was language. You could speak “fancy Latin” or you could speak “deutsch“. And in the early days that could refer to several Germanic dialects, including old English. And one evening in a tavern over a whole bunch of brewskies the people that would later become Germans adopted the word for themselves**…

“Hey, we’re kind of like one people…”
“Meh… not really”
“Well, anyways, we should pick a name for us. Anyone got an idea?”
“Uhm… we could call us … uhm… people.”
“Nice, and our language people’s. And our land peopleland.”

(**: might not have happened in a tavern, may have been a process of hundreds of years)

Not very creative.  English isn’t any better. They use the super generic word german and for the Germans and the german word for german for Dutch. Oh while we’re at it, the Finns say saksalainen, which is based on the Germanic tribe called the Saxons, in French german means allemand (Spanish, Turkish and many others use variations of that), which is based on the name of another Germanic tribe and the Slavic languages use something with the base niemi- (no idea where this comes from, I couldn’t find anything). Kind of crazy that there are so many different names for german across Europe. Anyway, time to get to our actual word of the day deuten.

We’ve learned that it comes from a word that meant as much as people, folk, usually referring to the Germanic people as opposed to the Romans. The verb deuten itself was to make clear for the common folk….  just think of it as the made up verb “to common-man

“Hey, care for some Roman wisdom?”
“Sure, bring it on.”
“Cogito ergo sum!”

“Uh..what? Can you ‘common-man’ that.”
“Oh, sure: I think therefor I am.”
“Yeah… uh… I still don’t get it. Can you ‘common-man’ that some more?”
“Ugh, barbarians.”

This original idea of deuten isn’t used or understood anymore but it still shines through in the two meanings deuten has today:  to point somewhere and to interpret. I mean… pointing at something is a very effective way of making something clear. And interpreting something is basically making something clear for yourself first.

  • “Warum, oh warum?” fragt Thomas und deutet auf die leere Kaffeekanne.
  • “Why, oh why?”, Thomas asks and points at the empty coffee pot.
  • Wie deute ich das Verhalten meiner Katze?
  • How do I interpret the behavior of my cat?

Now, for both these meanings, German has alternative words that are more common. Zeigen is the more common choice for to point, deuten sounds a bit subtle, and in sense of interpreting it sounds less scientific than interpretieren or analysieren.
But still I’m sure you’ll see deuten used sooner or later. And I’m super mega sure that you’ll see all the related words. For the interpret-deuten, there is for instance umdeuten, which means to reinterpret and the noun die Deutung, which means interpretation, analysis… not in a strictly scientific sense but with intuition allowed.

  • Der Trainer hat versucht, das Unentschieden in einen Sieg umzudeuten.
  • The coach tried to sell, re-interpret the draw as a victory.
  • Maria hat sich in letzter Zeit viel mit Traumdeutung beschäftigt.
  • Maria has delved into oneiromancy/dream interpretation.

For the pointing-deuten there are hindeuten, which unlike deuten can be used for abstract pointing, and the super common andeuten, which is just the beginning of pointing… or in other words: to hint, to insinuate

  • Leere Sektflasche, Unterwäsche überall, abgebrannte Räucherstäbchen… alles deutet darauf hin, dass Thomas nicht alleine geschlafen hat.
  • Empty champagne bottle, underwear everywhere, burnt down incense sticks… everything points to Thomas not having spent the night alone.
    (is that idiomatic English?? Danke)
  • Willst du damit andeuten, dass ich Schuld bin?
  • Are you trying to insinuate that it’s my fault?
  • “Ist das schon sicher, dass du eine Gehaltserhöhung kriegst?”
    “Ne, aber mein Chef hat dahingehend Andeutungen gemacht.”
  • “Is it certian, that you’ll get a raise?”
    “No, but my boss made dropped hints about it/implied it.”
    (not sure if that’s idiomatic)

And these are not all.
Next up is the adjective deutlich and this one has actually preserved the original core of the verb because it means clear(ly), significantly

  • Bei einer Präsentation ist es wichtig, laut und deutlich zu sprechen.
  • When you give a presentation, it is important that you speak loudly and clearly.
  • Maria versucht deutlich zu machen, wie wichtig ihr ein sauberes Bad ist.
  • Maria is trying to make it clear how important a clean bathroom is to her.
  • Berlin ist deutlich teurer geworden.
  • Berlin has (clearly) gotten a lot/significantly more expensive.

Very similar looking to deutlich is deutig. It’s not used as a stand-alone but it’s super mega common in combination with ein-.

  • Ich mag Craft Beer aber 5 Euro ist mir eindeutig zu teuer.
  • I like craft beer but 5 dollar 50 is clearly, definitely too expensive for my taste.
  • Maria sagt nichts aber ihre Körpersprache ist eindeutig… Thomas sollte wirklich duschen gehen.
  • Maria doesn’t say anything but her body language says it all, makes it clear, leaves no doubt, is unequivocal... Thomas should really take a shower.

Eindeutig actually ties in with both the current meanings of deuten. You can see it as “pointing at just one thing” or offering “just one interpretation”. And of course, there’s also the opposite: uneindeutig. And zweideutig. And mehrdeutig. Oh, and vieldeutig. Looks like German is quite precise as to how unclear something is :)

  • Der Satz von Marias Chef war eindeutig zweideutig.
  • The sentence Maria’s boss said was clearly equivocal/suggestive/ambiguous.
  • Der Satz ist mehrdeutig.
  • The sentence is equivocal, allows several interpretations.

Now, these were already some really useful words. But they didn’t have their own headline.  The next one does…


When a word gets its own headline that means it must be very significant.
Hold on, let me say that again, this time in hint mode.
That MEANS that it must be very SIGNIFICANT.
Yep, bedeuten means to mean, to signify

  • Die Tatsache, dass das Wort seine eigene Überschrift hat, bedeutet, dass …
  • The fact that the word has it’s own headline means that….

How did this meaning come about? Well, I think it’s kind of a mixture of pointing and making clear. Like in this use of the word, which is rare nowadays:

  • Thomas bedeutet Maria zu gehen.
  • Thomas “non-verbally communicates” to Maria to leave.

But I always think of it purely as the pointing-deuten. The fact that I got 80% in the exam “points at” (“inflicts pointing”) at the fact that I passed. The word German word Tisch “points at” the concept of a table. It “means” table.  Don’t know if that makes sense. Anyway, let’s look at some examples:

  • Ich habe 80% im TestDaF… das bedeutet, dass ich bestanden habe!!!
  • I made 80% in the TestDaF exam… that means that I passed!!!
  • Ja, ich habe gesagt, du kannst in meinem Zimmer fernsehen, wenn ich nicht da bin. Aber das bedeutet NICHT, dass du da einziehst.
  • Yes, I did say that you can watch TV in my room when I’m not at home. But that DOESN’T mean that you can move in there.
  • Du bedeutest mir viel.
  • You mean a lot to me.

And now it’s time for a huuuuuuge pink but:
Bedeuten means to mean BUUUUUUT


Let’s examplain® that … get it… I mixed explain and ex… never mind.

  • What does that mean?
  • Was bedeutet das?…. correct
  • What do you mean?
  • Ich bedeute später…. WRONG!!

The second is WRONG because there’s though involved. Bedeuten does not work that way… like.. .not at all. I’m not sure if people would even understand the second sentence. So far is bedeuten from thought. If you say

  • Thomas bedeutet A.

you’re NOT NOT NOT saying

  • Thomas means A…. in sense of
  • Thomas has A in mind.

That would be meinen. The version with bedeuten means that the fact that Thomas exist means A. Like, say, Thomas is real party pooper…

  • Thomas means boredom.
  • Thomas bedeutet Langeweile.

So even though bedeuten will often be a translation for to mean, maybe it’s better to think of it as to signify since this verb has the same usage pattern. And to signify is related to signal and sign and these are awfully close to pointing, which is one of the meanings of deuten. Tadah… everything nicely falls into place. Thank you languages, for being so orderly.
Now, this would be the perfect time to wrap up but instead let’s ruin the moment with a few random examples of words that are related to bedeuten and that are very commblah blah blah blah…

  • Dieses Wort hat drei Bedeutungen.
  • This word has three meanings.
  • Ich bin gespannt, ob VW in den USA an Bedeutung verlieren wird.
  • I’m curious whether VW will lose significance/be less of thing.
  • Der Moderator guckt mit bedeutungsschwangerem Gesicht in die Kamera.
  • The host looks at the camera, his face fraught with meaning.
  • Der ehemalige Star ist in der Bedeutungslosigkeit versunken.
  • The former star sank into obscurity (lit.: insignificance).
  • Mein Deutsch ist jetzt bedeutend besser als vor einem Jahr.
  • My German is much, significantly better now than it was a year ago.

Yeah… the other moment would have been bedeutend better to wrap up. Anyway, we did it. This was our German Word of the Day deuten.The original idea was to make clear for the people and all the versions of today kind of orbit that idea in one way or another.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Oh, if you feel like a dose of German romanticism and heavy-heartedness to really drive the autumn home… here’s the perfect song.
The first line has bedeuten in it and it’s quite famous, that’s why I thought of it.
It’s a poem by the German poet whose name sounds like a super hero alias, Heinrich Heine, which was later congenially turned into a song by Silcher. It’s about the Loreley, a famous mystical, beautiful woman that sits on a rock next to the river Rhine combing her golden hair thereby distracting skippers from their skipping duties… well.. Heine’s version is a bit more poetic :)

(click here for the lyrics)

deuten – to interpret, to point
die Deutung – the interpretation
die Traumdeutung – dream analysis

auf etwas hindeuten – to point to something (abstract only)

andeuten – insinuate, suggest, imply, hint
die Andeutung- the insinuation, the hint (can be positive and negative)

umdeuten – reinterpret (not for pieces of music)

bedeuten – signify, mean (NOT for thoughts)
die Bedeutung – the meaning, the significance
bedeutungslos – meaningless, without any significance
bedeutend – significant(ly) , important (for people)

deutlich – clear (easy distinguishable)
die Deutlichkeit – the clarity (as in “understandability”, not claritiy of mind)
verdeutlichen – illustrate, make clear

eindeutig – clearly (as in “no doubt”), unambiguous, unique (in math) 
zweideutig – equivocal, ambiguous, with two meanings suggestive (sexually) (two-fold)
mehrdeutig – equivocal, ambiguous, with a few meanings (several-fold)
vieldeutig – with many meanings

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