Time 4.2 – Words for the past

Hallo everyone,

and welcome back to our mini course on Talking about Time in German.
Today, we’ll continue what we started last time – talking all about those vague words that indicate a point in time without being too specific. Or in grammar jargon

German Adverbs of time

Last time, we talk about German time adverbs that refer to the future (bald, gleich, demnächst, später…). If you don’t know the correct order then you should (re)read the part 4.1.
Today, we’ll go the other direction and look at time words that refer to the past. So let’s jump right into it…

The immediate past

There are two words that refer to the very very close past in German – gerade and eben. Both these words have like a bazillion meanings and we’ve talked about them in painful detail in a separate article which you can find the the archive. Yeah, no link for you now! You need to focus on time stuff :).
So yeah, in context of time, both eben and gerade refer to a point in the very close past. I’d say the range is from a second to no more than an hour ago.
So suitable translations could be just or just now or maybe also earlier.

Now, the big question is, is there a difference between eben and gerade?
And the answer is: maybe a little. (this answer won the Best Answer Award in 2017, btw)
Seriously though, I feel like I use gerade more often but in some sentences, like in the second example, eben sounds better to me. No deeper logic or reason. It’s just how I feel, and other German speakers might feel different. So basically, you can do as you feel, as well.
And if you can’t make a decision… well, no problem. People also use them together. On a side note, gerade is very often contracted to grade or grad’ and gerade eben to grad’ ehm so you’re likely to hear that in spoken German.

Either one of the examples would work with just eben or gerade but I think using both in combination just puts a little emphasis on the fact that it really JUST happened. 
But don’t worry about that too much. If you want to refer to the close past you can use gerade or eben or both.
Cool.

Next up, we have the time frame of about an hour till maybe three or four hours in the past. I’d say, in English the most common word for that is earlier.

  • I was very tired earlier, but now it’s ok.

And now here comes a really important bit:  this earlier is NOT früher.
Yes, früher means earlier in comparisons, but NOT in this sense of earlier today.
The German word for that is… drumroll please…  vorhin.

Vorhin is used A LOT but oddly lots of learning materials like textbooks forget about it. You definitely need it, though.

Now, there’s one really important difference between this earlier and vorhin: it ALWAYS uses the moment you speak as a reference point.
So it can not be used for accounts of past events like…

  • Maria was very happy when she met Thomas because, earlier (that day), she had seen a unicorn.

Here, earlier refers to the moment Maria meets with Thomas which is in past from the perspective of the speaker.
Using vorhin here would be super weird beacause vorhin is always relative to the moment of speaking. People would understand that Maria had seen the unicorn earlier today, instead of earlier that day.  
Now you might be like “Oh, so is THAT where we need früher. For earlier that day.” But nope. Still not früher :).
You would either use a pointer like voher or am Vormittag or people would simply not say anything like earlier and just let the context and verb time clarify the order of things. To save you some scrolling here is the English sentence again.

Cool. So quick recap: for the immediate past you can use gerade and eben and for anything that’s happened a few hours ago, vorhin is the perfect word.
Now let’s go back a step further.

The recent past

What I mean by recent past is the period from a few days to a couple of weeks ago. In English, you’d use phrases like not so long ago, recently or the other day…  without any particular order.
There’s a whole bunch of options that all mean roughly the same so I’ll just pick two really common ones: letztens and neulich. And no, neulich doesn’t mean newly :).

Make sure that you have the s there at letztens, otherwise it’s not understandable.
As I said, there are alternatives. You could also use vor Kurzem or vor einer Weile in these examples.

Now, I mentioned recently as an English word for the recent past. The words we’ve seen are actually NOT really good translations for recently.
Why not? Because recently can refer to a period of time.

  • There haven’t been any good movies recently.

The German words we’ve just learned (neulich, letztens, vor einer Weile) all only refer to a single point in time. So saying

  • Neulich gab es keine guten Filme…. wrong

sounds really strange. Like… “There’s haven’t been any good movies the other day”. I mean, the grammar is fine, it’s just… why would you say that.
Anyway, if you want to refer to a time span of the recent past, the best way to do that is in letzter Zeit.

Which reminds me… I haven’t showered either today. Was that too much information?
I hope not.
Because I got even more information.
About German, I mean :).
So… we have words for the immediate past (eben, gerade, vorhin) and we have some for the recent past (neulich, letztens, in letzter Zeit).
All that’s left is the remote past.

The remote past

And here, finally, at long last, we need früher.
Yep, früher refers to that time when everything was better, the public transportation was cheaper, people were more polite, politicians were still men with ideals (or just men), the beer tasted better and was more nutritious, the air was cleaner and more nutritious, apples were still picked by hand from trees alongside the road … and the were way more nutritious… oh and the Internet was better, too. And more nutritious.
This is what  früher refers to… the good ol’ days.

Now my dictionary suggests formerly as a translation but I don’t think the two have much in common. In my opinion früher is more like in times past, in the olden days or just several years ago (in another period of my life).
Oh and I guess we should note that früher refers to a period of time and it usually doesn’t sound idiomatic for single events.

  • Früher habe ich einen Bär gesehen… not really
  • In days past I saw a bear.

If you want to use früher for single events, you need to add one of those infamous everywhere-words German has: mal.

This works fine and I think it is how people would phrase something like that in spoken but there is actually another word for the remote past which would do the job: einst.

This expresses that the event has been years ago as well as the fact that it happened once.
But einst has collected a little dust because it’s not being used much.
It would sound like you’re stage acting… like this character from that famous British author… that boy who’s dad was murdered… Hamlet Potter I think… not sure though… oh and also, einst can refer to the future as well but it is not used in spoken… so stick with früher or  früher mal respectively.

And I think that’s it!!
This concludes the fourth part of our time mini series. I’ll go have a shower now, while you get sweaty doing our nice little quiz to check how much you remember.
It’s tough, so don’t fret if you don’t get all correct. But make sure, if you make a mistake that you know WHY you made the mistake. That’s when you learn.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestion about the article or the quiz, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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Test yourself on time words for the past.

1 / 6

Which German words refer to the very very close past, like  "just" or "just now” (multiple answers)

2 / 6

Which German word refers to the period between 1 and 4 hours before to now - like “earlier today"?

3 / 6

Which words refer to a past which is between 4 days and a couple of weeks ago - like “not so long ago”, “recently” or “the other day”?

4 / 6

Which one is a proper translation for this sentence:
“Your mom called earlier.”

5 / 6

What’s the proper translation for this sentence:
“Have you seen good movies recently?”

6 / 6

What time frame does “früher” refer tor?

Your score is

The average score is 72%