Word of the Day – “raten”

raten-meaning-imageHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
Have you ever asked someone else for advice? Like…  your colleague about your project, your loved one about your hair, or Mr. Alcohol about your problems? (Don’t ask him… he’s just gonna be like “Uhm… you should drink more of me”)
We all need someone to counsel us sometimes and there is one thing we don’t want that person to do… especially if we’re paying the consultant a crazillion dollars… we don’t want the person to guess.
Well… that is gonna be REALLY hard in German because we kind of use the same word for it. And that’s our topic this time.
Today we’ll have a look at the meaning of



And of course not just raten but also at Rat, and Verrat and beraten and erraten and the differences to raten and so on – basically the whole raten-family,the Ratens.  Soar ey our eady… ops, hold on, I really can’t segment today … are you ready for a whole lot of useful words and quite a few really, really cool surprises?
No, not THAT cool…

So…  to give advice and to guess combined in one word. How did that happen. It all started with the kinda ancient Germanic verb rātan,  which came from the jaw-droppingly ancient Indo-European root *re which meant something like “to reason, to count”.  The Germanic rātan was quite close to its origin as it still meant to reason and der Rat (council) was where reasoning was done…. be it in a Familienrat (family council) or, like today, in the Bundesrat (German federal assembly) Oh and also, that’s why the town hall is called Rathaus.
Now, after centuries over centuries of reasoning the word felt that it needed a change. It had always loved to walk through the forest while pondering and one day,as it sat on a trunk next to a bush of forbidden berries, ratan had an idea.
“All this pondering makes me sick. I want to work with my hands, do something practical.”
Back in the villages it told the tribes about it’s new idea… or notion:
You know me as someone to think up plans. From now on, I shall be the one to put them in practice.” And the people were like: “Sure, why not.”
And so started a period when raten would mean to take care of things, especially of the basic needs that most people back then had as their daily business… food, family and shelter. Little is left of that meaning but there are a few words where it still shows. For example der Vorrat 

  • Ich habe immer einen kleinen Vorrat Nudeln zu Hause.
  • I always have a small stock/reserve of pasta at home.

or this cute little compound:

  • Ich habe keine Hausratversicherung.
  • I have no homeowner’s insurance.

These were already a surprise for me and I totally did not realize that there is Rat in there but the next one REALLY made me go like
Whaaaaaaat?! THIS is related??
The word I mean is…. drumroll…

  • heiraten

Tadah. Not bad huh? And it’s not a joke. The hei-part comes from home and the Rat… well, that’s the old taking care of things. So heiraten was something like to take care of home… I guess that makes sense.
So… these words are leftovers of the “active” period of raten but that didn’t last too long. Taking care of things can be exhausting, too exhausting for raten’s taste. And so one day, after raten had been whining about work for hours, a friend suggested the next logical step: “You know stuff. You should become a consultant.”

raten – the consultant

That was it. Instead of doing the work, raten would just tell people how to do it. Of course. And this would also be a nice tie in with the council-meaning it already had. Rat now could mean council or counsel/advice.

  • Der Rat der Ältesten.
  • The counsel of the eldest./The council of the eldest.
  • Ich brauche deinen Rat.
  • I need your advice.
    (could technically also mean “I require your council” but context rules that out pretty much :)
  • Da ist guter Rat teuer. (idiom)
  • It is hard to give good advice./ The situation is complicated.

This word is used a lot and there are quite a few words with it.

  • Ich bin völlig ratlos.
    Lit.: I am utterly advice-less.
  • I have absolutely no idea (what to do/how to do something).
  • Es ist  nicht ratsam, direkt vor dem Sport etwas zu essen.
  • It is not advisable to eat directly before doing sports.

And of course there is the verb raten and the “opposite abraten.

  • Ich würde dir zu einer Pause raten
  • I would strongly suggest a break.
    I advise you to a break (lit.)
  • Ich würde dir von einem Studienabbruch abraten.
  • I’d advise against an early drop-out from your studies.
  • Ich habe dir geraten, eine Pause zu machen.
  • I advised/told you (to) make a break.
  • Ich würde dir davon abraten, dein Studium abzubrechen.
  • I would advise against quitting your studies.
    (not really actually… only do it if you really love it. You have one life and you shouldn’t waste it to get a degree no one cares about.)

Now, I did use advise in the examples but I feel like in real life there are quite some differences to raten. First of, raten doesn’t sound as “lecturing” or formal and I think it is used more in daily life that to advise.  Then, there is the grammar. With to advise the person being advised is the direct object. You can kiss someone or advise someone. The grammar’s the same. With raten it’s different. The grammar is the same like geben.  So raten is actually more like to give advice to someone.  And this brings us to the third difference between raten and adviseraten is a “situational” thing. Someone has a problem, you raten him something. Done. Raten does not work for general long term advising. And some of you probably already know which prefix to chose… exactly… good old be- does the job of constantly “inflicting” advice on someone and that is the difference between raten and beraten, the former is in one particular situation, the other is a general thing.

  • Ich berate den Präsidenten in Energiefragen.
  • I advise the president in energy related issues.
  • Ich rate dem Präsidenten, etwas zu tun.
  • I advise the president to do something.

Now, I think we should mention that beraten has a second meaning… an older one actually.

  • Wir beraten (darüber), wohin wir in den Urlaub fahren.
  • We talk /discuss about where to go on vacation.
  • Der Präsi berät sich mit seinem Vizepräsi.
  • The Pres confers with his vice-Pres.

This is clearly based on the same idea as the old council meaning. You get together and reason about stuff. But I think the consulting-meaning is the more common one, especially when we factor in the nouns.

  • Thomas ist lustigerweise Eheberater.
  • Funnily enough, Thomas is a marriage consultant.
  • Die Kundenberaterin war sehr nett, die Beratung sehr gut.
  • The customer service representative was very nice, the advice very good.
  • Ich gehe morgen zur Mieterberatung.
  • Tomorrow, I’ll go to the tenant consultation service.

Actually, Beratung has a second meaning.

  • Der Rat der Ältesten zieht sich zu Beratungen zurück.
  • The council of the eldest withdraws for deliberations.

This shows how close the counseling idea actually is to the original reasoning idea of old Germanic ratan. And that was a problem for raten. Raten was a successful consultant now. But it was depressed. One day, at one of its long walks through the forest, it came by the same trunk like decades earlier. It sat down next to the bush, just where it had sat last time. “Why do I feel so empty.” , it thought. It was late summer and the bush was full of ripe berries. Raten ate one. And another one. And another one. And then it dawned to him. “All my life I have always been reasonable. It is like a prison. I want to do crazy things. Have crazy ideas. I want  be creative. I want to be free!”.
“You should raten, you should. Want another berry?” the bush, who could now talk, said.
Raten wanted and as the world started spinning and raten felt truly happy for the first time… from now on it would not always reason things out. It would reason without reasoning. It would feel them out. It would.. guess.

Raten – the riddler

Seriously, if you try reasoning with less and less information at some point it turns to mere guessing. And that’s where raten got the second meaning it has today.

  • Rate mal, was ich gestern gemacht habe.
  • Guess what I did yesterday.

This is one of the most common uses of the verb and yes, the mal has to be there. Without it, it sounds REALLY demanding.

  • “Private, what did I do last night?”
    “Sir, no idea, sir.”
    “Sir, sleep, sir.”

Now, there are actually some rather big usage differences between raten and guess. We’ve just seen that this works perfectly:

  • Rate mal, was/wo/wie/wer/wen/wann/wieviel…
  • Guess what/where/how/who/whom/when/how much…

What doesn’t work is this:

  • Guess what… I made an A in the German quizz.

You cannot say “Rate was…”. The word is just not used this way. And there isn’t a real alternative either other than making a question out of it.

  • Rate mal was ich im Deutschtest bekommen habe?

Of course you’d have to wait for an answer then…. German is always ready to put a break on your enthusiasm, I guess :).
And this is the second super common English phrasing that DOESN’T work with raten at all…

  • He was hungry, I guess.
  • I guess we should go.

All the “I guess” does here, is telling us that the person is not certain. And another way to do that are all those words like probably or perhaps. This is how it’s done in German.

  • Er hatte vielleicht/wohl/wahrscheinlich Hunger.

Another ways would be:

  • Ich würde sagen,…
  • I’d say…

but for most situations this is too long and clunky.
All right. So those were two big difference in usage. Time to get to … uhm… more big differences?! Wait, are those words actually translations?
So… in English, there is a noun the guess and it is used quite frequently. German doesn’t have that noun and people would either use the verb.

  • If I had to venture a guess
  • Wenn ich raten müsste
  • Wusstest du das oder war das geraten?
  • Did you know that or was that a guess?
  • Falsch geraten.
    Guessed wrongly (lit)
  • Wrong guess.

And sometimes, even that doesn’t work and people would use a different phrasing entirely…

  • My guess would be
  • Ich würde sagen, dass…
  • Mein Tip wäre

I think, in general raten is much more “guessy” than to guess. If you raten, you REALLY have no idea whereas guess seems to overlap with suppose or reckon a bit.
But anyway… now let’s take a quick look at erraten, which means to guess something right. That’s the difference to raten which, too, can mean that but it also can just mean plain guessing around.

  • Denk an irgendeine Zahl zwischen 1 und 100.  Ich rate sie.
  • Think of any one number between 1 and 100. I’ll guess it.

Had I used erraten, pressure would have been on, but with raten, I did everything I said I would do. I ventured a guess. A very VERY stupid guess, perhaps, but a guess, nonetheless. Numbers always kind of make my brain go numb, anyway. I think that’s why they’re called numbers.
… … …
… …

ahem… hey, uhm… how about we just do one example for erraten and move on as if nothing happened.

  • Du errätst nie, wen ich gestern getroffen habe.
  • You’ll never guess who I met yesterday.

As far as nouns go, there is Rätsel, which is of course riddle. But I think the German word is a little broader.

  • Ich hasse Kreuzworträtsel.
  • I hate crossword puzzles.
  • Es ist mir ein Rätsel, wie du das lecker finden kannst.
  • It is a mystery to my, how you can find that tasty.
  • “Mein iPhone-Akku ist alle. Grade war er noch voll. Das ist echt rätselhaft.
  • “The battery of my  iPhone died. It was fully charged until 5 minutes ago. That is really mysterious/enigmatic.”

Meh… not really actually.
Anyway, we’re almost done here but there is one verb, a very common verb, that we haven’t talked about yet. And in that verb, all the meanings sort of melt. I am talking about verraten.
The ver-prefix can mean something like miss and verraten used to mean to “miss-counsel”. This meaning has since been forgotten but the negative idea influenced another meaning of verraten.
We’ve learned that, for a while, the verb raten used to mean to actually take measures. To see to that something is done. Back in those days, verraten used to be something like to get rid of someone. You wanted a certain person gone (ver- away), so you’d scheme and then take action (raten).. or maybe you’d just give some bad advice (miss-counsel). This verraten was then narrowed down a great deal until it was only used for all the backstabbing and betrayal that was going on at the kings courts, especially the classic of telling someone else’s secrets to the wrong person.
And those are the two meanings verraten has today.. to betray on the one hand

  • Verrat! Du hast dein Pony verraten, du Verräter.
  • Betrayal! You betrayed your pony, you traitor.

and to spill or tell a secret on the other hand.

  • Ich verrate dir mein Liebesgeheimnis.
  • I reveal my love secret to you.

Here’s an example where they both sort of superimpose.

  • “Wie hast du gemerkt, dass ich dich verarschen will?”
    “Deine Stimme hat dich verraten.”
  • “How did you realize that I was trying to bullshit you?”
    “Your voice gave you away.”

Now, although the word has a negative origin, it is not always used in negative contexts…. at least the secret-telling-one is pretty neutral.

  • “Wie alt bist du?”
    “Das verrat ich dir nicht :)”
  • “How old are you.”
    “I won’t tell you :).”

People often use verraten instead of to tell to create a certain conspiri… contispa…uh…  conspritrilola.. geez… this certain high school girlish bond you have when you share secrets.

  • Jolie Magazin verrät euch diese Woche was “Er” wirklich denkt.
  • This week, Jolie magazine tells you what “he” really thinks.
  • “Ich steh total auf coole Sachen.” verriet Miley Cyrus im Interview.
  • “I really like cool things”, Miley Cyrus said  in an interview.

Or if they want the stuff their telling to sound  more exclusiverer.

  • Wir verraten euch 10 leckere Rezepte mit Kartoffeln.
  • We tell you 10 tasty recipes with potatoes.

Ohh.. that sounds exciting. I mean it can’t be fried potatoes because that wouldn’t be a s… oh it’s fried potatoes, never mind.

This is it for today. That was our German Word of the Day raten and its family. It comes from the same root as reason, then it went on to taking care of the household, then it became a consultant and then, after trippin’ on some berries, it also meant to guess. And actually… this may not have been the first time it ate from that bush because guess what English word is related to raten… you’re doing it right now. Reading. Yes, to read is based on the reasoning and the guessing idea of raten. You’re trying to make sense of weird symbols… and at least for some my handwriting, that can turn into guessing quickly :)
If you have questions or advice about today’s post or if you want to play around and do some examples with the words we’ve learned, just leave  a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Further reading:


5 9 votes
Article Rating