German Word of the Day – “so”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. Winter is coming. But first it’s fall. Autumnnm. Herbst. The weather gets colder, the people grumpier. And as the days get shorter so do the words. Today we’ll have a look at the meaning of

so

(sorry for the noisy audio)

Of course so is related to the English word so.  But that is deceiving because the words are actually so different that German  so is often NOT a good translation for English so. Today we’ll find out why and when. And we’ll find out what so is used for. But let’s start with a look at the very core of the word… 

So is incredibly super hyper mega common. Yes. It is THAT common. At it’s heart, so is the sister of da. And you know how common da is I guess :).
But what does that mean exactly.. being the sister of da?
You see… in every language there are a handful of the same basic questions you can ask about an activity. I am talking about when, where, who, what, why and how.
Now… for each of those questions there is a potropit… tropopytic… uh…  basic answer. An empty sound that gets its meaning entirely from context or from a hand gesture or something. Here’s what I mean….

  • Wo?            Da!
  • Where?    There!

There itself means nothing. It is the most generic answer you could give to where?. Let’s look at the pairs in German.

Okay… some of those have more than one generic answer but I hope you get the idea. Now, there was one question missing … the question how?, which is the question that is asking for manner or “style”. And so is the basic answer to that question

That is the very soooooul of so. This is what the word used to mean back when the Thor was hanging with the vikings rather than Natalie Portman. And of course the English so comes from that idea too. In fact, it still can be used that way.  I learned that from Star Trek.

“Gentlemen. Situation is serious. Crunch factor is near zero!!! Ideas?”
“Captain, we could realign the Warp Coils and then use the backup relays to induce a plasma shock into the secondary grid. That way we could manually override the controls and emit a short yet powerful Tyrion burst midships. With that we might just be able to toast this bread.”
“Make it so!”

Data tells the captain a way. He describes how. And the captain doesn’t want to repeat everything and replaces the way they’re gonna do it with so. Just as you would replace a place with there.

“Gentlemen! The now toasted toast can’t stay on the bridge! That is against Starfleet regulations. Ideas?”
“Captain, I could put it on a plate in 10 Forward.”
“Sounds good. Put it there.”

And if you’re like… Star what? Don’t worry. I think there are other examples where you can see the old so shine through.

  • “I think so too.”

Cool, thank you…
but English has moved on and it rarely does it that way for the most part any more while in German we still make it so…. … …

  • “Damn, this can…  it won’t open… this can opener isn’t working. It’s more like a can’t opener…”
    “Wait, you have to hold it like this/this way.”
  • “Mann, diese Dose… geht nicht auf.  Der Dosenöffner funktioniert nicht… … (lost in translation)”
    “Wart’ mal, du musst ihn SOOO halten.”

Whenever you have to translate like that or like this or something similar, so basically whenever you are referring to a manner without spelling it out, then so will probably do the job.

We use so for all of that and there isn’t really another way to do it. You can’t say “Wie das” or “das ist wie“… it is understandable but so is much better. We make it so all the time.
All right. So so is the generic answer for how and can stand for any manner whatsoever. But how is also used to sort of “measure” adjectives… like… how fast?
English often uses zat  in sose situa… oh…. ops… my accent just popped through. Leave, accent!! Leave! My tongue compels you! Thither to hell with thee…oh good. It’s gone. So… English does use so in that situations but it also uses that a lot. German on the other hand sticks to its guns and ALWAYS uses so.

It would be really confusing for a native speaker of German if you used das here.

  • I can’t run that fast.
  • Ich kann nicht das schnell rennen…. WHAT???

. the that in those situations stands for an answer to how. The German das can only answer to What?. We only have so to answer to how?.

Here are some more examples.

Now, you can’t only intensify adjectives. You can also intensify verbs and nouns. But this is where the commnnnnalteeth end.

so and so – so not the same

I just said, that you can intensify nouns. Uhm…. huh? I mean… I can’t say

  • Scarlett Johanson is a very woman.

No, what I mean is this:

  • I’m such an idiot.

This is more than just:

  • I’m an idiot.

The idiot is intensified. Now, in English this is done with the word such. German uses so.

Now, this is not really a difference after all because such is… drum roll… related to so. The real German version is solche/n/m/r and both words, such and solch, are a contrapti… I mean contraction of the old so and … another drum roll… the old form of like. And like (or lic) used to mean body, form. So such originally meant “so a body”. And then like changed from body to .. well… like. Confusing. But anyway… the German solch-forms sound a little stilted most of the time and people just use them for plural and go with so ein/e/n/m/r instead.

All right. Now, we have intensified adjectives, we have intensified nouns. But English can also intensify verbs. And it uses so.

  • I sooo want to go to that concert.
  • I sooo have to clean my room.

The German so can’t do that. It can intensify nouns and adjectives but NOT verbs.And the reason is that the German so is so strongly connected to manner. It is the generic answer to how you do something. So if you say:

  • Ich will SOOO zum Konzert gehen.

then a German will understand

  • I want to go to the concert like that/in that manner.

For example… you meet with a friend and you want to go see Panthera… and you’re wearing a suit and a necktie. Then he would probably ask

So… German so cannot just intensify a verb and the best translation for this English so is probably unbedingt.

All right.
Up to this point the differences were minor. Time to get to the real stuff. Here’s a really quick recap.
The original meaning of so was in that manner. In German it has kept this meaning. In English it has kind of kept it but it has also taken on a second idea… one that is equally prominent now.

  • Thomas was tired. So he went to bed.

It is the idea of consequence. Thomas goes to bed as a result of his being tired. The German so does NOT have this idea of consequence to it.

  • Thomas war müde. So ging er ins Bett.

that is not wrong. But it means something else.

  • Thomas was tired. He went to bed like that/in that condition.
  • Thomas went to bed tired. (as opposed to, say, hungry)

The German so is really just about how. How did he go to bed. Not why.
So… if so doesn’t work… what works? Well… get ready for some confusion because the German translation for the consequence-so is… also (pronounced like ullzough)

Also as in also as in too? No. Not at all. The German also has nothing to do with the English also except the spelling and their common enceste…uh… family. The English also translates to auch.

I know it is confusing but I think you’ll get used to it. The German also is really close to the English consequence-so and it is also used as a sort for filler.

All in all, the German also isn’t used as much though. Just look at how many of those initial so-s I have in this text. This would never be possible in German. The reason might be that the German also has a slight notion of conclusion, while English so is also for short term consequences….  like… in a step by step explanation. Those are real nuances though.
Anyway…. and there is one very common situation where it doesn’t really work.

German also would sound like a school teacher who is trying to guide the pupil to find the answer himself.

“I’m hungry.”
“Aaaaand? What do smart kids do when they’re hungry?”

All right. So the English so that opens a sentence (like the one I just used) is NOT going to be just so in German. And what if the German sentence opens with so? Isn’t that the same then? Well, no. Don’t let that fool you. Remember, the German so is a full blown answer to how. It can answer that question alone. It can fill up the how-box. And because in German any box can open a sentence, so can the how-box.

Now let’s look at the German so-s that don’t translate to English. And the most important one is the one we use in comparisons. The German version of “as … as”   is “so… wie”

This use of so is really along the lines we had earlier… like… the idea of measuring an adjective. And German uses the same pattern for situations in which English uses like… so whenever you don’t compare two adjectives like tall or smart but rather things or persons.

Technically, we don’t need a so in those examples. We don’t even always need it when comparing adjectives. But the so makes it more “equal”, more measured…

  • Schnell wie ein Tiger.
  • Fast as a tiger.

I don’t know though.. please English native speakers… correct me if this was nonsense :).
Hey speaking of nonsense… the German so  can also mean if…. or better in case. Yeah… I know… don’t ask. This meaning rare though and no one uses it in daily speech. But you might see it in books and then it can be really confusing. So here’s an example.

But it sounds really stilted.
All right. There are more differences in use. For instance you wouldn’t say

  • Ich denke nicht so.
  • I don’t think so.

in German. Also, if so translates to wenn ja… and not wenn so.
But you’ll pick that up over time.
The two main differences are : German so  means as in comparisons and English so, when used to open a sentence or in jargon… the conjunction so, means also. German also.English also means auch. And auch can mean even, too. And even looks like eben. But it translates to sogar.  And sogar comes from so. And so everything is in a nice order after all. It is in a nice order. It makes sense. Because it is in a sensible order. Good. Guys… … …. I….. … …
I’m utterly confused.

Common expressions with so

There is a multitude of common expressions with so and they’re all really useful, so let’s look at some of them here. Do they all tie in with the core of so… I don’t think so.
The first one is really just the word

This is used to conclude something. You can use it when you finish some work of your’s…

or if you’re done preparing…

Or you can use it when your teacher keeps rambling about cases and adjective inflections and strong mixed and weak declination without stopping and at some point you’re fed up….

So basically whenever you reach a certain way mark.
All right. Now, what comes after the single word so? Exactly… the double so.

And does it mean that we’ve reached the second way mark… or that we’ve finished completely? Of course not. It means that you’re totally skeptic of what someone tells you. There is no sense to that but hey… sense comes from absense, right? … What? c? Really? You spell it so? Oh…  example to the rescue

This is something that is more between children and adults. Or between a cop and a suspect. Among colleagues it sounds a little … patronizing maybe.

All right. Then, so is part of a couple of common German ways to express the middle ground between good and bad without sounding too negative while still clearly communicating that there is a lot to be desired.

The last example leads us directly to the next expression… where so is used to indicate two sides.

  • “Schatz, ich habe heute Kaffee über deinen Laptop gekippt und jetzt fährt der nicht mehr hoch.”
    “Macht nichts… ich wollte mir so oder so /sowieso einen neuen kaufen.
  • “Honey, I spilled coffee over your laptop today and now it won’t boot anymore.”
    “No problem… I was going to buy one one way or the other/anyway.

Sowieso means anyway, but it is only a specific anyway. If you want to find out which one, then you can check out the post on eh … because they are synonymous… I’ll add a link below.
Now… another important use is this:

No need for any explaining here … but the short version of the first part is something you have certainly seen somewhere

  • usw.

Then, there is a really really handy one…. oder so. And that translates to or something( like that)… as in… the filler one.

And then, finally, we have one of the most famous German expressions of all.

  • Achtung!!

Oh wait… wrong one…

Literally, that means oh like THAT. But people use it whenever they understand some fact, that they haven’t understood before.

Is that it? I think that’s it… okay… wait… I should probably tell you that so is also used like a filler… especially by young people. For them it is kind of like the German version of like.

  • Und er dann voll so “Neee, kein Bock!” und ich so “Oh komm, komm ma’ mit” und er dann so “Na gut” und denn war’n wir so im Kino soo und der Film war auch voll gut und so aber er war auf einmal so voll komisch so… weiß ich nich’ … so voll so schlecht drauf und so. Und ich hab’ mich dann so voll schuldig gefühlt…
  • And he was like “Naahhh, don’t wanne” and I was like “Come on, come with me please” and then he was like “fine” and then we were like at the movies  and the flic was like all like … cool and stuff but he was like all of a sudden like totally like being weird or something… I don’t know…  like kinda like really pissed  … and I was  feeling like really guilty..

Okay… this may have been a little over the top… but people do use these filler so-s a lot… and I find it interesting that in German and in English they would use a word that is connected to manner when they need top buy some time.
But anyway… we are done for today. Yeaaaay.

This was our German word of the Day so. Its original meaning was like that/in that manner and in German it has pretty much stayed the course…. except for those fixed expressions we had. German so and English so do share some use patterns but there are also quite a few differ… you know what. We’ll just skip the recap.
And we’re cool so :).
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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Neptune
Neptune

I suspect the English and German usage was much closer a few hundred years ago. I haven’t read Shakespeare for a while, but I imagine there will be lots more instances of something like ‘He hath done it so’ rather than ‘He hath done it like that’. Star Trek is of course drawing on an older, more formal use of English, which obviously reflects its Germanic roots. I don’t know how into sci fi you are, but there is another series, ‘Earth: Final Conflict, produced posthumously from a Roddenberry script. The aliens in that series often use the simple tense, where these days we would normally use the continuous. I guess the scriptwriters were, maybe subconsciously, also drawing on their knowledge of a slightly older form of English, having maybe some idea that a non-native speaker might speak in such a way, without making them sound as though they were clueless in the language (in fact the aliens sound more sophisticated, obviously the rules are only broken in acceptable ways). Sci fi obviously always has an other worldly element, so it’s understandable that scripts for both human and non-human characters are designed to be a bit different from normal everyday speech.

Jimmy Vu (@jimmyvooh)

That seems plausible. You see the German meaning of so in English phrases like “Say it ain’t so!”, to which one can sadly respond “It’s so”, which wouldn’t make sense in any other context. In English, you can also say “Like so” instead of “Like this” when you’re demonstrating something… Gives it more of a traditional feel, like you’re doing things in the proper/correct way.

Lisa D
Lisa D

Hi, I just have a grammar question. In your explanation of ‘so’ you wrote: Ich will so sein wie Justin Bieber. I was wondering why it wouldn’t be,” Ich will so wie Justin Bieber sein.”?
Thanks

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

sodass?

TheHillma
TheHillma

Killin it as always dude, just a suggestion/idea; perhaps it might be a good idea to have some sort of quiz or ‘try it yourself’ part at the end? The problem I sometimes have living in the UK is that I often don’t get as much time to practice the phrases as much I would like, and perhaps with some sort of quiz scenario at the end it would help the phrases you’ve taught us become more fixed in our mind…? Just a thought and I would understand why you wouldn’t want to do one bearing in mind you’ve probably fully exerted yourself as much as you would have liked to when explaining the terms themselves!

George
George

It looks as if German has tons of words that are only said in one in English. Are there any cases where English has several words (verbs, conjunctions, or nouns) for something that German says in one way?

Alberto
Alberto

I love it when you go all in depth :) One thing though, you said that in German you wouldn’t say:
Ich denke nicht so.
Then what would you say?

Alberto
Alberto

Also I thought of another thing: I get that you would say “Ich bin so ein Idiot” as “I’m such an idiot”, but what if I want to say “What at idiot”?

George.
George.

Lastly, I am having a great deal of trouble with the word order in sentences. I don’t mind verb final, but having to reverse them?
“I know, that I at Video games no beaten been have will try to, and will I at this house with my friends sitting on a sofa a soda offered been have.”
Dear lord, are there any tips? I suppose every German Child can say the alphabet backwards simply because they are so used to saying everything in reverse! And for a language with word endings the switching around of words is quite a lot, maybe even more than Mandarin which has no word endings! Okay, enough complaining and subtlety begging for reassurance that it is not so bad after all, so what’s to do?

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

From my perspective as someone who also learns German:

One tip is to understand and memorize, which words or situations cause the reversal (e.g. wenn, dass, weil…, phrases like “der Zug, *in welchem* …[verb]”) and which never do (und, oder, denn…). That system is pretty self-consistent.

Next, in everyday speech overburdened constructions are generally avoided, and simple phrases are easier to reverse. The KISS principle. Your example is only complex because its difficulty level is artificially inflated :-)

Also, I’ve noticed, that Germans break these rules every so often as they speak. Yep, they mangle the poor auxiliary sentences. :-)
Sure, it won’t sound good if you never do the reversal, but if you don’t in like (off the top of my head) 30% of cases, I would think it’s OK (at least for a foreigner). (Written speech is different since you have time to think; there you must always write correctly).

Last tip: there is an important exception to the general rule, when modal (and some other) verbs are used in perfect tenses.

– Wenn ich das hätte machen sollen…
– … dass er das hat kaufen müssen.
– … obwohl ich das werde haben erledigen dürfen. (But you’re unlikely to ever meet such a construction in real life in spoken language.)

This is the sort of construction that can cause temporary trouble. But once you get used to it, it can make your life simpler, because all you do is end your sentence with a simple verb (say, habe) and then you can take a breath and append the rest of the verbal baggage in unreversed form ;-)

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

As for your example, here’s my attempt – without any guarantee of accuracy. Note that while clunky, it’s stoll much easier to understand than your original ;-)

Ich weiß, dass ich beim Daddeln versuchen werde, nicht geschlagen zu werden und dass mir ein Soda angeboten wird, während ich und meine Freunde in diesem Hause auf dem Sofa zusammensitzen.

George
George

Thanks, I just want to ask what the verb reversion is properly called? I tried googling but I could not find a definition or term.

Alex93
Alex93

Hallo! “So” ist ein sehr wichtiges Wort. Jedoch habe ich eine frage: kann “so” wie “um…zu” funktionieren? Hier gebe ich Sie ein Beispiel: <>
What I think it means is: Befragten waren der Meinung, dass eine Ernährungsumstellung nicht nötig ist um gesund zu essen.

Alex93
Alex93

Ich bin nich sicher warum das Beispiel nich da ist. Jedoch schreibe ich hier das Beispiel noch einmal: Zwei Drittel der Befragten waren der Meinung, so gesund zu essen, dass eine Ernährungsumstellung nicht nötig ist.
Können Sie mir bitte erklären wie “so” in diesem Satzt funktioniert?

Paul Speirs
Paul Speirs

Just tagging on to the bottom of this post. In this article it was said that Ach…sooo, meant ahh..like that. When i was in bavaria several years ago in the würzburg area, i was sure i heard this phrase being used all the time, but it sounded to me like they were all saying “alsoooo” instead. Has anyone lived/is living in this area and can they confirm it? In fact they used “also” extensively there if i remember correctly, that and blah blah blah oder?

Just wanted to get that one off my chest.

Ihre antworten sind willkommen.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Nice

Diego
Diego

Hello Emanuel,

Once I’ve read this example you gave:
– Tut mir leid, wenn ich mit dem, was ich gesagt hab’, verletzt hab’… es war nicht so gemeint.

I got an alarm in my brain, that alarm is the “isn’t there supposed to be a ‘damit’ instead of ‘mit dem’?”

Was that a false alarm? Am I missing something? Help me please!

Thank you in advance.

Sam
Sam

Great article, really important word to understand. Thanks for breaking it down. All I have to say for now is the last example was hilarious. Definitely nailed how some people talk using the word “like” and it’s interesting to know there is a similar word in a German.

Welton Gonçalves

In this article (http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/technik/hightech-forscher-entwickeln-folie-mit-farbwechsel-a-986725.html) there are instances of “so” I can’t quite understand: “Aus dem Licht wird so elektrischer Strom und daraus wiederum Wärme.” and “Die neue Technologie könne laut der Autoren Maschinen so unempfindlicher gegenüber Umwelteinflüssen und energieeffizienter machen.”

Anonymous
Anonymous

Was heißt soweit auf Englisch?
Heißt es “as far as”, “Such a distance” oder etwas anderer? Könnte es etwas mit Zeit oder Mal gemeinsam haben?Weil ich auch stoßen habe, auf der Phrase “Es ist soweit”. Der Übersetzen, ich habe ist “This is it” oder “now is the time”. Gibt es so-Worter anderer als die, die in diese Post sind?

Pooja
Pooja

Very useful. Thanks

Olivia
Olivia

What does it mean when you say, for example,
“Was machst du so auf der Arbeit?”
as opposed to just,
“Was machst du auf der Arbeit?”

My interpretation would be that it’s,
“What do you do at work?” in general, like every day,
as opposed to,
“What are you doing at work?” like right this moment.

Or “Was geht hier ab?” vs. “Was geht hier so ab?”
Is that like “What’s going on here?” (right now) vs. “What goes on here?” (in general)?
I always wondered how you could distinguish between the two in German…now I’ve heard it being said this way but I don’t know if that is the solution.

Andy G.
Andy G.

First off, thank you. I love your articles, they are very helpful.

My question is unrelated to “so” and more about general conversation.

so in this sentence: “Tut mir leid, wenn ich dich mit dem, was ich gesagt hab’, verletzt hab’… es war nicht so gemeint.”

you use “hab'” which I have heard in conversation before and I know it is short for “habe” correct? My question is that if you were typing with someone, like say in WhatsApp or Facebook, would you type this way to reflect they way you would sound or would you write habe?

The answer would seem obvious if the contraction made the word shorter, but it doesn’t really, so that is why I ask.

Vielen Dank!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hi! Thanks for your great blog.
What about the use of “so” as in:
so der Duden
meaning according to
I guess it’s short for: so sagt Duden