Word of the Day – “nachdenken”

Hello everyone, this man is doin' it intensively

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will take a close look at the meanings and mechanics of the great word :

nachdenken (pron.: nug dancken for now)

Nachdenken…  hmmmm… how could I explain that…. let’s see… it is, what the person on the picture does…
Noooooo! It is not to punch oneself in the face. So I guess I should do a real effort in explaining.
Nachdenken is composed of the basic verb denken and the preposition nach. Denken basically means to think and nach… well the word itself means a lot of thing but here it doesn’t really precisely mean anything. It’s just a prefix. Not satisfied? Well then, nach means to and after and according to and past and for and… just a prefix is fine? Cool.

Nachdenken is sort of the brother of denken, and it is translated to to think in many occasions but the 2 words are definitely not synonymous to a German native.  Other possible translations for nachdenken besides ‘to think’ are ‘to ponder’ and ‘to reflect on’. However, Pons.de doesn’t even list these ones … never trust a dictionary.
Anyway, to understand the difference between denken and nachdenken let’s look at how the words are used. Denken is first of all the general act of thinking, so this is what humans can do while animals can not. As René Go-Cart said…

  • Ich denke, also bin ich.
  • I think, therefore I am.

Denken is also used in sense of having an opinion or an idea:

  • Was denkst du über den Film?
  • What do you think of/about the movie?
  • Was denkst du, wer wird der nächste Präsident?
  • What do you think, who is going to be the next president?
  • “Hast du morgen Zeit?” “Ich denke, ja!” “Super!”
  • “Got time tomorrow? “I think so.” “Awesome!”

Denken can also mean to remember, at times:

  • Denk daran, dass du morgen schon um 7 aufstehen musst!
  • Remember, that you have to get up at 7 already tomorrow!

Nachdenken on the other hand is usually thinking about one certain question. Suppose it is Friday night and your best friends ask you if you want go to the bar with them. Naturally this is a tough call and it sure is not something you could decide immediately as you also have lots of German learn and the kitchen sink is filled with sponge-hungry dishes. So clearly some meditation on the matter is necessary and you might answer by saying:

  • Hmm, klingt gut, aber lasst mich kurz nachdenken.
  • Hmm, sound good, but let me think about it for a minute.

In this situation you are not just thinking, you are pondering a problem. A similar example that involves pondering and still you wouldn’t really ‘ponder’ the issue in English is the following:

  • Ich denke darüber nach, mir die Haare zu schneiden.
  • I am thinking about getting a new haircut.

So the main meaning of nachdenken is to think as a soft, rather brief pondering. If you have really been pondering on something I guess you need to add the term long to nachdenken:

  • Ich habe lange darüber nachgedacht, und dann habe ich schließlich meinen Job gekündigt.
  • I have been pondering on it, and I eventually quit my job.

So whenever there is a decision to make, nachdenken describes the thought process before. If you propose something to someone you can always say:

  • Denk darüber nach!
  • Think about it!

The word denken does not work in situations like these.

Nachdenken is also used in situation where you try to remember something you just can’t think of. You have put your car key somewhere but you don’t know where. You sit in class and the teacher has asked you something you should know. The thinking you need to do in these situations is also nachdenken and not just plain denken.

  • Denk mal scharf nach… wo hast du den Schlüssel hingelegt!
  • Think real hard man… where have you put the key!

So to recap: denken is to think in sense of having an opinion or an idea and to remember as in to think of. Nachdenken is to think about something as in to ponder on it and to consciously think in order to come to a result.

Nachdenken is also considered a free time activity of sorts. So if someone asks you what you have done the last 2 hours it is totally fine to say:

  • Ach, ich hab ein bisschen nachgedacht.
  • Oh, I was just contemplating a bit.

People might ask, what you were thinking about but you don’t have to say it.

As usual we will finish the whole thing with a little grammar.

Denken mainly comes with 3 prepositions: denken an, denken über and denken von. The first one means to direct ones thought to a certain subject while the other 2 both mean to have the opinion on a certain matter.

  • Ich denke an meine Freundin.
  • I think of my girlfriend.
  • Ich denke etwas über einen Film.
  • I think something about a movie.

If nachdenken comes with a preposition, it  is always going to be über.

  • Thomas denkt über etwas nach.
  • Thomas thinks about something.

Note that the last example does absolutely not work with just denken. It sounds weird and incomplete.

Back to the grammar. Both verbs denken and nachdenken built their spoken past with haben. The ge-form is kind of a free spirit as it has CHANGING CONSONANTS. Weeeeeird. Now if that ain’t crazy stuff, I don’t know what is.

  • Ich habe gedacht.
  • Ich habe nachgedacht.

Denken is one of the few verbs for which you can also use the real past in spoken language. The past stem is dachte so it is:

  • Ich dachte – I thought
  • Du dachtest – you thought
  • Er dachte – he thought

The most common noun related to denken is der Gedanke which is the thought.

And now to wrap this up here is one of the best phrasings to scare your partner with. Put on a serious face, use a neutral voice and slowly say:

  • Du (meaningful break) …    Ich habe nachgedacht.... … …

The silence will be very heavy. It has the same effect as “I must to tell you something… … … ” or even better “We need to talk … … … ” :)

So this was our German Word of the Day. I hope you enjoyed it and see you next time.