The meaning of “die Erfahrung”

erfahrung-pictureHello everyone,

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

die Erfahrung

 means experience. Okay. Cool.

  • Ich hab’ viel Erfahrung damit.
  • I have a lot of experience with that.

What’s actually interesting about the word is WHY it means experience. But let’s look at experience first. It consists of 3 parts that all come from Latin: ex, peri and ence. Ex is THAT person… that person you are desperately trying to forget, that person you were willing to go to the edge of the world for, the person you thought was the “one”, you still do, you just can’t adm…. but anyways’ ex is also a prefix that means something like outside and ence is an ending that is often use to build nouns…. like patience, silence or existence. In the middle we have peri. Peri is very old and you can find it in Latin as well as in ancient Greek and it means something like around or enclosing…. just think of the perimeter. Now… back in the old days you had your little village with a wooden fence around it. Pretty save but pretty boring too. So you decide to venture outside into the surrounding forest… you “exit” the “perimeter”… an experiment, you might meet perilous animals .. but you’ll get looots of …  experience. So.. experience is based in the idea of going out into the world and that makes total sense.
Now let’s look at Erfahrung. Just like experience, it also consists of 3 parts: er, fahr and ung. Ung  is a very common German ending that, that makes nouns… like Endung (ending) or Warnung (warning). Er is a prefix that is of course crystal clear to all of us so… uh…  no need to talk that at all…  and in the middle we have fahr. Hmmm….  that looks an awful lot like fahren. And fahren means to drive, right? Now… that is the moment where one could be like… “The word to drive as a basis for to experience... I mean … the stereotype says Germans LOVE cars but this is a little ridiculous.”

When I first thought about this, I found that a little funny myself. However, we’re not THAT obsessed with our cars after all. Because the verb fahren, which is by the way related to the English word fare, is of course older than cars and originally it was used for all sorts of travel. So

  • Ich fahre nach Berlin.

used to mean

  • I travel/go to Berlin.

This old meaning is still visible in quite a few idiomatic expressions.

  • Fahr zur Hölle!
  • Go to hell!
  • Morgen ist Christi Himmelfahrt.
  • Tomorrow is Ascension Day.

Of course Jesus didn’t “drive” up to heaven. He just levitated… and which car would Jesus drive anyway… probably a Christler… buahahahahahah… uh… sorry.
Here are some more examples for the old fahren.

  • Das ist zum aus der Haut fahren.
  • That make me want to jump put of my skin (that can drive you up the walls).
  • Ich kaufe nur Aktien von Firmen, die ich verstehe… und ich bin bisher immer gut damit gefahren.
  • I only buy stock from farms.. uh… firms that I understand… and I have always done well that way/made good experiences.

All right. So fahren used to be a general word for travelling. And what do you get from travelling? Experience. And that’s how the German wo… what?….oh… oh… the er-prefix… oh it’s NOT clear? Oh, that’s a surprise… so… without getting into it too deep the er-prefix kind of expresses the idea of reaching something through a process. In fact, the word Erfahrung comes from a verb erfahren. This used to mean “to reach or get something by travelling”… and back then it could also be used for, say, cities.

  • Ich habe Berlin “erfahren“.
  • I traveled Berlin.

Now… this really isn’t that far from

  • I experienced Berlin.

People soon started using erfahren mainly for abstract things and the travelling aspect paled into oblivion. And so the verb changed to something like to learn / to get to know and further on to to experience… and that’s  where the noun die Erfahrung comes from. English experience was kind of the knowledge you gain when you leave your village, German Erfahrung originally was stuff you learn while travelling…. somewhat similar ideas after all :).
Now, before we wrap this up by looking at some handy uses of Erfahrung let’s talk about the verb erfahren a little more. Because it changed its meaning again. The main meaning of erfahren today is to find out something by reading or hearing about it. It is like the English to learn… but not to learn as in sit down and study. It is the to learn as in “it was brought to my attention”… let’s maybe do examples

  • Maria hat gestern erfahren, dass Thomas sie betrogen hat.
  • Maria learned/was told yesterday, that Thomas cheated on her.
  • Erst ganz am Ende des Krimis erfährt man, wer der Täter ist.
  • It is only at the very end of the crime story that we learn/find out who has done it.

Now… does erfahren also mean to experience? The answer is “jein” as we say in German. Erleben is often the better choice.

  • Ich habe erlebt, was es heißt, kein Geld zu haben.
  • I have experienced what it means to have no money.

Technically, erfahren can be used that way too but it sounds somewhat big… I don’t know how else to say it.

  • Maria hat viel Leid erfahren.
  • Maria has experienced a lot of suffering (lit.)

The point is that erfahren will always have this other meaning of to learn/to hear.

  • Ich habe erfahren was Rassismus ist.

This could mean 2 things

  • I have experienced what racism is/means.
  • I have learned/been told what racism is.

Erleben is just less ambiguous. And while we’re at it… even the experience is sometimes translated using erleben… when it is about the look and feel of something.

  • Jetzt Kaffee umsonst – für das ultimative Einkaufserlebnis.
  • Now coffee for free – for the ultimate shopping experience.
  • User experience matters.
  • Das Erlebnis für den Nutzer ist wichtig.

But let’s get back to Erfahrung. And with a few exceptions it is straight up experience.

  • You need a lot of experience for that.
  • Dafür braucht man viel Erfahrung.

What’s really handy to know is that in German you either machen or  sammeln Erfahrung, that is you collect it…. you don’t gain or get it.

  • Ich habe damit gute Erfahrungen gemacht.
  • I’ve made good experiences with that.
  • Während meines Studiums konnte ich schon viel praktische Erfahrung sammeln.
  • During my studies I could gain a lot of practical experience.
    (I used to translate this “schon” with “already” but it doesn’t work and best remains untranslated here.. for more check out this comment)

I don’t know if this is the proper way to say it in English. Probably not. But in German this is how billions of applications are worded. Another thing that is good to know is the preposition… again, I am not sure about English but in German it is either in or mit…. in for actions, mit for things (works for actions too)

  • Ich habe viel Erfahrung mit Wildpferden.
  • I have a lot of experience with wild horses.
  • Ich habe viel Erfahrung darin, mich um Wildpferde zu kümmern.
  • I have a lot of experience in taking care of wild horses.

The experience in these example will be interpreted as knowing a lot… not as “I have been kicked and bitten thousands of times”. Or at least that is how the German sounds… I don’t know for English. I suck.
Anyway… I have to go to the prairie in a little bit so we’ll have to finish soon. But let’s look at 2 related words. Of course we have an adjective for experienced and to confuse everyone it looks just like the verb…. erfahren.

  • Ich bin sehr erfahren.
  • I am very experienced.

But thank god the adjective endings will avoid confusion most of the time. Thanks adjective endings… you’re the best.

  • Ich bin ein sehr erfahrener Wildpferdtrainer.
  • I am a very experienced tra… bla bla bla.

By the way… the opposite of that is unerfahren.
And lastly  there is the word erfahrungsgemäß. Gemäß means something like according to so the whole word literally means according to experience.

  • Erfahrungsgemäß wird es im Winter manchmal kalt.
  • According to experience it’ll get cold in winter from time to time.
  • “Wann kommst du morgen zur Party?”
    “Ich komm’ erst spät, da die erfahrungsgemäß eh erst spät gut werden.”
  • “At what time will you come to the party tomorrow?”
    “I’ll come really late because usually parties only get good late anyway.”

Sounds super useless in English but the German word is quite handy, indeed.
There are also billions (in sense of like 10) of compounds like Erfahrungsbericht (report of ex..), Erfahrungsaustausch (exchange of ex…) or Programmiererfahrung (programming ex…) but you’ll be able to figure those out if you know the other part.
So… and that’s it. This was our German Word of the Day die Erfahrung. It comes from the verb fahren so it seems like a very very very German word but fahren originally meant to travel. So Erfahrung is what you get when you travel or go places and it means… experience.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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2 years ago

Perhaps a better translation, closer to its use in English, both standard and idiomatic, would be “discover”.
As in “I discovered Berlin”, which , in context, does not mean that the person literally found a city no one had known existed, but that they had experienced something there they had never expected.
As in a “bigger” version of experience.
Just as “erfahren” is a “bigger” version of “erleben”.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

It is definitely bigger. Experience can relate to anything. One experiences something even if one has already done it hundreds of times. If you have a favourite restaurant, you experiences it every time you go. “Discovery” on the other hand, implies a singular experience, not to be replicated. One discovers one’s soon to be favourite only once.
I can experience Berlin and all it has to offer many times. I can only discover it once. “Discovery” is more profound than “experience”. Revelatory, even, by definition.
As for Erfahrung, the above etymology definitely involves the same active participation, certainly more than “erleben”. Which requires more active participation, “fahren” or “leben”? The former requires input, the latter just occurs. One can sit back and “leben”. But despite technologies best efforts, we are still not at a place where we can sit back and “fahren”.
However, it should be noted that the stated etymology for “experience” above is actually a bit of a false, folk etymology. In fact, although the “peri” in “experience” is related to the root “peri” in “perimeter”, it is only related indirectly. Rather, the word “experience”, originating in English sometime in the 15th century, derived from the Latin experiri, “to try, test,” from ex- “out of” + peritus “experienced, tested”, in turn stemming from the proto IndoEuropean root *per-yo-, suffixed form of the root *per- “to try, risk”, as seen in the related English “peril”. It originally meant “having done something and gotten good at it”. I.e., that received or derived out of risk.

Osama T.
Osama T.
5 years ago

Does the verb “Erfahren” also work for “to deduce” as in extracting information from texts and examples?
Google translate states “ableiten” as a translation for “to deduce”, but you know how dictionaries are, just try to translate a Japanese sentence to English and you’ll have a gio laugh, anyway I just need some help with that bit, and as always thanks for the great posts, they’re much appreciated.
(By the way how many languages do you speak? Just wondering.

Osama T.
Osama T.
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Well what do you know it turns out the dictionary is actually reliable this time :), thanks for clearing it up.
By the way I’ve noticed while learning German that Arabic is actually similar to it in a lot of points grammar wise, and Japanese actually does not have plural or pronouns, and it tends to drop subjects whenever they are known instead of using pronouns.
I know it’s unrelated information but I know how you like linguistics, hope you find it interesting.

6 years ago

“During my studies I could already gain a lot of practical experience.”

The “already” is out of place here. Once removed the sentence makes perfect sense and I think pretty close to the intended meaning of the German sentence. Left in, it’s a bit of a head scratcher. The speculative/subjunctive “could” does not combine with “already” here, although a simple past tense “could” can work with “already” – e.g. “it could already have happened”. If you really need to spell out that this practical experience will have been gained in advance of getting a proper job (and I don’t think you do need to spell it out personally) then you would need some additional phrasing.

6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks for that. I think I have a long way to go with understanding “schon”. This helps. Think I’ll sneak another peak at your article on it.

6 years ago
Reply to  aoind

OMG I just wrote “sneak a peak”. I’m going to slyly slip a mountain into my back pocket. Then write out “sneak peek” 50 times.

6 years ago

Another great post!
This post also helped me learn difference between Kenntnis and Erkenntnis
as in er has an idea of reaching something through a process


6 years ago

How do you ask when you want to know any third persons Cell number?
A: Du hast mich angerufen,aber wie weisst du,was mein cell nummer ist?
B:ich habe es von Daniel gelernt/erfahren/erhalten
is this conversation true way?
thank you!

Stephen P
Stephen P
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

How about bekommen or geholt?

7 years ago

always informative And interesting.

8 years ago

You are correct in

I have experience with/in something. Both are usually fine. “In” would likely be experience in a field/area of knowledge. “With” is referring to things, people, or animals therein.
Example: I have exp. with dogs.
I have exp. in dog training.
But they are interchangeable

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Just to add to this, you can also use an “-ing” form with no preposition at all.

– I have experience with dogs.
– I have experience in dog training.
– I have experience training dogs.

Any difference between “erfahrungsgemäß” and “meiner Erfahrung nach”? I feel like I’ve heard the second in real life but not the first.

8 years ago

Fantastisch wie immer! Aber ich habe allerdings eine Frage: Am Anfang haben Sie geschrieben: Ich hab’ viel “Erfahrung damit”.
Wir wissen, dass Erfahrung feminim ist. Warum ist es “viel” und nicht “viele”? Dieser Artikel ( sagt, dass “viel” eine adjektiv ist.

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Danke schön für die Erklärung! Jetzt habe ich die “Erfahrung”, dass ich nicht alles, die in Internet geschrieben ist, glauben muss.

8 years ago

Is a young Täter called a “Täter-tot?” I might be more excited about learning this new word. haha.

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ha, sorry, this was a silly joke.

In America, a “tater” is a Southern way of saying “potato” (think po-tater). And if you ever eat at Sonic, you know what a tater-tot is. It is a small, fried, bite-size piece of potato. And I think it is a funny word.

I was expecting some Americans to get it!

8 years ago

Wow. Thanks for yet another great learning experience. No pun intended!