The meaning and use of – “sonst”

sonst-pictureHello everyone,

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

sonst

 

And be it in the smallest of all talks, at the  fruitest of all stands at the farmers market or in the momest of all “do-your-homework-or-no-TV”s, sonst is certainly there and does its small word magic.
So …. sonst is an important word, it is all over the place so it deserves no less than the explanast of all nations, an explanation that is even more in-depth than Lehmann Brothers right before it collap… oh wait…  that was in debt…  Anyway… let’s start with sonst, shall we?

If you look up sonst in a dictionary you’ll most likely find else as the main translation. This is correct but  sonst can also be used as usually, before or besides and I have heard from quite a few people that they find sonst rather hard to grasp. Maybe a look at the origins can clear things up a little.
There are 2 different hypopota… hypothem… uh… ideas as to where the word  comes from. One really makes a lot of sense and helps a great deal at understanding the meaning of sonst …. the other theory… well… not so much.
So we’ll talk about this one first. It basically says that sonst comes from sus and is related to the English thus, which basically is a form of this.  Well, that makes sense when you just look at the sounds but sonst kind of means the opposite of thus and I don’t really see why this change would have taken place.
The cool theory about the origin comes from the Duden, which is kind of the German Merriam Webster and it says that sonst used to be 3 words a few hundred years ago… so ne ist (so nicht ist)… 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 so ne ist is still alive and fits all the different situations in which sonst is used… but maybe let’s flesh out this idea a little more before we look at examples.

sonst in use

Sonst basically refers to everything else BUT the thing you have said before

it or in other words it means “if not that then…”… hmmm … you look confused. Let’s go to a bakery then to buy some things

  • “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.”

Here, the sonst refers to all items in the bakery I haven’t bought yet. This usage of sonst is really common and I am sure you’ll here the phrase “Darf’s sonst noch was sein?” if you buy things in Germany. The short form sonst noch was can also be used if someone piles up task for you to do…

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

When your boss says that to you you can just secretly mumble…

Which means something like.

  • Are you done yet? Will there be anything else my king?

So again we see that sonst kind of refers to everything but what has already
been said.
Now, in the examples we had so far we had sonst noch as a fixed phrase and you can’t really skip the noch. I think the reason is that we’re talking about countable items here and the noch helps getting the idea of “more items” across… as opposed to just “everything else” which can be also a topic… yeah… I didn’t really understand that last part either :). The whole point is that sonst can be used without noch, too… for example in small talk.

With the und sonst so the person is asking for the other aspects of the persons life… like family or hobbies or pets or stuff… so it is asking for other thing than the one they have already talked about. The phrase und sonst so? has become kind of a fixed phrase that you can use to break a somewhat long pause in conversation in a mildly ironical fashion… like, you sit around, you discuss something and then you’re done with the discussion and no one says anything… then people sometimes say und sonst so? to break the silence and at the same time acknowledge that they might have run out of topics.

And as we’re in conversations… another example sonst often occurs in conversation about what people do…. like someone is explaining his job in detail and the other person wants to know about the rest of the day…

Sure, I could use else as a translation but sonst feels a little more open and a little less like listing things to me but I might be wrong… anyway
So far we have used sonst to refer to other items, other topics or other activities. What else can it do…
It can also refer to other points in time… or other occasions.

So here, sonst refers to basically all other meeting except this one. Here is another example.

Now be careful. Sonst is not really a translation of normally or usually. It only is if THIS time things are different. So if you just want to make a statement about how something is in general… do not use sonst. Use normalerweise. You can also use it instead of this temporal sonst but not the other way around.
All right. What else have I mentioned in the introduction… ah yeah… the mom-one.
So sonst is also used to announce consequences.

So here, sonst refers to all situations in which the homework is not done and in all those realities, there will be no more level 80 Night Elf “Legolas’ Reckoning” with his +50 awesomeness bracelet…. but couldn’t we just use oder in that case? Well we can but sonst sounds more serious. that mom means business and  That kid is certainly going to sit on ass and do ‘dem fractions.
But anyway … of course not all consequences have to be as severe.

All right. So… I hope you have a good impression now of what idea sonst carries. Now we need to talk about some related words and some other things you need to know.

In English you can ask:

  • What else?

if you really want to know what else is there. The German question

  • Was sonst?

is not the same. In general the combination

  • Was/wo/wer/wie/warum sonst?

expresses, that you actually consider all those alternatives somewhat useless… like the version you already have is the best and most obvious one.

And this happens also for was

So… if you want to ask what else you need to add a noch and actually leave out sonst completely or it won’t mean the same.

All right.

words based on sonst

Now let’s get to the related words and the first one is ansonsten. The usage of ansonsten has been increasing in the recent decades (while sonst is going downhill) as you can see here and it is kind of a synonym. However, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and I can’t really explain it. I’d say, it works 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.”

And ansonsten is maybe a bit more general. So you wouldn’t use it for very strict cause-effect relations and also not for items… kind of like other than that  or a really general or.

All right. There is also an adjective of sonst which is sonstig (e/n/r/m/s)The meaning of this? Well… pretty much other.

Yeah.. I know it’s a stupid example. It is hard to find good ones for sonstige because in daily life most of the time andere just sounds better and you should go with that. Sonstige is, at least to me, a term for legal writing and it is used to denominate this all-the-rest-category in questionnaires or opinion polls or even in offices that collects all the rare options… like, in a poll when they ask “Why are you learning German?” they will list only the most common answers like “Because it sounds beautiful”, “Because I want to read Shakespeare in the original”, and “I always wanted to learn a language with 4 c… but I digress.
Don’t bother using sonstige in spoken German. It’s enough to understand it when you see it.

The next word is that is more useful… umsonst. Umsonst used to be 2 words… umbe sus and it meant “für ein sonst” or in English “for (a) so/this”. And here we actually see that the other origin story, the one that says sonst is related to thus and this, makes sense too. Maybe they’re both correct and sonst is the result of pronouncing 2 different words the same way. It doesn’t really matter though after all. So umsonst was “for this” which by itself doesn’t make much sense. But people back a few centuries used a gesture to accompany the words… waving your hand as if you are casually  tossing something to the side… man, sometimes I wish this wasn’t radio here… but anyway… together with the gesture umbe sus meant pretty much for nothing and that is exactly what it means today.  This gives it a double meaning though because for nothing can mean for free or in vain and umsonst is used for both.

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:

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

The last example is of course the purest fiction… like … “Star Trek: beer special in Germany”… there is just no such thing :).
All right … I am getting a little tired and I feel like you are too so let’s quickly look at this last one and then call it a day…
.. we’ve already talked about question words followed by sonst. Now we shall talk about sonst followed by question words…  dun dun dun.

It doesn’t really work for all question words but for wo, wie ,  was and maybe wann it does and in spoken language you can hear:

  • sonst(e)was, sonstwo, sonst(e)wie, sonst(e)wann (the e is present in Berlin dialect)

Those words are not in the Duden and they might be written as 2 words but they feel so common to me that I would say they should be in there. They basically express, that I consider a place, or thing or manner really weird, far fetched and inconvenient…. and the best translation for me is god-knows-where/what/how/when

If you dare try to use it in spoken language and impress your friends with your new “nativeness” :).
All right. That’s all. This was our German Word of the Day sonst. The theory about the origin says that sonst is just a mumbled, fused together so nicht ist which basically means “if not so”. If we say “if not this” instead, we basically have the meaning of sonst. It just refers to other things than what has been said before and the main translation is elf… I mean else.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. Ansonsten,  I hope you liked it and see you next time.

for members :)

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James
James

Thanks for this post; sonst is one of the more confusing common words (along with doch, which you already pretty well cleared up) and this was very helpful for me.
Also, thanks for letting me know the secret ingredient in Mohnkuchen in your first dialogue. I will probably avoid it from now on.

Filipe
Filipe

How would you write the ‘ansonstigen’ example using sonst (supposing, of course, that you actually can)?
And what is the situation when we should use sonstig instead of ander? I mean, it didn’t get quite clear in the text.

By the way, it is good to know that there is such a huge difference between a question with sonst using noch or not. Thanks for showing us it!

NN

Prima!
Deine Artikel sind sehr interessant,

Vitor
Vitor

Hello,
I’m brazilian and I’m trying to learn the German language! Your blog is absolutely brilliant! Your explanations about the uses of some complicate words is precise and didactic, You’re a very good teacher.
Thanks for your time creating a blog to help people all over the world.
I’m starting to follow the blog NOW!

Daniel
Daniel

Hi Emanuel,

I love your blog and your posts, they really fuel my love for linguistics, language and German. I don’t know if my ability to speak and interpret the language would be here today without it and it really prepared me for my trip to Germany this year, which was wonderful. Having stayed there for six weeks and going to school with my exchange partner I pretty much became fluent, was constantly in an AWESOME environment (language and grammar analysis EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME. My host family’s mother was also a very very avid linguist, best coincidence ever!) and it cleared up essentially every issue I had with understanding parts of German beforehand. I really just need to get faster, more articulate and broaden my vocabulary. However with that being said there was one thing I simply could not get my head around even after thinking about it for six long weeks, and I was hoping you could clear it up for me.

How the hell do you use ‘asozial’? It’s not the same as antisocial in the sense that I heard it in a lot of situations that made little to no sense in English. I did however understand the concept vaguely without having to ask for clarification. What really surprised me was how often it was used, as antisocial is used quite seldom in English, especially in younger, teen environments. (such as mine)
I even heard it being used as ‘asi’ (eg. ‘Das ist voll asi, Alter! Mach’s eher nicht.’). What this suggested to me was that it’s become somewhat of a slang word that has this crazy feeling and idea around it, of just being plain rude. I couldn’t for the life of me make the connection and clear up the origin and morphing of the meaning. I’m a man of order and this really seemed to be the only thing that I couldn’t make rhyme or reason out of, despite understanding the gist of the meaning that was intended…

Hope you can help after reading my wall of text! Thanks man, much appreciated, Keep Up The Good Work! :D <3

Filipe
Filipe

Hey, dude! I’ve been doing some research about “sonstig”. Can I consider it as “remaining”? It seems to fit better your example and some others that I’ve seen.

briguy
briguy

Great artical! I suggested this word a while back and it really cleard some things up for me.
now my question, can you explain this “wieder mal am Deutsch erklähren” sentance to us, I’v done some research and it looks like “am” can be used for a prosses that is currently happening like “Im working right now/Jetz bin ich am arbeiten”. can you elaborate on this pleez.

Jo
Jo

Your posts are awesome and so much more entertaining than my German textbook! :) I mean Kontakte is ok, but it would be so much more engaging with examples like “Mach deine Hausaufgaben, sonst kündge ich deinen World of Warcraft Account.”

sjuniperj

absolutely brilliant examples, as always. i think i’ll be muttering “sonst noch was?” fairly often under my breath this summer und werde sicher auch “sonstewann” mehrmals verweden. Z. B:

“Hey Sarah, am Abend gehen wir fort! Kommst du mit?”
– Na, schauen wir mal. Meine Chefin war so lieb meine Fehler in einer Liste zu schreiben. Ich werde sonstewann mit der Verbesserungen fertig.

Hoeffentlich passen die Saetze, und hoeffentlich passieren sie nicht. ;)

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ads

I just got stuck over something. This is not about your article “sonst” but but during a contented sort of mind drift, I realised I have no idea how to say something like “because of you, my german is improving” :)

When I look up “because of”, most hits give me “wegen + genitive” but how can you genitive a person? There’s no genitive “you” or have i totally missed something over the last year?!

My alternative was “wegen deiner Hilfe, hat mein Deutsch sich verbessert” but I want to literally say “because of YOU, my german is improving”!

Danke im Voraus!

Tony Nash

Thanks very much for that. I have a degree in German and taught it for 20 years, but reading a book in German recently I came across ‘ansonsten’, which I’d never seen before. The meaning was obvious, but I wondered whether it was now in common use. You have made it very clear.

eknehr

A quick question about sonst in combination with nur.

For instance, in the dependant clause:
wie man sie sonst nur in Maerkte erhaelt.

I am struggling to figure out why sonst is in there, when it seems like nur could do the trick and mean that I can only get this thing in Markets.

Thanks, and great blog. I am learning a lot that helped on my recent trip to Germany.

Eric

eknehr

Moin, Moin!

Deine Erklärung is sehr hilfreich. Vielen Dank.

Kurzlich habe ich Urlaub in Deutschland gemacht. Von diesem Blog habe ich viel gelernt und in Deutschland verwendet. Besonders gut ist wie man sagt übliche Dinge wie ein echter Deutsche. Die meiste Zeit nach meiner Erfahrung nutzt man (ok…Amerikaner) deutsche Wörter um Englisch zu sprechen, als ob vom Fachbuch. Bei diesem Blog kann ich ein gutes Sprachgefühl entwickeln. Meine deutsche Familie hat das bemerkt.

Es gibt noch viel zu tun, aber bei diesem Blog kann ich mein Deutsch verbessern. Noch einmal, tausenden Dank!

Tschüss
Eric

Osama T.
Osama T.

Top notch post as usual, thanks a lot, I just have one question, can I use “Sonst(e)was” to start a sentence?
As in: “Who knows what we’ll find in there”
And if so how can I phrase it properly in German?

Thanks again.

cemeroglu
cemeroglu

what about “aber sonst” “.. weil man nicht überall sein kann. Aber sonst ist alles super und die Zeit vergeht wie im Flug.”

Emanuel

It expresses the idea of “other than that” here. Does that help?

Stu-in-Flag
Stu-in-Flag

It seems like otherwise is closer to sonst than else. I think some direct translations might be clumsy in English, but understandable. What do you think?

Tom

Hallo, Emmanuel,
toller Beitrag! Ich habe das Wort “sonst” nie so umfassend erörtert gesehen. Guter Job!

Es ist manchmal gar nicht so leicht, dieses Wort zu erklären. Ich sehe das auch bei meinen Schülern. Manchmal nehme ich in einigen Fällen die Synonyme “im anderen Fall”, “andernfalls” oder einfach “wenn nicht”, wenn ich “if not” sagen möchte. Den Ausdruck “Was sonst?” könnte man vielleicht mit “was mehr” erklären.

LG
Tom