German Word of the Day – “freuen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
A compliment, a present, a nice dish, a cold beer, a funny meme, a message back from the crush, a shelter in place orde… oh wait, forget the last one.
But yeah, there are lots of ways toward joy.
Learning German is not really one of them.
Except today, because this time, we’ll have a look at the meaning of

freuen

 

In particular, we’ll talk about the difference between freuen and sich freuen and sich freuen auf and sich freuen über. If that doesn’t sound like fun then I don’t know what does.
Well, actually I’m German, so I really just don’t know.
But I do know about freuen, so let’s jump right in :)

Freuen comes from the core adjective froh which means merry or glad.
And which actually has a brother in English: frolic.  The origin of these words is the next level ancient Indo-European root  *preu which meant something like to jump or to skip. That’s also the root where the words frog and its German translation Frosch come from, by the way.
Now, the core ideas shifted over the years. From jumping toward a notion of  swift, agile, animated, lively and from there it, it slowly drifted toward the ntotion of happy and merry… just think of a dog when you pick up a stick.

Now, the core idea is pretty clear, I think.
But translating freuen can be a bit tricky to translate because English doesn’t really have the one fitting counterpart.
Taken literally, would probably be to “happy-fy” – which in actual English would be to make happy.
And that’s indeed one possible translation.

“freuen” as “to make happy”

Let’s start with a few examples…

A pretty good match, but generally, I would say, freuen is a little less strong and “personal” than make happy, I think, because you can also find it a lot in daily life where people just want to express that something is nice.

Freuen is more momentary, more transient and not as “profound”, and so it’s no wonder that it does NOT work in contexts of relationships and two people making each other happy.

  • You make me very happy.
  • Du freust mich sehr…. sounds very wrong

In those cases people would rather use the more literal translation

Cool.
Now, unless you’re using a screen reader, you have probably noticed the color. I marked the direct object in all the examples, the person “being made happy”. I didn’t do that because there’s anything tricky here. German and English work exactly the same. I did it to direct your awareness toward that, because it might be helpful with the other uses of freuen … sich freuen.

sich freuen – to be happy

Take this sentence

  • Ich freue mich.

Based on what we’ve learned this should mean something like I make myself happy. Maybe by making a pizza and watching Netflix.
But the meaning of sich freuen has actually shifted a bit.

Here, Thomas didn’t even do anything to make himself happy. He just is becaue of the call. And that’s the actual meaning of sich freuen. It has focused on the state of being happy, rather than the deed that gets you there.
What’s important is that you don’t forget the self reference. That would sound really strange.
More examples.

The use in the last example is actually pretty common, so the happiness or excitement you’re feeling can also be about something in the future. Which brings us right to the difference between sich freuen über and sich freuen auf.

But before we get to that, let’s quickly mention one important caveat for the tranlation.
Remember that we said freuen was kind of momentary and not super profound? That also applies to sich freuen.  It’s about how you feel in a moment for a particular reason, and you wouldn’t use it to describe a more sense of happiness. For that, you’d use glücklich.

Cool.
And now it’s time for some mad fun with prepositions :).

“sich freuen über” vs “sich freuen auf”

Verbs often use prepositions to connect an object to them. What’s pretty special about sich freuen is that it can come with two prepositions and that the translation actually changes. Ohhh, that sounds scary :).
It’s not that bad actually, the core notion of being happy doesn’t change. What changes is where the source of happiness is.
The first option is über and it is basically used to connect a thing you’re happy about in the moment.
Just think of you unboxing a present… your face is indeed kind of hovering over it :).
So this is essentially the same meaning as we had in the last section.

The second option, sich freuen auf, is also about being happy in a moment. But now the reason for the happiness is in the future.
We’ve actually talked about the word auf in detail in a separate article (I’ll put the link below) and there we found that its core theme, when combined with a verb, is a notion of anticipation.
Just think of the verb warten, which also goes with auf.

We have the same notion of anticipation here.
So yeah, sich freuen auf literally is being happy in anticipation of something and that explains why the real translation is… drumroll… looking forward to something.

And just to make sure… it’s really the auf that makes or breaks this statement.

  1. Ich freue mich d(a)rauf, dich zu sehen.
    I am looking forward to seeing you.

  2. Ich freue mich (darüber), dich zu sehen.
    I am happy to see you.

Apart from darauf, the German phrasings are identical. Which, by the way, is the reason that Germans often make the mistake of saying

 

  • I am looking forward to see you.

But anyway… quick word on cases.. Both, über and auf are two-way prepositions, so they can go with Accusative and Dative.
But in combination with sich freuen they both use ACCUSATIVE.

  • Ich freue mich über das (not: dem) Geschenk.
  • I’m happy about the present.
  • Ich freue mich auf die (not: der) erste Party nach der Ausgangssperre.
  • I’m looking forward to the first party after the lockdown.

And that’s actually in line with the broader trend we have found in my article on two-way prepositions, which says that abstract combinations tend to go with Accusative. I’ll link that awesome article below for you, too.
I did a really good job on that article. It’s tremendous.  The greatest explanation on two way prepositions the world has eve… okay I’ll stop the nonsense :).

Where actually almost done for today.
But before we wrap up let’s get a quick shoutout to some related words.
First of, there is die Freude which is the happiness or the delight. And there is the nice word die Vorfreude which is happiness in anticipation… like the joy and delight kids feel the day before Christmas. And there is a nice idiom using both those words.

Oh by the way… if you have Netflix and you’re bored, I can really recommend the series Freud, about that Austrian psychologist. It’s pretty creepy actually, and probably not very accurate but it’s really entertaining.
Anyway, of course we also need to mention the famous and oh so human die Schadenfreude.
Schaden means damage or harm and Schadenfreude is the delight you feel when someone you don’t like slips on a banana peel or gets bitched at by your boss. It is not really appropriate for really serious thing… like someones house burned down. You shouldn’t feel Schadenfreude then, and if you do you had better not admit it.
And lastly I would like to mention that Freund and related words do NOT have the same origin as freuen… but it is an awfully nice learning hint, because what do you do when you see a Freund (friend)… you freuen dich :).

So.. this was our German word of the Day freuen. The main meaning is to be happy and with auf it becomes being happy in anticipation. And don’t forget the self reference… like mich, dich sich … because freuen is always done by something/someone to someone.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. Ich freu mich drauf :)… hope you liked it and see you next time.

fruther reading:

German Prepositions Explained – “auf”
Two Way Prepositions in German

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