and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
This time we will look at the meaning of
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
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 2022. I can watch like 10 TikToks while reading this intro, get with the times, you boomer.”
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 a “Meh, okay” or 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.”
- “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.”
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.
“Wait, didn’t you say the year 2021 in the intro?!”
No, I didn’t. You did ;).
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.
Hi Emanuel –
I am not sure if I am creating confusion or not. Do you have any sort of tips on their usage? I have tried to summarize some thoughts:
to behave sich benehmen
to act as if so tun, als ob
to act sich verhalten
I don’t feel like they are all replaceable. For example “so tun, als ob” feels like a fixed expression. I realize that this is a broad question so I hope my ask isn’t too much. I really appreciate your time on this.
“to behave” and “to act as if” work, but you’re quite of base with “(to) act”. “to act” is “handeln”. Why do you think it is “halten” and “verhalten”?
It’s important to keep in mind that meanings are almost never exclusive.
“sich benehmen” can be replaced by “sich verhalten” many times and the same goes for “so tun als ob”.
So you can’t draw too strict a line there.
I’m 55. Spent a year in Germany 1987-88 and never heard this “halt”
I have been back 20 times from 1999 – present, and I hear it constantly. Never understood it properly until now. Thanks!
By the way – this one made me laugh out loud:
In the USA, regardless of how this was said, the first student would most likely have playfully kicked the second student in the groin for being such an überkorrekter Nerd. LOL
Interesting feedback about “halt” not being around in the 80s.
As far as I can tell, it shows NO sign of slowing down at the moment :).
And yes… college seems a lot more fun in the US!!
danke vielmals Emanuel..langsam spüre ich die Sprache
im Satz ” Ich hätte gern einen Kaffee” höre ich etwas wie “ein Kaffee”.
Würdest du bitt in Zukunft erklären, wie man im Deutschen den Akzent reduzieren oder den einen oder anderen Ton verschlucken kann?
Das hörst du richtig. Da ist nicht viel übrig von dem geschriebenen :).
Zum Thema Töne verschlucken kann ich dir nicht versprechen, dass ich da mal was mache. Aber mal sehen…
I would also love to read your take on the “swallowing” of sounds commonly used in daily spoken German.
I know that us native English speakers do this A LOT. Like how Americans say, “Wha’d’ya think ’bout that?” instead of “What do you think about that?”.
Logically, I assume that native German speakers do the same sort of thing. :)
We don’t do it as much, but we do “smoothen” non stressed syllables, as well.
I really should do an article about that, as many of you keep asking… I just don’t feel inspired for it yet :)
So viel los mit halt/halten… Irgendwie tangential verwandt, aber was ist der Unterschied zwischen:
eine Vorlesung halten
eine Vorleng abhalten
Hast du eine Vorliebe?
Meine Vorliebe ist ganz klar “Vorlesung halten”. Das klingt für mich einfach idiomatischer, aber es gibt keinen logischen Grund. Für Meeting zum Beispiel würde ich “abhalten” bevorzugen. Das kann auch eine regionale Sache sein, aber dafür kenne ich mich nicht gut aus.
Best explanation I’ve ever seen for this word! Just discovered this site while trying to explain it.
Hey, glad to hear that :).
actually, I have been meaning to edit this one a little bit and add in an aspect that I forgot.
I talked about it in this (short) post:
I’m sure it’ll sound familiar :)
Welch ein vielseitiges Wort! Ich habe nie all die verschiedenen Bedeutung von “halten” erkannt. Hat “halten” in diesem Satz die Bedeutung von “persist”?
Dieses alte Bild von den Deutschland hat sich bis heute an vielen Orten der Welt gehalten.
Was ist mit diesem Satz? Bedeutet er “ausdrueken”?
Guten Morgen aus Birnau. Die baroke Wallfahrtskirche ist in weiss und altrosa gehalten.
“sich halten” (hold oneself) kann die Idee ausdrücken, dass etwas nicht “weggeht”. Der Rest ist dann Kontext.
– Die Milch hält sich im Kühlschrank für ein paar Tage.
Das “gehalten” im zweiten Satz heißt sowas wie “stick to”
– They stuck to white and pink for the church.
Es ist aber eine sehr spezielle Formulierung, die man nicht oft findet.
Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum is Best Before?
Literally it is “best before date”.
On packages it usually says “mindestend haltbar bis” though.
Great great lesson.. I really enjoyed it…but I still have some nagging problems with ” ja ” , ” aber ” , ” nur ” …That would be so sweet of you if you gave me an insight.
They’re on the to do list and they’ll be there forever.
Nah kidding :). I’m just really slow sometimes.
What’s difficult about “nur” though. Could you tell me?
I am loving your site. The reasoning is so clear. You are a gifted teacher.
Great discussion of “Halt/halt/halten” usw. Even if — reading back on it later — you don’t think you “nailed it,” I think your effort to describe the meanings of halt as a flavoring particle really help me to understand the word more. I have been fascinated by that usage of “halt” and afraid of it for some time now because I haven’t really grasped its meaning enough to effectively translate it. I was in Stuttgart once recently on business and heard a young woman using “halt” in her sentences every few minutes and it really had me wondering what sort of function that word serves. Thanks for helping me to understand it better. Danke vielmals! Paul
Thanks for the great feedback :). I don’t think I nailed it either. This article has been on my review list for a looooong time. But to see that it’s still doing its job more or less.
In arabic we have a similar word with the same exact usage. The word is “بس” pronoinced bas with soft s like in sea
Wow, that’s a nice parallel :). Do you also use it as a filler ? Like, two or three times per sentence?
At last, halt, in talking, has been untangled. . . In an unlearned kind of way! Vielen Dank!
Haha… what do you mean by “unlearned”. YOu mean you forgot what you knew about it :)?
As a 77 year old Berliner, I have never used “halt” in my german conversations. Does being a Berliner have anything to do with that?
Wow, that’s interesting!! I think it’s more of a generation thing then. I am from Berlin and I’m in my thirties and I use it from time to time. But people in their twenties now use it a LOT, especially women :)
How did you as a native German speaker end up on my site? Es ist toll wenn Muttersprachler sich hierher verirrren :)
Oh, and I thought of another thing regarding “like” …but I don’t know how to edit comments so this will be a new one, sorry…
The filler-sounding particle “like” which is used between words, especially by teenagers, also does in fact serve a function even if they themselves don’t realize it ;-) . It’s a mini version of the “I’m paraphrasing” like, and the hidden meaning is “I am actually insecure about whether I really mean to use the word I am about to use. So I’ll throw in a LIKE just in case I want to say I didn’t mean exactly that, OK? God forbid I actually take a stance on an actual word choice.”
The result is speech such as: “I gave him a, like, a flirty look..but not TOO flirty…just, like, a glance. And then he took his, like, notebook or whatever and put it like touching mine so I think he kind of like likes me, ya know?”
Then combine this with the “paraphrase” like: “Oh my gawd. So then was he all like ‘want to hang out?'”
“Nahhh…I never found out, ’cause the teacher was like “Time for the test!” and then he never got to, like, elaborate.”
“oooooh big word, elaborate. Was that on the test?”
“Are you, like, making fun of me?”
And so forth. Congrats, you now speak teen.
“I am actually insecure about whether I really mean to use the word I am about to use. So I’ll throw in a LIKE just in case I want to say I didn’t mean exactly that, OK? God forbid I actually take a stance on an actual word choice.”…
That is EXACTLY what “halt” is used for as well. You’re hedging your statement by marking that it’s not REALLY what you think but just kind of. So you can always be like “that’s not really what I meant”. It’s a subconscious thing, I believe, but many people don’t like making plain statements. Because then you can “see” their position and challenge it. If you’re hedging all the time, you’re not as exposed. No idea if that makes sense.
If you compare the “like” and “halt”, “halt” sounds more apologetic while “like” is a bit more like you’re genuinely struggling to express yourself. They don’t really have the same vibe. I’ve come to really hate “halt” in recent years. Gets on my nerves so bad. Just speak your freaking mind, people :)
Hi Emmanuel! Just thought you might enjoy a little bit of insight into halt’s English cousin, “hold”.
First of all, I’m sure you know that English does indeed have the idea of holding an opinion (as in “Ich halte den Plan…”). But perhaps you have not yet encountered another phrasing: “I don’t hold with (that idea, that point of view, etc)”. This one is somewhat associated with older people– in my mind they’re from New England.
And the filler “halt”… Is it not really the same thing as sprinkling your speech with “uh….hold on” ?
Some readers are compaing it to “like”, but I would imagine “Hold on…” to be the better translation. It’s the same word, and is 100% literally a way of buying time while speaking.
While “hold on” is certainly not as common as “like”, “Like” actually serves a very specific function. Despite the “valley girl” stereotype it is usually NOT mere filler, but rather shorthand for “alert! I’m only paraphrasing here, but…” . (“He was like…(sentence) and then I’m like (facial expression)…and they were all like (response)”. Hold on has no such function. It’s just a stopgap.
Uh… nope! Thinking of the filler as “hold on” is NOT a good idea. The point of “halt” is not really buying time but more of a verbal shrug. Like… “I don’t know”. And I recently noticed that it becomes more and more a vehicle to “hedge your statement”. A little apologetic something that helps people NOT taking a stance.
– Ich will halt nicht so lange arbeiten.
You’re saying that you don’t want to work that long but you don’t have the balls to just say it. Instead you throw this whiny, apologetic particle in there. I’m planning to rework this article but yeah… “halt” doesn’t feel like “hold on” at all. Sorry smash you down like that :)
Disclaimer: I might actually have said in the article that “halt” is used to buy time. It’s been a WHILE since I’ve written it. If I did say that, then that’s accurate, but it’s only part of what it does.
And even then, “hold on” just doesn’t feel the same… you just have to take my word for that :)
Wow i didn’t know it has all these details!! thanks!!
Just found your site today. I love it! I can’t wait for my son to take a nap so I can explore what you have available. Kudos.sh
Cool, thanks for that nice feedback and I hope your son gives you lots of study time :)
Thank U for sharing, this is so awesome. Ten times better than any German teaching I ever had…
I still have a question with your explanation, what does “afier” in “give-in-afier” mean? Sorry I’m not a native English speaker, and I couldn’t find “afier” in any online dictionarya
Hey, thanks for the great feedback :)
“afier” means nothing. I made up the word “Give-in-afier” because I didn’t know how else to express myself. It’s modeled after words like “quantifier” or “amplifier” and so on… the “fier” ending expresses that the object “does” the verb it is based on. An amplifier amplifies, a modifier modifies and so on. The “a” is just there for the flow and the extra syllable. I guess I should have made it “give-in-ifier”.
Hope that helps
I forgot to mention the main thing…
A “give-in-ifier” is a thing that “gives in” :)
“Halt” has really confused me for a long while, so thanks a million for this post.
I feel like I hear the “little more than filler” version most often. I actually wondered if the best comparison was to the way “like” gets used by some of us ’90s-raised Americans – I guess that’s not far off.
“Just go ahead” definitely sounds annoyed even in writing, though. You would actually need to tone it down/add words in speech to keep it from sounding that way: “Just go ahead whenever you’re ready” (even that could come across kind of impatient).
Argh… this halt-post is one I really am not so satisfied with. Particularly the technical sounding definition I gave simply doesn’t fit well enough. I mean.. it does fit, but not always. I’ve wanted to overhaul this forever but … editing old stuff is not exactly fun, and the older the less so :). Someone, referring to this post on Reddit, recently described “halt” as a “verbal shrug”… that’s a pretty great way to put it or at least capture the vibe.
Do mind sharing which reddit sub discusses your blogposts?
Off… it was years ago that I saw that and it’s not a board I am following regularly or anything. I tried searching it via Google but there are several threads in the r/German board that deal with “halt” and I can’t tell which one without reading all of them.
It’s definitely older than 3 years, probably four or five.
That might help you narrow it down.
Übrigens… vielen lieben Dank für die Spende. Ich hab’ mich wirklich sehr gefreut!!!
Total gerne! Das Blog ist wirklich eine ganz tolle Ressource. Meine Frau hat es vor etwa einer Woche entdeckt und seitdem lese ich täglich mindestens einen Artikel davon. Es macht Spaß und hat schon m.M.n. mein Deutsch verbessert. Das ist bestimmt so eine kleine Spende wert. Ich werde es auch weiterempfehlen. Vielen Dank für deine Arbeit darauf!
Does “Mach halt” also translate to “might as well”
Person 1: Should we take the bus or just walk to the restaurant?
Person 2: Let’s walk, it’s nice outside
Person 1: (Sure,) might as well.
Person 1: Wollen wir ins Restaurant mit dem Bus fahren oder zu Fuß gehen?
Person 2: Lass uns zu Fuß gehen, es ist schön draußen.
Person 1: (Klar,) mach halt.
Nah… that doesn’t work because “Mach halt.” is imperative for “you”… like “you do it!”. In your examples it is a statement and it is an the “we”-form, at least implicitly.
I’d probably say
– Warum nicht.
– Auch gut.
– ok, von mir aus.
– Können wir auch machen.