The meaning and use of – “sonst”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: March 23, 2022

sonst-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day and today we’ll take a look at the meaning of:



And sonst is a word you’ll hear, no matter where you are – in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bathroom or in bedroom. Wait… I guess, now that we’re all quarantened that doesn’t actually make sense.
What I wanted to say is that sonst is really really common and useful.
So you had better be ready to jump right in. OR ELSE ;)!!

If you look up sonst in a dictionary you’ll find that it can translate to else, besides, usually and before, and even of course or “duh!”. Seems a bit random on the surface and I can see how learners would find that a little confusing.
But there’s actually a common underlying theme and the key to that is the origin.

There are actually two theories  as to where sonst comes from. One of them really makes a lot of sense and helps a great deal at understanding the meaning.
So we’ll focus on the former.
This theory comes from the Duden, which is kind of the German Merriam Webster, and it says that sonst used to be three words a few hundred years ago… so ne ist (so nicht ist). Which means something like “if it is not so“.
This was then slowly fused together and became the sonst that we have today. But the original idea of “if it is not so” is still at its core.
Now let’s take a “model” of a sentence:

  • A, sonst B.

Using the core idea, this basically expresses something like:

  • A, if not so then B.

Now, don’t get this wrong. Sonst does NOT always straight up translate to “if not so then“.  That’s just the underlying idea.
It basically introduces other options BESIDES the one(s) mentioned before.
What we’ll do now is go over the various uses in practice and see if we can find this core notion there.

“sonst” – else

And we’ll start where many people start their day:  the bakery. I mean, in non-quarantene times, of course :).

  • “Was darf’s denn sein?”
    “Also, ich hätt’ gern 5 Brötchen und 1 Stück Mohnkuchen.”
    Und sonst noch was?
    “Nee, das war’s.”
    Dann sind’s 3 Euro 75 bitte.
  • “So what will it be today?
    “I’d like to have 5 buns and a piece of poppy-seed-cake.”
    Anything else?
    “Nah, that’s all.”
    Then it’ll be 3 Euro 75.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

This phrase “Sonst noch was” or the longer version “Darf’s sonst noch was sein?” is REALLY common in stores and on markets.
And not only there. Imagine your boss walking into the office being like

  •  I need you to do this, this this and this and then that and that and that, too.

That’s a perfect moment to sarcastically mumble…

  • Sonst noch was?
  • Anything else?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I think you get the idea :).
Now, some of you might be thinking that this use is more about addition.  You add bakery items to what you already have, you don’t replace them. But this sense of addition actually comes from the noch. The sonst adds a notion of “besides, other options”. Technically, the person in the bakery could just say “Noch was?”. This, too, would mean “Anything else?“. But now the focus would purely be on “addition”. The sonst adds a vibe of “other than that“, offering other options.

So let’s now look at a few examples where sonst is used alone. For instance this gem of German small talk.

  • “Na, wie läufts auf Arbeit?”
    “Oh, gut gut ich hab’ gestern erst blah blah blah blah blah….”
    “Hmm, ja….”
    “Ja ja…”
    “Und sonst so?”
  • “So, how’s work going?”
    “Oh good, good, just yesterday I blah blah blah blah blah …”
    “Hmmm, yeah…”
    “Well, well..”
    And … how’s the kids?”
    “And what else ?”(lit.)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

True mastery. We Germans really crush it at small talk.
Now, I used the kids in the translation because Und sonst so?  has actually kind of become code for “We don’t know what to talk about.” and people use it to comedic effect. But the “normal” meaning it has is asking for alternative areas of life. Like… what else is up besides what you’ve told me.
Here’s another example….

  • “… blah blah blah… und ja, das ist meine Arbeit.”
    “Oh, klingt interessant. Und was machst du sonst so?”
  • “blah blah blah … so yeah, that’s what I do for living.”
    “Oh sounds interesting. And what are you doing when you’re not working/besides that?”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

As  you can see here, it doesn’t really always translate directly. But I think the idea of “other options” is pretty clear.

Now, so far things were pretty clear, I think.
Now let’s get to the more “obscure” translations of sonst. Like usually for example.

sonst – usually

Behold the example…

  • “Wo ist Thomas? Es ist schon 10 nach.”
    “Komisch. Er ist sonst immer pünktlich.”
  • “Where is Thomas? It is 10 past , already.”
    “Weird. Usually, he is always on time.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The translation is usually, and  that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the sonst from the bakery, for example.
But when we look closer, we can see the same core notion of alternative at work. Do you remember our sentence model from the beginning?
Here it is again.

  • A, sonst B.
  • A, if not so/otherwise B.

We can totally applies that to the example we just had.

  • [Thomas is late this time], otherwise (usually)  [Thomas is punctual].

Usually “contrasts” an instance with a bunch of other instances, and that’s kind of also what sonst does.
Here is another example.

  • “Ich trinke sonst immer Kaffee aber heute trinke ich Tee.”
  • Normally/usually, I always drink coffee but today I’ll drink tea.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now, just to make sure… sonst is NOT always a translation for usually. It doesn’t work if the focus of the sentence isn’t “alternative” or other options.

  • Today, I’ll just go the bar I usually go to.
  • Today, I’ll go to that new bar, not the bar I usually go to.

Sonst would only work in the second example, because there, we’re talking about alternatives. In the first one, the proper word is normalerweise and sonst would sound a bit out of place.
Anyway so yeah… sonst can mean usually if you contrast one specific instance against what usually happens.
This use is pretty common, but I think the next one is even more important. And it is about… consequences.

sonst – or else

And this use might actually be the closest so far to the origin of sonst – the three words “so ne ist” (if it is not so).
Here’s an example

  • Mach deine Hausaufgaben, sonst kündige ich deinen World of Warcraft Account.
  • Do your homework or (else) I’ll terminate your World of Warcraft account.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The parent in this example lays down an “option” (doing your homework) and then offers another option – the level 80 Night Elf “Legolas’ Reckoning” with his +50 awesomeness bracelet is no more.
Just like in English or, we could also use oder in German to express the same idea. The difference is subtle, actually, if there is one at all. Maybe the sonst has a little bit of a stronger focus on the notion of consequence, but it’s by no means always with a threatening tone.
It’s pretty common in daily life, so here’s a couple more examples.

  • Zieh dich warm an, sonst erkältest du dich.
  • Dress warm or you will catch a cold.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich nehme meine Sportsachen direkt mit auf Arbeit. Sonst muss ich nachher nochmal nach Hause vor dem Sport.
  • I’ll take my sport wear to work with me. Else, I would have to go home again before sports. (probably not the best English phrasing… sorry)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And now let’s get to the last use of sonst.

sonst – “of course”

This really seems to have no connection. But it’ll be clear in a second.
Take the question…

  • Was sonst?
  • What else?

Based on what we’ve learned so far, this asks for other options.
But now let’s put it in a context.

  • “Du trinkst Bier?!?!”
    Was sonst? Ich trinke immer Bier.”
  • “You’re drinking beer?!”
    “Are you going to drink beer?”
    What else? I always drink beer.”

Do you see what happens? Here, the idea of what else is the same as of course because it is a retorical question.
The phrase itself didn’t change its meaning, it asks for other options. But the context makes it clear that it like “What else would I be drinking!”

Using sonst in this retorical fashion is pretty common in German and it works for all kinds of questions… location, time, manner. You name it.

  • “Wo ist dein Kühlschrank?”
    “In der Küche. Wo sonst?
  • “Where is your fridge?”
    “In the kitchen, duh!/ Where else (if not there)?”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Was für eine Pizza nimmst du?”
    “Salami. Was sonst?”
  • “What pizza are you gonna get?”
    “Salami. Of course (because I always and exclusively take salami)”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Du machst dein Bier mit den Zähnen auf?!”
    “Wie denn sonst?”
  • “You open your beer with your teeth?”
    “Of course. How else would I do it?”
    (audio disappeared. sorry :)

The last example can actually be both, a retorical question or a genuine inquiry as to how else I could open my beer. It comes down to how it is said.
Anyway… so now you have a pretty good overview over how sonst is used and of its core idea of other option(s).
Now, before we wrap up, let’s take a look at the related words of sonst. Because those are pretty useful as well.

words based on sonst

And we’ll start with the closest relative ansonsten. Ansonsten has gained popularity in recent years, while sonst is going downhill ( you can see here ) and the two are kind of sort of the same thing. But I’m hesitant of calling them synonyms because they’re not always equally idiomatic. I can’t really explain when to use which, tobe honest.
The only guideline I can give you is that ansonsten tends to sound fine in longer sentences that are NOT questions.

  • “Wie war’s gestern im Club?”
    “Och naja, wir mussten ziemlich lange anstehen und Marie war total betrunken und hat auf die Bar gekotzt aber ansonsten war es eigentlich ganz lustig.
  • “How was your night out?”
    “Oh , we had to wait in line for quite a while and Marie was totally wasted and uhm .. barfed on the bar (no pun intended) but other than that it was quite fun.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And ansonsten might be a bit more general and it doesn’t fit all these “special” uses of sonst that we went over … like the one about consequences or the retorical one.
So… I think any ansonsten can be replaced with sonst, but not the other way around.
All right.
Next up, we have the adjective sonstig (e/n/r/m/s). And this is basically a somewhat formal alternative for ander(e/n/r/m/s) and means  other.

  • Heute reden wir nur über die Frage von Thomas. Alle sonstigen Fragen müssen bis nächste Woche warten.
  • Today, we’ll only talk about the question of Thomas. All other questions will have to wait till next week.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Don’t bother using sonstige in spoken German, though. It’s enough to understand it when you see it.
The next word is way more useful… umsonst.
And here, we actually get back to that other possible origin of sonst… you know, the one that I said wasn’t helpful.
Umsonst used to be two words: umbe sus. Sus is a relative to thus and this and the original meaning of the phrase was something like “for (a) so/this”.
Which doesn’t make any sense by itself.
But people back a few centuries used a hand gesture to accompany those words: waving your hand as if you are casually  tossing something to the side. And together with that hand gesture, umbe sus meant pretty much for nothing, for free. And that’s what it still means today. And at least in spoken German, it carries both meanings – for free in sense of without charge and for nothing in sense of in vain.

  • Ich war gestern umsonst im Kino. Mein Bruder hat mich eingeladen.
  • I was at the movies for free yesterday. My brother invited me.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich war gestern umsonst im Kino. Der Film, den ich sehen wollte war ausverkauft.
  • I was at the movie theater for nothing yesterday. The movie I wanted to see was sold out.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now… marketing and advertisement people don’t really appreciate this double meaning so the use words like gratis or kostenlos instead. And there are also some occasions in daily life when someone would correct me by saying:

  • Du meinst kostenlos, nicht umsonst.
  • You mean free of charge, not in vain.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But honestly, I think in daily life people use umsonst in both senses and only the context makes it clear what they mean.

  • Ich hab’ sooo viel gelernt. Trotzdem hab’ ich die Klausur verkackt. Alles umsonst.
  • I’ve been studying soooo much and still I flunked the exam. All for nothing.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Hey, in der Bar da ist so ‘ne Aktion… wenn du zwei Bier kaufst, kriegst du eins umsonst.
  • Hey, there is this special in that bar… if you buy two beers, you’ll get one for free.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The last example is of course wishful thinking. I mean….  not because bars wouldn’t make deals like that, but because they’re all closed. *sob
Oh well, hail the fridge, I say.
And I think you can tell by my veering toward beer…. this was it for today :).
This was our look at the meanings and uses of sonst. And I hope you got a good impression of the core idea of “other option” and the various things we can do with it.
If you want to check how much you remember, you can take the little quiz, I have prepared.
And of course, 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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