Word of the Day- “einfach”

Hi everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a look at the meaning of:

einfach

 

Now some may say: “Oh, that’s easy….” and you are right. Einfach can be easy but sometimes it is not… just like that one subject in school with the numbers and the + and the – and the lim[(x+y)^2/k*x(-3!)]… yeah… especially that lim-stuff sure turned out useful.
Now you’re like “hey Emanuel, is it really necessary to mention math while trying to teach German?”
A good question, since German is quite whattheheckilicous already.
Well, here is the brilliant plan behind it: 

Step 1)   making a play on words about einfach as being easy as a translation but not easy as a word in general

Step 2)  using math as an example for something that is not always easy, casually  mentioning that math is a school subject –

Step 3)  telling them that German translation for school subject is das Fach.

Step 4)  explaining that the original less abstract meaning of Fach is small compartment or shelf.

Step 5)   making a first example with Fach that will lead to a a surprising insight… the example should be something everyone can relate to, something about a shared flat and a fridge for instance.

Hmm… I guess it doesn’t really make sense to actually stick to this plan now .. I mean… you know it after all … so… here is the fridge example. Imagine you are the new one in a shared flat. The people are all really nice and they are showing you around and then you get to the kitchen and to the fridge and they say:

And there we have it… ein Fach :). Ok seriously though… the ending -fach is closely related to the shelf-Fach and as an ending it is used to kind of count. 500 years ago, German had the 2 endings – fach and – falt. -falt is related to the English -fold and used to mean the same… but -fach has kind of pushed -falt aside, so nowadays -fach means -fold and  -falt is rather rare… one example is Vielfalt which is diversity.
With  -fach meaning -fold, naturally there is a whole family of words… einfach, zweifach, dreifach, vierfach, fünffach….
Just as in English, where twofold is not used that much but double instead, German uses the word doppel(t)  but for the higher numbers the translation is straightforward.

Now, note that the fach-words are not translations of once, twice or…. my favorite …thrice. Or more generally  all x-times things will be x-mal-words in German …

and for comparison one -fold or -uple example again:

There are also 2 members of the -fach-family that do not have a specific number… vielfach and mehrfach. Vielfach can mean many times and also often

 Mehrfach could be translated as a number of times… it is less many times and more than a few times.

Alright… so the very core of einfach is the idea of one . And from there it has broadened its meaning more and more over the last 500 years. The first step was einfach in sense of not elaboratenot special or simply: simple.

You can also use it for a person but in German it has a little less negative as it can mean everything between simple as not the smartest kid on the block and modest… I actually think it is shifted more towards the latter.

The second extra meaning einfach kind of took over is the main meaning it has today… you can remember it like this maybe : if something fits in only one shelf or has just one aspect it is probably … not difficult.

Now, many of you probably know easy as the main translation of einfach.
It is correct but the word simple is actually much better.
Why?
Well, we have seen simple already in the first meaning of einfach…  but simple can mean all kinds of things from not elaborate to just. Just? Yeah just … the adverb simply and the word just have a part of meaning they share pretty much.

  • This is simply a bad idea.
  • This is just a bad idea.
  • Just call me when you’re done.
  • Simply call me when you’re done.

Sometimes simple sounds better, sometimes just is preferable but the content is the same. Now, why am I talking about this? Because einfach is also a translation for those words. German doesn’t make a distinction between adjectives and adverbs. So simple and simply both translate to einfach. So let’s translate the English examples using einfach.

Or some more:

and now easy and  simply back to back:

Hey… it is an example ok… it doesn’t need to be true :).
But seriously…. I can imagine that sentences like these can be confusing if you think of einfach as easy. But once you start to think of it as simple/simply you can understand every einfach you will ever see … I hope :).
This is actually pretty interesting. The word simple and the word einfach are not related at all. Einfach is Germanic, simple comes from Latin simplex. And now guess what simplex meant… it meant one-fold. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it ;). So while being not related, the 2 words have the exact same evolution… that is pretty fascinating I have to say.
Anyway… berfore we wrap up, let’s have a look at some words that are based of of einfach.
Die Einfachheit is the corresponding noun and it means… simplicity.
It is not really a word you need much but German has one fixed expression with it that is kind of common… der Einfachheit halber.

Sorry… I couldn’t come up with an more simple example.
There is also the verb vereinfachen and you will be not surprised to hear that it is …. to simplify.

So… one last thing I want to mention seems to be a quite special case but I think it is a possible source of mistakes. So if you speak in imperative form, so if you give orders to someone,in German you cannot start a sentence with einfach, as you would start an English sentence with  simply or just. The verb has to come first for those sentences.

Aaaand… one even laster thing… the comparison forms… it is einfach – einfacher – am einfachsten and as we started with math and you all like it soooo much, let’s finish with math.

I think we need no translation here. So… this was our Word of the Day einfach. It is known as easy but see it as simple and you get the whole scope of it.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

for members :)

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Ron Magnuson
Ron Magnuson

We use Fach in classical vocal music to describe a particular category of music or a type of singer. For example if a tenor sings a dramatic repertoire that is characterized by heavy singing over a long period of time, he is said to sing the Fach of a Heldentenor, a heroic tenor.
This is just one small example of how connected the German and English languages are.
Thank you for expanding of the meaning of this word and its various permutations.

sjuniperj

Einfach Spass zu Lesen :) Thanks for reminding me how fun language is!! Since stumbling upon your blog, I am delighted to say that I really enjoy your writing. ~ Sarah

Joshua O'Neill (@CarpentersKeys)

Ich habe eine einfache Frage nicht, ich denke..

The direct translation of this sentence

“Geht es dir nicht gut? Bist du krank?”

Seems pretty insane to me. I’m guessing it’s something along the lines of “Does it not go well for you?” but looks more like “Go it you not good?” which no one would ever say in English. Even the paraphrasing is super awkward. Any illumination we can provide for this one?

Vielen dank im voraus.

Joshua O'Neill (@CarpentersKeys)

I understand it. I’m just kind of confused by the use of the word “go” in there. And some German word order still blows my mind up. Thanks for the clarification though.

It’s because essentially there’s conjugation and declension right? So the meaning of each word it clear because of the permutation and the language doesn’t have to rely on word order, right?

Clairette
Clairette

In English you’d say ‘How’s it going?’ or even, at a pinch, ‘How’s it going for you?’ which is pretty well ‘Wie geht es dir?’

I’ve only just discovered this blog. It’s soooo helpful. Thanks.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Do you have to swear?!!!

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren

One ‘shelf’, several ‘shelves’.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136

Really useful as always – thanks! I’ve spent about 40 years thinking of “einfach” as “easy” and now suddenly I know better!

And it’s not just because “simply” so beautifully covers its other usage of “just”. It really is because “easy” is the wrong translation. The sense of “easy” is – now I think about it! – “without needing much effort”. The sense of “einfach”, as you’ve said, is of simplicity or uncomplicatedness. Now usually simple things are also easy (if not always, as I think Clausewitz famously said) so the translation kind of works, but only kind of.

And with a flash of the blindingly obvious, I then notice that dict.cc doesn’t translate “einfach” as “easily”. Nor does Google Translate. And that’s because “easily” really does mean “without needing to make much effort” and so “einfach” just doesn’t fit and one uses “leicht” or “problemlos” or “mühelos” or the like. So absolutely, stop thinking of “einfach” as “easy” because it isn’t!

(I think for “Thomas ist ein einfacher Mensch” I might well say “uncomplicated”. “Modest” would I think give a sense closer to “bescheiden”, and “ordinary” makes him sound “gewöhnlich” or “normal”. I think it’s a bit like “simple is easy” in that uncomplicated men are often humble and unassuming and ordinary too! “Uncomplicated” is also a fairly neutral-of-itself thing to say of a person in English – it could as easily be complimentary as derogatory depending whether you’re implying lack of pretension/deviousness or lack of subtlety!)

demoneyes136
demoneyes136

(Clausewitz: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Which it now occurs to me to also look up in the original German and what he actually said was indeed “Es ist alles im Kriege sehr einfach, aber das Einfachste ist schwierig.” )

MichaelVG
MichaelVG

From the post:

Ich habe dich mehrfach gebeten, nicht mit vollem Mund zu sprechen.
I have asked you a number of times, not to speak with your mouth full.

Any difference here from “mehrmals”?

Samsubahree
Samsubahree

Finally! I’ve been trying to understand this word for days. The translation on dictionaries is pretty straightforward which it translates to just and easy. But I still had a hard to time to differentiate that until the word ‘simple’ you mention here.

I think it would be great too if you could have mentioned the word ‘Eben’ which literally means just. Some of us who use English regularly tend to use just in too many sentences that sometimes it doesn’t make sense much in German haha.