Word of the Day- “halt”

Hello everyone,

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

halt

And I am sure many of you have heard this even before you started learning German. Because it’s a must have in … movies that involve Nazis.
Billy the super-spy of the allied forces is trying to infiltrate some Nazi army base to steal important documents.
Disguised as a Nazi-General he walks through the camp, trying to not draw attention to himself. All goes well and he finally reaches the building and starts opening the door but then someone behind him suddenly yells
Halt!“.
Slowly Billy turns around, trying really hard to look German. Four German soldiers are pointing their guns at him.
Within milliseconds Billy ponders all his options and then the decision was made. A decision completely Billy-Style – reckless, audacious, some would say outright crazy.
I’d LOVE to tell you how all this pans out, but then half of you would complain that my intros are too long so…
“It’s already too long, Bro!!! It’s 2021. No one has time for intros anymore.”
Okay okay… chill out…
so… today, we’ll take a look at the German word halt, and in particular, we’ll talk about why in Germans seem to use it in every second sentence when they speak.

Halt is of course based on the German verb halten which is kind of a fusion between its two English brothers to halt and to hold.
The core theme of that family is something like “preventing motion“. The soldier in the example yelling “halt” wants to prevent motion of Billy the spy, and when you’re holding a glass, you prevent its motion toward the ground. And if we think of evolution and decay as a sort of “motion”, then also uses like “The connection is holding” fits right in.
But I don’t actually want to go into halten too much. We’ll do a separate post on that at some point, and we’ve already covered a few of its most important prefix versions.
Today, we’ll focus on the particle halt and that doesn’t have much to do with the verb.

Halt has become more and more popular as a conversational particle in recent years, and it’s by no means limited to the younger agre groups. You can find plenty of older people sitting in TV talk shows, throwing out halt left and right.

So is it just a filler?
Not at all.
halt might be hard to capture as a translation, but it has a fairly clear vibe.
Get ready, here it comes :

Halt signals settling

We can think of it as aMeh, okayor a verbal shrug.

People use halt as a signal that something is not exactly the way they’d ideally want them to be, but they’ll accept it as reality.
That’s pretty abstract of course, so let’s look at some examples.

  • “Mist, ich wollte heute zum Zahnarzt aber der war zu, … naja… dann gehe ich halt morgen.”
  • “Damn, I wanted to go to the dentist today but it was closed… oh well… I guess I’ll go tomorrow then.”
  • “I would like to have a coffee, please.”
    “We do not serve coffee here…”
    “Well a tea (then).”
  • “Ich hätte gerne einen Kaffee.”
    “Bei uns gibt es keinen Kaffee…”
    “Dann halt Tee…”

In both examples, the speaker has to come to terms with not getting the preferred option. Of course, we’d get the same surface message, if we take the halt out. But it does add this element of “Meh, okay.
And it can do that in a range of “emotional states.
Take the second example, for instance – depending on how you say it, it can sounds like tea’s a great alternative for you, but you can also have it convey how dissatisfied you are with having to chose that.
And you can do the same with “Meh, okay, tea then.” … it really changes depending on how you say it.
Let’s look at some more examples…

  • “Schatz, ich lade meine Mutter zum Abendessen ein.”
    Mach halt.
  • “Honey, I will invite my mom for diner.”
    Well… go ahead (if you have to).
    (Mach halt usually sounds a little pissed.
    Like… you give approval while at the same time saying that you’re not a fan)

  • “Mein Professor fand mein Referat voll Scheiße, das ist so ärgerlich.”
    “Du musst dich halt nächstes mal besser vorbereiten.”
  • “My professor hated my presentation, that is so annoying.”
    “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be better prepared next time.

 

  • “Was soll ich machen, wenn ich enen Grizzly treffe?”
    “Dann musst du ihn halt besiegen.”
  • “What am I supposed to do, if I meet a grizzly?”
    Well, then you’ll just have to defeat it, I guess.”

These three examples are quite different in nature, but I hope you can see how there’s always this notion of shrugging your shoulders… a little pissed in the first one, a little ironically in the last one.
And you have this notion of having to settle for something that’s not your favorite. Like… studying instead of not studying. Or running into a Grizzly instead of not running into one.
Here’s one last example, that surely has happened in thousands of cars.
Mom is in the drivers seat, dad is in a hurry, kid is in despair because he needs to pee.

  • Kid: “Mama, ich muss mal.”
    Mom: “Ich weiß, wir sind gleich da.”
    Kid:”Aber ich muss voll doll, wirklich.”
    Dad: “Jetzt reiß dich zusammen, ich muss pünktlich zum Termin kommen und wir sind schon jetzt fast zu spät.”
    Kid:”Ich mach mir gleich in die Hose…”
    Dad: “Mach halt!
    Mom:”Oh Schatz, nur, dass du es weißt… wenn er sich wirklich in die Hose macht, dann bist du der, der die dann wäscht.”
    Dad:”OK OK, dann halt halt an!”
  • Kid:”Ma’, I need to pee.”
    Mom:”We’re almost there.”
    Kid:”But I have to pee REALLY bad, I swear.”
    Dad:”Now pull yourself together, will you! I have to be on time for my appointment and we’re late already.”
    Kid:”I think I’ll pee my pants.”
    Dad:”Fine, go ahead.”
    Mom:”Oh honey, FYI.. if he REALLY pees his pants, you’re the one to wash ’em.”
    Dad:”OK OK fine… then stop.”

Cool.
So this is the more “obvious” use of halt. But based on that, another use has evolved and that’s the one that’s so popular in recent years.

Halt – a shield to hide behind

Take this example…

  • “Wie war deine Klausur?”
    “Hmm keine Ahnung… war halt irgendwie komisch. Eigentlich nicht schwer aber ich habe kein gutes Gefühl.”
  • “How was your exam?”
    “Hmm I don’t know… it was just like weird. It wasn’t really difficult but I have a bad feeling about it.”

Statements like this are unbelievably common and looking at the translation, this halt really seems to be little more than filler.
But the way I see it, this halt still, under the hood, has the same effect that we already described. It expresses a notion of settling.
Only that in this case, it expresses “settling for a phrasing“.
The speaker doesn’t REALLY know how to express how exactly they feel about the exam. So what they’re saying is only an approximation and that is marked by halt.
So in a way, you’re distancing yourself a tiny little bit from the statement. It’s not REALLY what you mean, after all.
And while in this example, it’s just about wording, people are also using this kind of halt when it comes to voicing their opinion…. either as a shield from criticism, because you didn’t really mean it the way you said it. Or as an apologetic little particle, that shields you from criticism, because your opinion is not really your preferred choice but… the circumstance.

I actually really only realized this usage of halt a couple of years after I posted this article and so I did a follow up about this exact use in my Advent Calendar series (which is epic as hell).
I want to eventually work that part in here, but I haven’t found the time yet, so I’ll leave it with the link for now.

halt 2.0 – a verbal hedge

“Wait, didn’t you say the year 2021 in the intro?!”
No, I didn’t. You did ;).
#mindblown
But yeah, definitely check out the unofficial part two of this article in the link above. It’s an explanation you won’t find anywhere else on the web, and frankly, it’s purely based on my observations and thoughts, but read the comments there. At least some native speakers agree, that there might be something to what I said.

Anyway, the use of halt I describe there is NOT something to aspire toward, but you should definitely try and get a feel for the use we have talked about today.
The core idea is signalling that you settle for a “second best” option.
So yeah, that’s it for today.
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about halt and its use, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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