Word of the Day – “eh, ehe, eher”

eh-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. German is famous for its infamous long words. Word like auf or mit or the 4-letter monster ohne. Those are hard to understand but fortunately, German has also really really short words that are hard to understand. And the one we’ll talk about today may be even hard to hear… because it is basically just one sound. And I have heard from several people some of which speak really good German, that they have never noticed it.
Today we’ll talk about the meaning of

eh

 

Eh, often pronounced “eeeeeh” is a shortened form of the German word ehe. There is also the word die Ehe which means marriage and which research has identified to be the number one reason for divorces – (click here).
This Ehe is directly  related to the word ever… no really… it is…  but it has nothing to do with the small ehe.

Ehe and eher

The small  ehe as well as the word eher are related to the English word early so they obviously have something to do with that. Hmmmmm… could it be that ehe means early and eher is the more-form and means earlier? That seems to make a lot of sense….  Well, only the second part of that assumption is true.
Besides früher,  eher can be a translation for earlier. 

Is there a difference between früher and eher? Of course there is. Früher is really purely temporal while eher is shifted  into the realm of likeliness. So eher is used in a number of situations where one alternative is more realistic than the other…

Now… how does that make sense with earlier? Well, let’s just think of the 2 options (good weather – bad weather, walking – paying, enough – not enough) as being at a different distance from reality (which is where we are). Now if we were to walk toward them we’d reach the closer option.. well… earlier. Yeah, I know it is abstract … but the abstract is where the essence is… just check out papers in Nature or Chemist-Digest.
What is important to mention is that this eher, this rather-eher doesn’t have that much to do with actual liking. You wouldn’t say

  • Ich trinke eher Bier als Wein.

if you want to say that you prefer beer over wine. Eher is more talking about probability. One is more probable than the other but they are somewhat close together… at least in many contexts. I think people use this rather-eher a bit more often than they use the actual temporal one but you can hear them in both meanings.
All right.. how did we get here again… uh… oh right, we though that eher is the more-form of ehe. That is not the case. Ehe itself is actually the more-form of a word e. Yap, just this one letter. It is the actual root of ehe and also of early. and it goes back to an Indo-European word for morning. The word e has disappeared since and all we have left are the more-form ehe and the most-form… what is the most-form you ask… it is erst… like das erste… like… the “earliest” time, the “earliest” item in a list and so on :)…
Anyway, so ehe used to be the more-form of e. Ehe has changed a little and we have früher and eher now if we really want to say earlier, but  earlier-idea is still part of ehe…. for one thing in words like ehedem or ehemalig.

But ehe is also used alone… as an intro-word meaning before.

A few centuries ago this sentence would have been a little different…

  • Ehe, dass/als…
  • Earlier than Thomas could say a word…

But over time the als (than) was dropped and ehe has evolved into an intro-word. So it starts a minor sentence or dependent sentence or for those who like to marvel at jargon: insubordinate adamantium claws…. … … … get it? Not funny?… ok, sorry then…
Today ehe can ONLY do that, so it always works like an intro-word and that is also the difference to eher. You cannot use ehe for comparisons just as you can’t use eher as an intro word in sense of before.

And since we’re talking about differences (I feel like we always are)… is there a difference between ehe and bevor? From  a purely temporal perspective ehe and  bevor  are doing the same thing…

  • A happens, bevor/ehe B happens.

In reality though they are not always interchangeable. Not so much because of a difference in meaning but because ehe is really rare in comparison to bevor and might thus sound out of place especially in very basic every day sentences.

This just sounds much better with bevor and can’t find an example where bevor wouldn’t work or sound bad…. so maybe just go with that.
All right.
Now, if used in spoken language this temporal
ehe is shortened to one syllable… eeeeh… which is obviously easier to pronounce than ehe

And for some reason, I really don’t know why, how and where, this eh has taken on a different meaning which is now the way more important one…. the ÜBER-important one.

Eh – the particle

Eh is one of those little words like halt or doch… but the meaning is much clearer… it is  anyway. Wow… how crystal clear :).
Now… eh is not anyway in general but the anyway in sense of “however the case may be” or ”

Milk or no milk… it doesn’t make a difference. We don’t need to change plans. I’ll just bring it with me later.

  • “Warum kommst du nicht feiern?”
    “Ich muss meine Bachelorarbeit bis morgen fertig haben.”
    “Das schaffst du eh nicht, also kannst du genau so gut auch mitkommen.”
  • “Why won’t you come party with us?”
    “I have to have finished my bachelor thesis by tomorrow.”
    “You won’t make that anyway, so you can just as well come with us.”

Party or no party… it makes no difference for your finishing the thesis.

  • Unsere Lehrerin hat uns heute gesagt, dass der Test unglaublich schwer sein wird und wir quasi keine Chance haben zu bestehen, aber das wusste ich eh schon.
  • Our teacher told us today that the test will be incredibly difficult and that we have virtually no chance of passing it but I know that already anyway.
  • “Papa, was ist ein Credit Default Swap?”
    “Äh… das ist, wenn… äh… also du hast eine… äh… ach, das ist zu kompliziert, das verstehst du eh nicht.”
  • “Daddy, what’s a credit default swamp?”
    “Oh… uh… that if when… er… so you got a … uhm… it’s too complicated actually, you wouldn’t understand anyway.”

I hope you can get the idea of this eh. It is really hard to express it with words and anyway really is a good translation. Certainly not every anyway can be translated as eh. I can’t really get a hold of it so if you have examples where you have doubt, go ahead and ask and maybe we can zero in on eh a bit more.One thing I can say though is that eh DOESN’T work in questions.

  • “Could you help me with my German homework?”
    “I don’t think so… you’re much better than I am.”
    “Could you help me anyway? I’d like some company.”

In a way this anyway is kind of the same as the one in all the other examples… better or not better… makes no difference, your help is always appreciated. But it is NOT eh in German

  • Könntest du mir eh helfen?… NOPE

This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and the correct phrasing would be

Trotzdem means despite that and that is the important point. This anyway, the one in questions has some despite that in itself and that component is completely missing in eh. Try inserting despite that in the examples we had with eh… it makes no sense at all. Or it does but it changes the meaning quite a bit. So despite it being the same word in English… the underlying idea is quite different and that’s why eh doesn’t work for questions.

All right. Now, there are 2 main question we should talk about. First:

Are there synonyms for eh?

Yes. Sowieso. Sowieso is equally common and you can insert it in all the examples and nothing will change. Sure… it is much longer but it does have a certain flow to it… zow-V-zow… that doesn’t sound that bad and might spice up your phrase quite a bit.  A third possibility is so oder so and while this is not nearly as common but it may help you grasp the exact meaning a bit better… the idea that 2 alternatives are making no difference for something.
All right. The second question is this:

Can we also say ehe for this anyway-eh?

The answer is clearly… no! That would be super confusing because ehe does sound 100% time related.
The second question is:

Where do we put eh? What’s the position of eh in a sentence?

For anyway it is easy… it is at the end. For eh it is a little harder to say… and by little I mean much.
There are 2 positions where it CANNOT be. Just as any real particle (like doch or ja) it can’t be in position 1.

  • Eh muss ich noch warten…. wrong

.
And because the verb is there ALL the time, it can’t be in position 2 either

  • Ich eh muss noch warten...wrong

All other positions are possible and it depends on the sentence and the content where it’ll end up. For some sentences there is only one possible slot.

Eh has to come there. Anywhere later would sound weird. But there are other examples where it is really pretty damn free.

All of these are fine, sound idiomatic and the differences in meaning are really small if existent at all. If we wanted to really find out where it can be and where it can’t be we’d have to thoroughly talk about German sentence structure and that would be too much for now.
So let’s just settle for a few guidelines:

 eh usually comes AFTER direct and indirect objects, especially when they are pronouns.

“Ich hätte es dir eh morgen beim Essen erzählt.”
“I would have told you tomorrow during lunch anyway”.

eh never comes after noch (mal) or wieder

if there is a nicht or kein in the sentence,
eh usually comes right before that

And if that doesn’t help… well just as for the position of nicht, it is not the worst advice to just listen to what your gut has to say.
As far as my gut is concerned, it has been saying “Send down some food!” for a while so I think I should eat something. But we’re eh done here I think. This was our German word of the day eh. It is related to ehe, eher and early but it has evolved into a very very common way of saying anyway in German. Why did it take on that meaning? I have no idea… but maybe it evolved from earlier to rather to in all cases imaginable to anyway… I don’t know if that makes sense. But anyway… if you have any questions or suggestion just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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Further reading:

for members :)

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Filipe
Filipe

Lol, I didn’t even know that ‘eh’ was a real word! I might have seen it two or three times and I thought it was the usal ‘eh’, like: ‘Hello beautiful girl, eh, would you like to join the conversation?”!

Roland
Roland

Danke für diesen Artikel! Ich wollte eh schon sowas in der Richtung lesen, weil ich nie draufgekommen wär, wofür eigentlich dieses Wort steht :D

Übrigens bin ich ein Ungar der in Wien lebt, dazu hätt ich mal ne Frage: könntest du vielleicht einen Artikel über die verschiedene Dialekte der deutschsprachigen Länder schreiben? Also z.B. Wiener Dialekt. Aber nur wenn du dich damit auskennst ;) Ich finde es halt immer wieder schwierig diese depperte Wiener zu verstehen :D

MIB

Mei so schwierig sin mir schwobe au ned. Wir sin bloß gut im Buchstabö weglassö und beim anderssprechen von manchö buchstabö und des ganze dann halt kombiniert.
Wenn’d (and yes we use that apostroph…) Französisch sprichst haschs leichter weil die Schwobe sich viele Wörter von doh ausgliehe hen.

Gimme a shout if you need a translation for that.
And I doubt a single blogpost would work for all those dialects as there are many of them. I’d refer to southern, northern and eastern dialects. but that would upset a lot of people I guess :/
Also Swiss-German is completely different again…

Daniel
Daniel

Schon wieder ein schöner Artikel, wie immer! Mit dir kann ich nie weggehen ohne etwas ganz neues gelernt zu haben.
Die Meisten davon hatte ich mir gemerkt als ich in Deutschland war aber ‘ehe’ hatte ich irgendwie fast nie gehört. Ich hab’s wohl schon mal gehört aber ich glaub dass es mir einfach im Kopf abhanden gekommen ist, als ich die ganze Zeit versucht hatte, den Rest des Satz zu verstehen. Also ja dann hätt ich wohl verstanden, dass ‘bevor’ bedeutet war.
Also ich wollte dir noch ne Frage stellen – Im Artikel haste gesagt, dass man ‘eh’ und andere Partikeln normalerweise nach allen Pronomen hinsetzt, und nicht davor. Ich dachte, dass man _immer_ alle Wörter, die nicht Pronomen sind, nach den Pronomen hinsetzt. z. B.

-Ich gab dir das

und nicht

-*Ich gab das dir

Was geht denn damit? Wusstest du einfach nicht ob es ne Ausnahme der Regel gibt? Oder gibt es doch Ausnahmen?

Ach ja bevor ich vergesse muss ich dir auch NOCH was fragen. In der Schule wurden und werden wir immer noch gesagt, dass die Verben, die nicht Aktiv sind (dh. ‘machen’ in ‘ich muss das machen’ und gesehen in ‘ich hab soundso gesehen’ etc.), IMMER am Ende des Satz stehen müssen. Ich hab aber gesehen dass es nicht immer so ist… zumindest spricht man nicht genauso, und riegelt Adverbien dazu auf. z.B. hab ich gehört: “Ich habe gestern gegrillt, mit Freunden im Garten und so…” usw. Ist das ein Fehler oder ist das der Strom der Sprache…? Ich hab mich auch hin und wieder dabei ertappt, ähnliche Sachen zu sagen aber ich weiß nicht ob das ‘grammatikalisch richtig’ ist. Weißte was? Ich hab grad beim Korrektur lesen gesehen, dass ich genau so was geschrieben hab, ohne daran zu denken..! Jetzt musst du’s finden ;)

Viiiieeeellleeenn dank im Voraus!

gp
gp

viele Deutsche kennen mMn das “eh” nicht – ist eine österreichische Sache..

Sam
Sam

Speaking of “anyway”. In English “anyway” can be said to indicate that you are done talking about a certain topic or that you are ready to switch to a different conversation topic. Is there a word/phrase for this in German?

MIB

The most easiest way I could think of would be “wie auch immer”. Example: Blablabla über Thema A. Wie auch immer, Thema B geht hier los.
“Wie auch immer” is also a perfect translation for “whatever” and “however”. “Wie dem auch sei” works as well. It could also be used as making a counter argument for a discussion, just like you’d use “anyway” as well.

Feel free to correct me :)

Deon
Deon

“wie dem auch sei”

Wow,dieser Satz hat mir ein neuigkeit von Afrikaans gelernt!

“Hoe dit ookal sy” – bedeutet dieselbe. (hoe = wie = how, dit = dem = it, ook = auch = also). Ich habe immer gedenkt, dass “sy” in diesem Satz seite bedeutet, zum Beispiel “auf der linken oder rechten Seite”,

Simon
Simon

I think an English translation of ‘eher’ which mirrors the German temporal->probable/prefence shift is “sooner” . You could say “I will arrive sooner than you” .. but we tend to use “earlier” for temporal relations, and leave “sooner” for preference. “I’d sooner X than Y”

Also, I wonder if “ehe” has anything to do with the (old fashioned) english “ere” -> “Able was I; ere I saw Elba” (A famous palidrome…)

Daniel
Daniel

Ich hab grad diesen: https://diekuchenbaeckerin.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/der-fluechtling-klaut-mir-meinen-fernseher-oder-verarscht-fuehlen-ist-das-neue-20/
Artikel durchgelesen und der Autor schreibt bestimmt zwei oder dreimal “….(beliebiges Substantiv)… eh”. Was soll das denn heißen? Bei LEO steht nur “wie eh und je” und von daher könnte ich vermuten, dass das etwa “blah blah just the same” heißt. Hab ich recht?

Vielen Dank im voraus Emanuel. Du bist echt ne große Hilfe.

Daniel
Daniel

Jap, perfekt!! Vieeelen Dank. :D
Das entspricht meinen Vermutungen aber du hast das für mich gut aufgeklärt. Ich hab keine Zweifeln mehr.
Nochmals vielen Dank, weiter so!

Nami
Nami

Thank you emanuel for explanation i used to think before it is something like ‘Feeling Meh’ (those facebook smileys)now it is clear difference between ‘Ehe’ (Which i feel germans are pretty fond of using it altime) and ‘ehe’

William Kirstein
William Kirstein

Well done! It’s not simply translating a language, it is understanding how it is used. This was extremely helpful.

Robert P Wendell
Robert P Wendell

Your example “Before Thomas could say a word, Maria was already out the door” inspired an interesting thought. The translation could have easily been the slightly archaic English “Ere Thomas could say a word, Maria was already out the door.” With regard to your comment about “erst”, we also can say in English, “The erstwhile mayor dislikes the current leadership of his town.” I often find that if we are familiar with older English such as the poetry of Donne or Shakespeare or even of King James version bible English, a lot of the peculiarities of German become more intuitively clear if we bother to make the connection. Leider ist das kürzlich ungewöhnlich für Leute diese älteren Formen von Englisch zu kennen.

The connection with probability also shows up in English, since we can also say, “Scarcely did Thomas utter a word before Maria was out the door.” This may seem tenuous, but all the connections in this discussion are similarly abstract. Here “scarcely” refers to a short period of time, but might mean that something is improbable or unlikely in other contexts. “Scarce” can, after all, refer to extreme lack in amount, time, or chance (as in “scarcely a chance” as a parallel to the more ironic colloquial expression “fat chance”). Speaking of abstraction, “fat chance” is clearly a very abstract inflection of the usual meaning of “fat”, in this case meaning highly likely, but implying quite the opposite in this sarcastic application.

English is, of course, a Teutonic language at its base, but has lost many of its former grammatical as well as syntactical inflections. This is without even mentioning subtle and often not-so-subtle inflections of meaning by means of prefixes that are very German-like, such as “bewitched”, “beloved”, etc as well as idiomatic inflections such as “fill up”, “button up”, “zip up”, “fasten up”, or “get down from there”, which to a non-English speaker could easily translate to getting goose down from wherever. “Read up” (prounounced “red up”) meaning to get things tidy or ready, is still used in the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch community and its culturally influenced linguistic environs. The very colloquial “Listen up” also used in the Northeast U.S, is another example. This is just a hangover from the Anglo-Saxon English with its Teutonic separable verbs that often mean something entirely different from what they would without these prefixes or prepositions.

I personally find German fascinating. My experience with language before German consisted of three years of high school Latin, two years of university French, and many years of speaking Spanish at a level that fools native speakers into thinking that I am one also. I like German because it functions in ways that are so radically different that it makes my brain squeal with delight despite this being lightly interspersed with periods of mild frustration.

Bill
Bill

I have the same language background as you,except for Latin. My German grandfather learned English using an English /German Kings James Bible. Now I know why!

Robert P Wendell
Robert P Wendell

Thank you both for your kind replies. I just finished viewing a video from yabla.com, which costs only $10/month and which I highly recommend. For those unfamiliar with it, it consists of a large collection of videos with subtitles in the spoken German and the English translation immediately underneath. These are displayed phrase by phrase as the video unfolds. You can click on [Back] to go to the previous phrase. You can loop any phrase, click on [Slow] if the German is too fast for you level of comprehension. Clicking on any word in the German subtitle will yield a detailed dictionary definition, and you can loop the whole video. They are graded by level and you have many options for ordering them, choose to watch only those you’ve already watched for review, etc. I find it is making my brain start to feel the character of the German language in a way that glues everything else I’ve learned together. It kind of jump starts my linguistic intuition, gets me out of my head and into a more spontaneous mode of comprehension. It’s a lot like the difference between reading music and improvising over the harmonic structure.

MichaelVG
MichaelVG

Also ich muss ehrlich zugeben, ich finde die Beschreibung von eher sowohl etwas verwirrend als auch klärend… You say that eher doesn’t express preference, so would “I prefer beer to wine“ just be “Ich trinke lieber Bier als Wein“? But what about this example from the post: “4 Euro für einen Fahrschein?? Eher laufe ich nach Hause als dass ich das bezahle.“ This kind of hypothetical statement, emphasizing a strong contrast—eher or lieber (or either)? In English you could say, colloquially, “I’d sooner walk home than pay that“ in a hypothetical, hyperbolic context like this. I wonder if that might be sort of analogous to eher.

A second question: Where’s the difference in meaning or in usage between eher and wahrscheinlich/er? I get the sense that eher places more emphasis on the balance between two alternatives…this OR that. That’s pretty fuzzy, though.

Bill
Bill

I fully agree with you on your first point. I’m amazed how much eher is used in so many ways; however wahrsheinlich is literally translated into English as ‘truth appearing.’ I do not see a contrast or even a connection with eher (?)

Ruslana
Ruslana

in Ukrainian we have a word ‘швидше’, which means exactly the same as eher but it would be translated into English as ‘faster’ but in the meaning of ‘rather’, ‘more probably’, ‘seams more …’ etc. So, all translations are making sense to me..) Thanks for this nice article

2222222222222
2222222222222

Eine kleine Frage:
“Warum kommst du nicht feiern?”
“Ich muss meine Bachelorarbeit bis morgen fertig haben.”
Das mit dem “fertig haben” habe ich nicht ganz verstanden.Ist es eine feste Redewendung?Müsste es nicht “etwas fertig machen” oder “etwas fertig kriegen” heißen?
Ich habe gegooglt und keine Erklärung gefunden.