The meaning of German “eh”

eh-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
German is famous for its infamous long words. Words like auf or mit or the 4-letter monster ohne.
Those are tough as hell, but fortunately, for ballance, German has also really really short words …that are hard to understand. #nice
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, 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. 

  • Ich kann nicht eher kommen, da ich noch arbeiten muss.
  • I can’t come earlier because I still have to work.

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…

  • Reichen 10 Euro fürs Kino? Eher nicht oder?
  • Will 10 Euro be enough for the movies? Probably not, I’d say.
  • 4 Euro für einen Fahrschein?? Eher laufe ich nach Hause als dass ich das bezahle.
  • 4 Euro for a train ticket?? I’d rather walk home than paying that.
  • Morgen wird das Wetter eher schlecht.
  • Tomorrow the weather will be more bad than good.

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.

  • Der ehemalige Präsident isst einen Apfel.
  • The former president eats an apple.
    The earlier once president eats an apple (lit.)

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

  • Ehe Thomas etwas sagen konnte, war Maria schon zur Tür raus
  • Before Thomas could say a word, Maria was already out the door.

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.

  • Thomas hat heute ehe (eher) Feierabend als gestern… WRONG
  • Eher (eheThomas heute Feierabend machen darf, muss er noch eine Power Point Präsentation fertig machen….  WRONG

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.

  • Ehe/Bevor Thomas nach Hause fährt, fährt er erst noch in die Bar.
  • Before  Thomas goes home, he first goes to the bar.

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

  • Eh(e) ich zum eigentlichen Thema komm’, möcht’ ich mich bei ein paar Leuten bedanken.
  • Before I get to the actual topic I would like to thank a few people.

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 ”

  • “Mist. Wir haben keine Milch mehr.”
    “Macht nix… ich wollte nachher eh noch einkaufen.”
  • “Crap. We’re out of milk.”
    “No problem…. I was gonna do groceries later anyway.”

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.”
  • “Das Ballet heute abend fällt aus, Schatz.”
    “Sehr gut! Ich hatte eh keinen Bock.”
  • “The ballet tonight has been cancelled.”
    “Great. I didn’t wanne go anyway.”
  • “Kann ich dich heute abend spät anrufen?”
    “Ja, auf jeden Fall… ich bin heute wahrscheinlich eh bis um 1 wach.”
  •  “Is it ok if  I call you somewhat late tonight?”
    “Yeah, definitely… I’ll probably be up till 1 am 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

  • Könntest du mir trotzdem helfen?

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.

  • Ich musste [ehnochmal ins Zentrum fahren.

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

  • Ich rufe ihn [eh] wegen der Sache [eh] heute abend [eh] wahrscheinlich [eh] noch mal an.

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.

Further reading:

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