Learn German Online – “Time part 2”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of our “How to talk about time?” mini series. In the first part, we’ve had a general look at the different ways of indicating a time and I think it is very helpful to have an overview of what’s to come  … so if you want to read that then follow this link here.
But it is not mandatory and you will be able to understand this article without the first one.  So… the title for the todays show is:

Time 2- The time of day

Isn’t that an epic title?

Here is what the trailer would be like. Imagine a  narrator with a deep deeeeeeeeeep voice 

There comes a time       (wild horses grazing on a plateau)
when humanity               (children playing in a playground, suddenly stopping)
discovers that what was thought to be impossible          ( some scientist in some lab is starring in aw at something; looking scared he backs of and starts to stutter)

has become a reality         (score picking up)
 for real                                    (helicopter shot of skyline of a generic City of the US)
“Rest assured, this is no more perilous that brushing your teeth”        (sketchy broker guy cracks a smile, cut to a mom driving her kids home) ‘
This summer        (swooooooosh…. words flying at the camera, cut to man firing a gun)
time                          ( swooooooosh again…., cut to some energy ball in a lab)
gets        (super swoooooosh , cut to a slow mo jump out of a helicopter that with explosion in the background)
traveled!        (rapid cuts of scenery, no coherence, some cool punchlines and it all ends with some student asking)
“Sir, when is that due?”        (student making stupid  face, cut to the professor who looks really intense and serious and says)
“Any time!”          

God, the title just has so much potential. Think of all the drama, suspense and action it promises… …. … … … …. … …. yeah man, that massive explosion. God, so awesome… and that space fight at the end… holy crap.
So, with all these amazing visuals in your heads, let me tell you that todays post is gonna be nothing like that… at all…What?
No. No I can not try to make it fun. Time of day is boring stuff, period. Dry as desert sand. So let’s get it over with…

How to ask for time in German

The 2 main questions to ask for time in German are:

  • Wie spät ist es?
  • How late is it?(lit.)

Yes, that’s right. Germans always ask how late it is, even at 6 o’clock in the morning. The other main way to ask is:

  • Wieviel Uhr haben wir?
  • How many o’clock do we have? (lit.)

And then there are all sorts of combinations of the 2 ways like for instance:

  • Wie spät haben wir?


  • Wieviel Uhr ist es?

Of course there are other ways people use to ask for time and I don’t want to list them all here but a classic is:

  • Haben Sie/hast du eine Uhr?
  • Do you have a watch/a clock?

Now if someone asks you that and you really want to make friends just say yes and pretend that that’s what the person wanted to know… especially strangers will find that incredibly witty… ok maybe they won’t… but you can certainly do it to piss of friends.

In daily life people will often introduce the actual question with some polite intro, rendering the  time part itself indirect:

  • (Entschuldigen Sie), können Sie mir sagen/wissen Sie, wie spät es ist?
  • Weißt du, wieviel Uhr es ist?

Note the inversion of verb and subjaohdfasdfhafdfhhhfhhfhhhfahhhhh… oops, what happened… I … I … , I actually think I fell asleep for a second. You know what… let’s just not talk about the inversion, time of day is already boring enough.
Alright, so … the standard answer phrase is:

  • Es ist (insert time here).
  • Pronounce: As ist (time).

Please take care to say “es ist” and not “is is” or something similar because that might sound like a question… it has to sound like “as is”.
So, now, let’s fill in the actual time.
There are essentially 2 ways to give the “time of day” in German. The news speaks and the street speak.

Time in “news speak”

First of all, for all those who are not aware of it, Germany is using a 24 hour system and German does NOT have the AM-PM concept. As a matter of fact, it has taken me years to figure out which one is which. So, the day starts at 00:01 and ends at 23:59…
and this is already all we need to know for news speak.
Just replace the “:” with the German word Uhr  (pron: oor) and you have it… I mean, you need to know the numbers of course :).
Uhr is the German word for clock or watch but it is also used as o’clock. So… Uhr is put instead of the “:”.

  • 20:15 – zwanzig Uhr fünfzehn

And together with the introduction we already mentioned you get a pitch perfect sentence.

  • 20:15 – Es ist 20 Uhr 15.
  • 18:57 – Es ist 18 Uhr 57.
  • 03:10 – Es ist 3 Uhr 10.
  • 07:30 – Es ist 7 Uhr 30.

Easy isn’t it? And for the full hours it is even more easierer.

  • 19:00 – Es ist 19 Uhr.
  • 7:00 – Es ist 7 Uhr.

So… that is news speak. I’m calling it news speak because this is what they say when the news start on the TV or on the radio. However, it is perfectly fine in daily life, too. It might sound a little stiffer than necessary but it is not something completely out there like the military time.
“You hussies are gonna get up at oh four hundred  tomorrow and gimme 50 right away, your infinitely small wangs touching the ground every single time because that’s the closest you’ll ever get to a bang.”
The German news speak is fine in daily life and people do use it… although there is a strong tendency to drop the Uhr entirely and just say the numbers

  • 18:57 – Es ist 18 57 (ess ist uktsen zeebun oond finft sick… this is only an approximation, though)

Dropping Uhr doesn’t work for the full hours though.

  • 19:00 – Es ist 19.   is wrong! 
  • 25:00 – Es ist 25 Uhr . Is wrong, too, but for other reasons.
  • 23:00 – Es ist 23 Uhr. Is correct

So… when you know the numbers in German , and you know how to read a digital watch, you are set for news speak… just say Uhr where the : is… and if you want to come across more native, don’t even say Uhr.
Now let’s move on to the street speak.

Time in street speak

Just as the title street speak suggests, street speak is totally cool because it involves some math. Yeah… math.  Hyped up yet? Good.
German street speak for the time of day is very similar to English in that we use mechanics similar to the past – to system.. only a little Germanized… as in … twisted.
The German street speak uses only the numbers from 1 to 12. You CANNOT use a number higher than 12 for the hour in street speak without sounding extremely foreign. Now, I said earlier, that German doesn’t have an AM-PM concept. Doesn’t that lead to confusion then? Well, most of the time the context will make it clear. However, if not, we need to add something that indicates which 2 we mean ,the noon one or the night one… but more on that later.
First, let’s do the full hour… in street speak it is done like this:        um + number.

  • 08:00 – Es ist (morgens) um 8.
  • 20:00 – Es ist (abends) um 8.
  • 14:00 – Es ist (mittags) um 2.
  • 02:00 – Es ist (nachts) um 2.

Then, the next thing we need to know is the full half hour… this is done by saying halb followed by the hour TO COME…. I’ll repeat... TO COME.

  • 20:30 – Es ist  halb 9.
  • 08:30 – Es ist halb 9.

English natives might find this confusing as they are used to a similar expression referring to the hour BEFORE… so: in German, halb something means that it is not something yet. It doesn’t mean half past something. If you feel insecure with that, well … ask for clarification! It is better to ask than to come one hour late to a date… unless of course you’re a girl or…. you’re Spanish … uhhhhhhhhhh what a  stupid stereotype :). I am sorry girls, I know you can be on time if you want to…

Disclaimer: The indication, that Spanish people are not punctual is nothing but a stereotype that I used to get a cheap laugh. I don't actually know many Spanish people and the Spanish student I have at the moment is actually more punctual than me myself.. but I have an excuse for the last time I came late: I really had to finish my Sauerkraut.

Anyway… so now we have um and halb and those serve as kind of orientation for the rest. That means that we will give the rest of the times as a difference to um and halb using the words vor (to) and nach (past).

  • 07:10 – Es ist 10 nach 7. (10 past 7)
  • 06:55 – Es ist 5 vor 7. (5 to 7)
  • 19:20 – Es ist 20 nach 7 (20 past 7)
  • 22:45 – Es ist … eh… um

….oh crap, sorry, I forgot to give you the German word for quarter. So… Viertel. Alright, now we’re set.

  • 22:45 – Es ist Viertel vor 11.

So far so good. Thus far there it is just like the English system. But the German halb does have some gravity and the closer you get to it, the more it will “pull” and get your attention and finally, you will tell the difference to halb and not to um.

  • 18:25 – Es ist 5 vor halb 7.
  • 18:35 – Es ist 5 nach halb 7.

Technically you can also say

  • Es ist 25 nach 6.

but it is nothing a German would say. Why?  Well, first of, 25 is a rather long word to say and also it is not quite as obvious and comprehensible an amount of time as is 5 minutes. Knowing that it is 5 minutes to halb will give me a much better idea of what time it is than 25 past um… how long is are 25 minutes… how different to 35 minutes do they feel? But 5 minutes and 10 minutes… I can feel that.
Now, it is a little dependent on the person how strong the gravity of halb really is. For me it is very strong … almost 15 minutes strong. So for 15:20 I would always say this:

  • Es ist 10 vor halb 4.

instead of this:

  • Es ist 20 nach 3.

But that is just me. As a rule of thumb let’s say anything within a 10 minute range (00:20 – 00:40) CAN be expressed using halb and anything within a five minute range (00:25 – 00:35) SHOULD be expressed using halb.
You might hear something like this:

  • Es ist 12 nach halb 8. (07:42)

But you will never hear this:

  • Es ist viertel nach halb 8 (07:45)

Viertel (quarter) is definitely always given in reference to um.
If you want make a joke you can do all kinds of nonsense using this system.

  • 12:45 – Es ist 5 vor 10 vor 1.
  • 18:20 – Es ist 20 vor 10 nach halb 7.

Your friends will probably really try to decipher that :).
There are 2 more things I need to mention about street speak.
If you can assume that the hour is known, you don’t have to say it. For example: you and your friend have to catch a train that will leave at 18:50 and now it is 18:25.

  • “Wann fährt der Zug los?”
    “10 vor 7.”
    “Und wie spät ist es jetzt.”
    “5 vor halb.”

Here you don’t have to say the 7 again as both of you know what hour you are talking about. So if you ask someone at the bus stop for the time, and he or she tells you:

  • “10 vor um.”

Then they are assuming you know the hour.
The other thing I want to tell you is the word kurz, which means short.
Whenever it is kind of close to one of the 2 poles, halb and um, and the exact minute doesn’t really matter, people will say kurz instead of the very minute.

  • 19:58 – Es ist kurz vor um 8.
  • 19:56 – Es ist kurz vor um 8.
  • 11:26 – Es ist kurz vor halb 12.
  • 11:29 – Es ist kurz vor halb 12.

Using kurz is extremely common and you should make yourself familiar with it, too, especially as it saves you the math. How long can this kurz be? well, to me it is within the 5 minute range and I would never say kurz instead of 5… 5 just is such a fixed interval. If someone were to say kurz and it actually stands for 6 minutes, I would be rather irritated.
So, to bring the 2 thing together, here is something someone might tell you at the bus stop:

  • Kurz vor halb.

So you have to know the hour and you have to not care about the exact minute in order to find this answer satisfying.

Wew, we actually made it through. Now you know how to say the time of day in German. It might take a little to get used to the vor-nach system including halb as a reference but overall, it is nothing too complicated. If you have… oh my phone, oh it’s actually my red exception phone… damn, let’s hope it’s nothing too serious… Hey John man, we have not been talking in a LOOONG time, how’s life… oh that’s cool man… wow… sounds amazing… cool, so I am scared to ask but what do you have for me John?… oh … oh shit true… fuck man, I even talk like that myself.. oh yeah yeah I NEED to tell them… wow thanks man for the reminder, I would have totally missed that… yeah man you too. Take care…. (hanging up)
Sooooo … John my exception watchdog just reminded me that there is a variation of street speak which is used in east Germany and some of the southern parts for some reason. It has to do with Viertel (Quarter). Instead of seeing Viertel as a distance and referring it to the full hour by saying vor or nach, the variation sees viertel just like halb as a division of full… you look confused. Here are some example that should make it more clear.

  • 13:15 – Es ist viertel 2. (instead of viertel nach 1)
  • 13:30 – Es ist halb 2.
  • 13:45 – Es ist dreiviertel 2. (instead of viertel vor 2)

Me personally, I find this perfectly logical but for anyone who is not familiar with this system it seems to be an unsolvable mystery. My girlfriend grew up in the north-west of Germany and she does NOT understand what I am saying when I say “dreiviertel 3″. For her it could be either of the following times.

  • 15:15 , 15:45, 14:15, 14:45

I have explained it like a thousand times to her and still she doesn’t understand me when I say something like that. I think she doesn’t WANT to understand after all. Anyway, the point is, that you shouldn’t use this system in daily life because some people, German people, just do not understand it at all. But you should be able to understand it because in the parts where it is used people will say it that way. I use it all the time. I understand the other system with viertel vor and viertel nach, but I don’t like it and I don’t use it unless I have to.

So… I think now you know everything you need to know and we can wrap this up. Next time we will talk about all the names for time like today, later, earlier, soon, yesterday, this morning and such and maybe we’ll also do the time prepositions like for, since, in and  ago.

If you have any questions or suggestions about today’s post, please leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next … time.