German Word of the Day – “ankommen”

2 meanings of ankommenHello everyone,

and welcome to another rendition of our German Word of the Day. Glad you tuned in again. And if you have any questions or something I say is not clear, feel free to call me and maybe you’ll be live on the show. The number is 0800-vocab-4-u. But let’s get started.
This time we will look at the meanings of:



Despite its pronunciation ankommen is not at all rare. You can hear and read it every day in both high quality “novelish”  German and colloquial speech.
It consists of the basic verb kommen, which basically is to come (and the English homophone too, for those dirty minds of ya’) and the preposition an, which means either at, to or on.  And we already have a first call here, Christin from Sugar City, Idaho, welcome to the show.
“Hi Emanuel, great to talk to you…”
What can I do for you, Christin?
“Well, uhm… you know I am like a really big fan of your show and all… but when I saw ankommen in the preview I was like… isn’t that a little bit boring… ?”
Oh, and why would you think that?
“Well… I mean… it’s like … it’s just to arrive right? Of course it’s an important word to know and all, but half an hour spent on to arrive seems sort of like a really long time I guess…”
Oh, once my flight was canceled and I had to wait 36 hours for the next one… now THAT took a really long time for me to arrive :)
” Ahahah…. that’s so funny…”
But seriously, you are definitely right that ankommen means to arrive… I got a little challenge for you…
 “What is it… (still snickering)”
You have to translate a short sentence for me…
 “Oh damn… I’m so gonna embarrass myself…  you gotta help me ok?”
Sure, so the sentence is:

“Oh… uhm… that’s kinda hard …  it’s like …  Whether Thomas arrives at Maria’s, arrives on that, whether he arrives in time…Shit, that doesn’t make sense to me… is that correct???”
Well no that doesn’t make sense to me either. There is just so much more to ankommen than just to arrive. It actually means 4 distinct concepts.
“Oh wow… well I’ll definitely keep listening.”
Cool, than enjoy and thanks for your call Christin.
“Bye… thank you…”

ankommen – to arrive

So I am not exaggerating here, ankommen really means 4 different core concepts. The first one is literally “to come to a place” or as one word to arrive.

There are some differences between arrive and ankommen. One is that you can only ankommen at places and locations, NOT at conclusions, decisions or something other abstract. There are many possible verbs for these cases but generally kommen without an will do the job.

  • Ich bin zu einer Entscheidung gekommen.
  • I have come to a decision.

On the other hand, ankommen is frequently used for letters, parcels and even E-Mails.

Another use of ankommen is a bit figurative. Suppose you want to go to that very fancy restaurant with your crush. It is hard to get in there so you are all dressed up but too bad you did not know they have what is an awesome word for hangman… Krawattenzwang (pron.: cruh-vutn-tsvung). This word means obligation to wear a tie. You however are not wearing one so the door man might say this:

Literally that means “Without a tie you do not need to arrive here.”, but the actual meaning is “Without a tie you have no chance whatsoever to get in so no need to come here.” This ankommen is still based on the concept of arriving at some place, only the focus is somewhere else. It is also useful in an dispute. If the other person is about to throw an argument at you you already know and you think it to be really stupid and pointless you may interrupt him or her and say:

Think of it as if the person was approaching you and then you see that he or she is bringing along that one stupid something you didn’t want to bothered with.

Before we move on to the next meaning, one word about prepositions. Those on the place you are going to and if this place requires an then there will be 2 ans in your phrase. Don’t hesitate. It is correct that way.

Please DO NEVER skip the second an. You will unintentionally be saying something really dirty if you do…. mind the English homophone of to come.

ankommen auf – to depend

Onto the second concept which is to depend. As a descendant of the Latin pendere it has brothers in all roman languages, but not in German. We have 2 options for it, the first one being abhängen von. Literally translated this would be “to hang from”. The other option is ankommen auf. I don’t want to discuss the differences between those 2 in detail but I think ankommen is shifted quite a bit towards “that is up to” … in sense of responsibility or importance rather than choice. You’ll see in the examples.

Ankommen is also the word to go for if you just want to say:

without any further explanation.  Abhängen does not work in that case.

There are 2 other nice and often used expressions. The first one is “Wenn es drauf ankommt….” which can mean any of the following:

  • When the chips are down…
  • When shit hits the fan…
  • At crunch time…

It is debatable whether this really belongs in the depend-category but to me it is close enough, especially when you say “it is up to” instead of depend. The German phrase literally means “When it depends…” without saying on what it depends. It just depends. It is on the edge. I hope you can see a connection there :). If not, it’s fine, but remember the phrasing for it is really common.

The second expression I’d like to tell you is

Literally this would be “I let it depend.”and the real meaning is “I will risk that.”. Imagine you tell your friend a plan you are convinced of and he tells you possible negative consequences. If you are willing to take the risk, this expression is what you can answer. Also this is something you can hear quite a lot so … remember it if you have some spare memory :).

What’s generally important for the depend-ankommen is that it ALWAYS comes with auf followed by accusative case (case 4). Without auf it won’t be understood as to depend!!!!
Could there possibly be confusion with the arrive-ankommen? No, because you arrive at a place and to ask for this place you use Where? and not Where to?. Thus, even if the place needs you to use auf, this auf will be followed by dative case.

The first sentence means “He arrives at the station”, the second means “It depends on the station.”

ankommen bei – “to make an impression”

This meaning of ankommen is hard to translate as one word to English. The closest and most general would be “to make an impression (be it good or bad)”, I think, but the actual English  phrasings are different.

There are other possible English phrasing but I think you get the idea of this.
It works to think of it as an actual arrival. If the people like you, they will be nice to you so they will make your arrival gut. If you suck, they will show a negative attitude and your arrival will be … not so pleasant or nicht so gut.

This ankommen always comes with the preposition bei. Bei is by default followed by case 3 (dative) and thus this time there is ample room for confusion with the arriving-ankommen.

This could either mean that he is arriving safely or that she likes him. If no context is provided people would likely interpret this as the arriving-ankommen because that would be the most common use.
One last thing I’d like to mention is that the opposite of gut ankommen isn’t really schlecht ankommen but nicht gut ankommen. Maybe that is because ankommen by itself has a positive touch to it, and nicht puts that in the negative while schlecht just qualifies something good as bad. So schlecht ankommen is understandable but it does not feel genuine to me.

Now before we get to the last meaning of ankommen, let’s look at the example from the beginning.

The second part – “kommt drauf an” –  is very likely to depend, as it is exactly the translation of “It depends.”. The last part must be to arrive because this is the only meaning you can do in time. As for the first one, we have learned that this is not clear but since we already have 1 arrival in that sentence, let’s go for the impression one and see if that makes sense.

  • Whether Thomas will make a good impression on Maria depends on whether he will arrive in time.

Seems like punctuality is VERY important for Maria so let’s hope for Thomas that his train is not delayed. :)
We are almost done, one more meaning to go.

ankommen gegen – yeah… well uh…

This one is really the hardest to translate and even dictionaries have their problems. Pons’ attempt is a complete fail and Leo doesn’t list it.  It means something like you stand a chance against someone or something, you are a match. It does not include victory, it just means that you are doing well enough in the confrontation.

This should be enough examples for that meaning. This ankommen is not something people say everyday. Yet it is not old fashioned so having heard of it could save you from some confusion.

Now we are almost done, and this means it is time for everyones favorite but I hear we have another call, Erik from Sweden, hello and what can I do for you Eric.
“Hi Emanuel, … so you have given us some idiomatic expressions and seem really useful but I was wondering if you have left out the most obvious one ?”
Oh, do you mean come on! ?
“Yeah exactly, that’s the one I meant… it looks VERY close to komm an to me.”
Excellent question Erik, thank you. It does indeed look very close but it is not. Come on is not related at all to ankommen. The translation for Come one! depends of course on context but if it is with kommen then it will be just kommen without an. Are you gonna look at the grammar with us Erik?
“Sure I will, that’s always the best part.”

The spoken past for 3 of the meanings is built with sein and the ge-form angekommen. Only the depend is built with haben. Technically, I have to add. Ankommen is one of the few verbs where people use the real past also in spoken language. When they mean to arrive then they will use spoken past most of the time. For all others I would prefer the real past and for the to depend one it even feels a bit wrong to use the spoken past. So you need to know the real past stem which is – kam an. Looks pretty much like came so it shouldn’t be too hard to remember. To wrap this up, here are all the meanings again in past tense.

Ankommen – to arrive at a location – preposition depends on the location

Ankommen auf – to depend – always followed by case 4 (accusative)

Ankommen bei – to make an impression

Ankommen gegen – to be a match for sb/sth.

So, this was it for today… quite a lot of input. If you have any questions or suggestion, just post me a comment and I will respond as soon as I can.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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