Word of the Day – “anhalten”

anhalten-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our Happy Parent – Happy Child blog. After our last week’s discussion about whether it would be beneficial for our children to learn a second and maybe even a third language BEFORE they learn their first one (research suggests yes) today it is time to talk about yoga, the sister of yogurt. And let me tell you, children dig yoga. Yoga is small, cute and clumsy and yoga speaks with weird grammar just like our children so they can totally relate. And yet, despite all those supposed short comings, yoga is one of the most powerful Jedi in the whole universe… and trust me… I have been in one for decades and I still haven’t seen much the university … oh… oh wait uh… I mean universe of course.  But back to yoga for younglings. Modern children love yoga. They all seek escape and quietude after a stressful day with their sandcastle app…  and if you’re now trying to make up a sentence in your mind telling me to stop… then we’re right on the topic.
Because today we will have a look at the meaning of


And just to tell you right away… anhalten is not the one you need if you want to tell me to stop the nonsense.
Anhalten is a suggestion of a reader (thanks Lucius) and it is a really interesting word because: we’ll find to stop and to continue when we look it up in a dictionary… to stop and to continue… gee… I guess, it’s more like  contra-dictionary or something.
So… how can a verb mean to stop and its opposite at the same time? And are there more mea… and what are the other 3 meanings of anhalten ? What is the difference between halten and anhalten? And last but not least what is the difference between anhalten and aufhören?
We’ll talk about all those questions today and we’ll start…now :)

of an and halten

So… anhalten consists of the 2 parts an and halten. An is a very common preposition and a prefix and it conveys 2 main ideas… on and at.

  • Ich mache das Radio an.
  • I turn on the radio.
  • Ich setze mich an den Tisch.
  • I take a seat at the table.

Halten is related to the English word to hold and they share the meaning of holding something in your hands.

  • Halt mal kurz meine Tasche bitte!
  • Could you hold by bag please?

But this is just the tip of the ice berg. To hold has more meanings and halten … maaaaaan… halten has MORE meanings.
Back in the days, halten used to be something quite different… it once was something like to herd cattle. Sounds crazy huh? But yes, halten and to hold originate from a root that was used in context of “farm” animals… and this origin is still visible … in German even more than in English

  • livestock holding
  • die Viehhaltung
  • der Hundehalter
  • the dog owner

Anyway… one basic activity with farm animals is watching them. And that has become one of the main aspects of the words halten and to hold. If you say

  • Hold my bag please.

you’re actually saying something like

  • Watch over my bag please!  … or
  • Herd my bag please!

The focus on the physical holding is rather new. Just think of the word behold… there you still have the watching idea.
Now… watching over the herd of sheep is not the only thing the origin of halten was used for. It could also express the stopping at a grazing ground or the being there for a while. So… some idea of stationary is in there… and that has developed into the second big idea of halten…

  • Der Bus hält an der Tankstelle.
  • The bus stops at the gas station.

The bus has found a nice green BP meadow so it makes a halt there to get grass …uh .. I mean to graze… no wait.. to get grease… uh…I …  I don’t know… I ain’t no bus so I don’t really know what they like.
But there is another aspect in this stationary halten… the idea of resistance and the idea of duration.

  • The old alliance between Elves and Twelves is holding.
  • Die alte Allianz zwischen Elfen und Zwölfen hält.
  • Der Akku hält mindestens 1 Woche.
  • The battery lasts at least a week.

APhony promise…. … …
Anyway… there would be a good deal more to say about halten but let’s talk about anhalten now… and we take with us the 2 main ideas of halten… holding as in to physically hold something and then some very abstract very vague concept of “stationary, in one place, not going anywhere, not changing”… and that all comes from grazing animals… language is strange indeed.

Anhalten as to stop

Our dictionary tells us that anhalten means to stop and by now that makes sense because we now know that it meant to stay in one place with you herd of sheep…. as random as that may sound :).
Now, we’ve already seen halten as to stop earlier in the bus example and also a bus stop is Bushaltestelle and not Busanhaltestelle. So one question immediately comes to mind… what is the difference between halten and anhalten?  Well… the thing is this. Halten, just as the English to hold, is incredibly broad. That makes it ambiguous in a lot of situations. I think, this is actually why there is a word anhalten. You see, there was a word halten and in context of stopping at some place people were using the preposition an… like

  • Ich halte an der Ecke.
  • I stop at/on the corner.

But halten also had all the other meanings so people started using the an even if they didn’t mention a particular place… just to make clear that they meant to stop. And then, the an fused with the verb and anhalten was born.
Halten still has the stopping idea in it, but its other ideas have more weight, so to speak.

  • Ich halte das Auto.

This could mean

  • I hold the car.
  • I stop the car.

Of course I can’t physically hold a car, but the holding-idea of halten is so strong that it almost holds it for me… if you know what I mean. It just sounds a lot like the first version. Or at least it sounds undefined. And that’s why halten doesn’t work well if we stop something.

  • I stop (bring to a halt) something.
  • Ich halte etwas an.

Not because it doesn’t mean to stop but because it means other things too.
Now let’s look at this:

  • Das Auto hält.

Again, different meanings of halten collide

  • The car stops.
  • The car is holding (as in not breaking)

The not breaking idea is not as strong here, though. It has about equal weight as the stopping-one. And so as soon as there is a little context added, halten alone works all right.

  • I stop at the street light.
  • Ich halte an der Ampel.

Of course you can use anhalten here as well…. and get a nice double an.

  • Ich halte an der Ampel an.

So… when the vehicle is stopping.. the bare halten is fine. If you stop the vehicle, then only anhalten works. So maybe just go for  anhalten all the time. What? You don’t want to put the little an at the end? Oh come on… it is sooooo German to have it there:). And I mean…  English you also say Hold on!… so having an an there has some appeal, I guess.

All right. So anhalten and halten are pretty much the same to stop although halten has too many other meanings which is why it often sounds confusing or wrong.
But…  there is also the verb aufhören,  and this also means to stop.  So is there a … uh… What is the difference between aufhören and anhalten?
Compared with to stop, anhalten is actually pretty specific… of course. But it makes sense that it is that way. Let’s recall… the stopping idea of anhalten comes from stopping with your herd of sheep at some place to graze them. That is stopping in sense of slowing down a physical motion of yourself and of your sheep. And that is anhalten today. It means to bring a physical movement to a halt. That can be your own movement or the movement of something or someone else.

  • Ich halte an der Ampel nicht an.
  • I don’t stop at the street light.
  • Der Polizist hält mich deswegen an.
  • The police man stops me for that.

So this works. This is why a hitch hiker is called Anhalter in German. Because they bring cars to a halt.
But you CANNOT anhalten smoking, you cannot anhalten talking. There is no physical movement to stop. We are talking about activities here.
And this is where aufhören comes in. Aufhören means to cease an activity that you yourself were doing… I have talked about that in detail so I’ll add a link below.
Anhalten and aufhören are pretty much never interchangeable.

  • Hör auf zu reden und halt an!
  • Stop talking an stop! (lit.)
  • Stop talking and pull over!

Aufhören wants to stop the activity of talking, anhalten wants to stop the car. Here’s another example…

  • Hör auf zu rennen!
  • Stop running.

But wait? Isn’t this stopping a movement? So why aufhören and not anhalten?
Sure, running is a movement but on an abstract level it is first and foremost AN ACTIVITY that the person is doing his- or herself. That’s why aufhören works.
You can’t say this:

  • Halt an zu rennen!

That doesn’t make sense because halt an alone already implies coming to a physical stop. And also you cannot anhalten an activity. You can just anhalten things and person that are moving.
All right.
Now… does that mean that to stop is always either anhalten or aufhören? You are learning German here so of course the answer is no. There are numerous other options and all of them have their very specific domain.
If you want to stop a war, neither aufhören nor anhalten will do… because neither is the war something you’re doing yourself, nor is it a physical movement that you can bring to a halt. In that context people would use beenden which is to bring to an to end.
If you want to stop a super-villain who wants to destroy the earth… well… you must aufhalten him. A mere anhalten would maybe give you the opportunity to give him a huge ticket but it wouldn’t really stop the plan.
And even if you want to stop a bank-robber who is fleeing… anhalten is too orderly, to controlled. Aufhalten or just halten works better here.
And then there are situations where it is difficult for me to say…

  • My internet connection sucks. When I watch a movie it always stops for some seconds because it isn’t loading fast enough.

This to stop is strange… it is not a moving thing to stop so it is not anhalten, there is also not really an activity there so it is not aufhören and it doesn’t stop for real so it can’t be enden. I guess anhalten would work somehow but I think I would either use stoppen or  stocken (to stall, to stutter) and a quick Google search (click here) backs that up. Talking of stocken… that looks a lot like stock, and that looks a lot like lifestock and stall looks like German Stall which is barn and barn is where the animals are… all those connections are really weird.
But anyway… so  anhalten is one possible translation for to stop and it means to bring to a physical halt in an orderly fashion. There are numerous other translations for to stop, they are not interchangeable and you will always make mistakes… wait, that doesn’t sound very encouraging… you’ll get there…eventually :)

anhalten as to continue

The meaning of anhalten is clear I think. We know where it comes from (stopping your sheep at a grazing ground) and we know what kind of stopping it is (stopping of a moving thing or person). Fine.
And how on earth can something like that mean to continue?
A first hint comes from Greece. In a highly accurate historical documentary about the Spartans (I think it was called 300) the one guy with the abs, at one point says this

“Shall we stay here and continue our resistance ? Or shall we bow before Xena.”

I… I don’t really recall the scene in details but it was something like that …anyway… this example shows that continuing does NOT imply physically moving…. sometimes it is the opposite of that. And if we now remember that anhalten was to stop ONLY in sense of stopping physical movement then there is no real conflict anymore with to continue…. because to continue is not bound to physical movement.
But let’s try another approach. One of the core ideas of halten was “no change”… here’s a helpful quote about this by Ben Affleck from a recent press conference:

“In an ideal vacuum, a flying particle will keep flying forever on the
same path. Its energy state will remain the same. Energetically
spoken, continuing is synonymous with stationary . Why?
Because I’m Batman.”

Hhmmm.. you look kind of confused… well then… let’s think back to the origins of halten again. It was something like to graze.
Now… think back a few centuries. You’re a shepherd and you walk around with your herd of sheep and your dog. Then you see this incredibly large green meadow and so you say:

  • Sheep, we shall graze here.

And at least to some extend that means to stop. You bring yourself and your herd to a halt. Then, the next day you’re bored so you go on Facebook (that was some kind of WhatsApp back in the days) and you write this in your status bar:

  • Grazing my herd at the best meadow ever… got grass for weeks.

And now part of that is being stationary there… you continue grazing there.
What I am trying to say is that back when the verb developed it was used in different situations. Sometimes with a focus on the moment of stopping the herd, sometimes with a focus of being in a place with the herd and sometimes with a focus on watching the herd. And although the verb changed a lot, all these readings are still present to some extend…

  • Das gute Wetter hält an.
  • The good weather continues.

The weather comes and it stops here… and then it continues being here.

  • Wegen dem anhaltenden Applaus gab der Musiker eine Zugabe.

The applause is not ceasing… it continues being there. It “grazes” there

  • Because of the on-going applause the artist played an extra song.

So… the applause is on-going but it is not going anywhere physically, and so it is not a contradiction to the anhalten in sense of stopping a physical movement.
And if all that didn’t convince you and you still think it is nonsense… let me tell you that 700 years ago “Hold on!” meant “continue, stay the course!” too… here’s the link. And since we’re at that… “Hold on!” in German is:

  • Warte mal!

In reality the anhalten in sense of to stop is much more common than the one in sense of to continue. In fact, the continue-one is quite restricted to some fixed phrases so you definitely can’t use it freely the way you can use the stopping-one. In most cases the continuing-one will not make sense.
All right. Now let’s take a quick look at the other meanings and then we’re done.

other meanings of anhalten

  • Ich muss mir T-Shirts immer anhalten um zu sehen ob die mir stehen.
  • I have to hold T-Shirt in front of me if I want to see if they suit me.

This is the most literal one. You are holding the Shirt at your body. This is only ever used in context of clothes. Halten means to just hold them, anhalten means to hold them the way they would be if you wore them. Is that useful? Well, yeah if there is a queue for the cabins it can save you some time :).
The next one is less literal.

  • Thomas hält seinen Sohn dazu an, die Hausaufgaben zu machen.
  • Thomas mildly urges his son to do homework.

I don’t really know where that comes from… maybe we can just think of it as to stop…. he stops his son so he does his homework. But anyway, this is not very useful and really rare in daily life.
But not as rare as the last one for which I also have no idea why it is what it is…

  • Thomas hält um Marias Hand an.
  • Thomas asks (her parents) for Maria to marry him.

Will she say yes? Will her parents accept him although he is just a shepherd? Will Thomas find about her dark secret?
For answers to those questions tune in next time. For today we’re done. This was our word of the day anhalten. Its main meaning is to stop in sense of bringing moving objects or persons to a halt. A second meaning is to continue. This sounds like a contradiction at first but it is continue in sense of being present so it is actually like to stop… just 2 days later :). This continue-anhalten as well as the others are really rare so the stopping-one is really the one you should remember.
If you have any questions or suggestion just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.