Word of the Day – “die Wahl”

Wahl-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome, I hope you’re all well. So today, Steve my producer here at German is Easy gave me the results of our annual audience survey … that is like… our network checks once a year who is listening to this show. That helps them chose and sell only those advertisements that are interesting for our audience… by the way… have you guys checked out the new Caterpillar Off Shore Generator yet? No? Well, you should. It is awesome!
Anyway… so Steve gave me the results of our survey and guess what… turns out pretty much all of you agree on one thing: you all want shorter posts. Many also want them to involve less or no reading. Because reading is lame and exhausting and takes concen ooh look a link they’re playing chess… so cute… where was I… oh yeah..   so you want shorter posts with less reading and we have just the right topic for that:

German internal politics…. hoooooray. That just can’t turn out long.

In a couple of weeks there will be Bundestagswahl… or just short die Wahl. So today we’ll find out what that is and how that works. First, the word itself

die Wahl

Wahl. Waaaaaaaahl. With aaaaaaa… hey… Let’s be crazy for a second and switch vowels… something that Germanic languages do every now and then… I’ll also skip the h because then it’ll be more obvious … so…   wil … that looks like the will wel… that looks like well , wol hmmm… that looks like the German wollen … could it be that all those words belong to one family? A quick check in the etymological dictionary supports that. They are all related and the common idea of all of them is “to want”. So Wahl probably also has something to do with what you want… now let’s look at the translations

  • the vote, the election, the choice

Yeah… I think that makes sense I think :). Elections express the will of the people. If you choose between coffee or tea you’ll probably choose what you want. German just uses one word for all the different variants but in essence they all have to do with choosing from a number of alternatives.
Now… many German nouns actually come from German verbs and Wahl is no different. It comes from wählen. So let’s talk about this real quick. Just as Wahl, wählen has a number of translations in English that all share the same idea…

  • Ich will kein Fleisch essen, also wähle ich etwas vegetarisches.
  • I don’t want meat, so I pick/choose something vegetarian.
  • Der Politiker wurde zum Präsidenten gewählt.
  • The politician has been elected for president.
  • Wähle die richtigen Worte für deine E-Mail.
  • Select the right words for you e-mail.

As for the polical choosing, to vote and to elect, wählen work perfectly and is the word to go. Things are different for to choose. Wählen is quite different and the first difference is grammatical. You can just wählen

  • Thomas geht nicht wählen.
  • Thomas does not go vote.

and you can wählen persons or things

  • Thomas wählt seinen Charakter bei World of Warcraft.
  • Thomas chooses his character in WoW.

but you cannot really wählen activities in a grammatical sense….

  • I chose to call you.
  • Ich habe gewählt, dich anzurufen…. is BAD!!!

This doesn’t work in German and for all those situations people would use the German sich entscheiden (to decide) instead.

  • Ich habe mich entschieden, dich anzurufenis SUPER!!

The second thing is the usage. Outside of the political context wählen is actually not used that much in daily life. Not because German are indecisive but because wählen sounds a bit too big for most everyday decisions….

  • Spaghetti oder Macaroni … wähle!!!

It means “choose!” but it sounds a tiny bit like this…

  • Spaghetti or Macaroni… elect!!!

It just sounds too formal, too stiff. A good German alternative for those everyday situations is aussuchen.

  • “Wann wollen wir uns treffen?”
    “Ist mir egal… such dir aus!”
  • When should we meet.”
    “I don’t really care… you choose.”

But in a lot of cases, people would rather use verbs that are more in the realm of thinking… like überlegen or entscheiden.

  • If I had to choose between yellow press and orange press I’d go for the one with more juice… haha
  • Wenn ich mich zwischen Yellow Press und einer Saftpresse entscheiden müsste, dann würde ich die mit mehr Saft nehmen.

So … wählen is not used as much as one would expect. But this is different for Wahl … Wahl is used a lot.

  • In zwei Wochen sind Wahlen in Deutschland.
  • In 2 weeks, there will be elections in Germany.
  • So richtig schwitzen beim Fitness oder entspannen in unserer Sauna-Landschaft… Sie haben die Wahl.
  • Going all out at fitness or simply relaxing in our “sauna-landscape”… the choice is yours…. (marketing jargon, just soooo great)
  • Als ich den Kuchen im Kühlschrank gesehen habe musste ich ihn einfach essen… ich hatte keine Wahl.
  • When I saw the cake in the fridge I just HAD to eat it… I had no choice.
  • Der Wein ist echt erste Wahl.
  • The wine is really first class/grade.

There is a nice idiom in German that expresses how demanding it can be to choose

  • Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual.
  • He who has the choice has the agony.(lit.)

I know that from the cheese aisle.
Now, Wahl as well as wählen are of course used in related words and numerous compounds….

  • Du bist ganz schön wählerisch.
  • You are pretty picky.
  • Wenn Thomas betrunken ist, spricht er immer wahllos Frauen an.
  • When Thomas is drunk he always hits at women at random.
  • Philosofie war mein Wahlfach.
  • Philosophy was my elective subject.
  • Wir haben eine große Auswahl an stinkendem Käse.
  • We have a wide selection of smelly cheese.
  • Deutschland hat die Vorwahl 0049.
  • Germany’s country code is 0049.

Wait… country code is Vorwahl? How does that make any sense? Well, I kind of forgot to mention it but wählen also means to dial. I think because you’re choosing the numbers or something like that. But anyway… there are more phone-Wahl-words.

  • Wo ist denn hier Wahlwiederholung?
  • Where is the redial.
  • Fr. Schmidt beim Finanzamt hat die Durchwahl 883.
  • Ms. Smith at the tax office has the extension (call through) 883.

And then, there are many many word that are related to the electing-Wahl…

  • Die Partei hat alle ihre Wahlversprechen gebrochen.
  • The party broke all its campain promisses.
  • In Deutschland hat man ab 18 das Wahlrecht.
  • In Germany, you have the right to vote once you’re 18.

A word that I really like is  Wahlkampf. Wahlkampf is what the parties and politicians do before election day… so putting up posters, talking shit about the other parties, promising the sky… the English word would be campaign I guess but German is more fierce…. Kampf literally means fight or battle. And that’s not all.. there are more… And there are more… Wahlsieger, Wahlabend, Wahlverlierer, Wahlforscher, Wahlkabine and so on.
All right so this is our Word of the Day die Wahl. It is belongs to the same family as the will or wollen.  Depending on context it has different English translations but the basic idea is always the decision between alternatives.  Cool. Of we finished this now it would be a really nice and short thing… too bad that we won’t. Because we’ll look at how the whole thing works now. Let’s talk about our political system a bit. “Why” you ask? “Z” I respond….

German politics in a nutshell

Now… I don’t really know a lot about politics and I am way to lazy to do research myself so I delegated the task into the apt hands of our  intern John who wants to become a journalist because “John the journalist” sound so cool… na I’m kidding. John is a great guy. So… he has written a summary but because I haven’t really had the time to go through it so I’ll just read it out now… all right… “Germany is and has always been a democratic republic. Always! …. uhis that correct?! Germany also has a queen in it. Just like Naboo... what the hell … . The current queen in Germany is called Angela Merkel and everybody loves her, especially myself. But Germany has also what is called a “body of legislation”, which is also the title of a very famous French soft erotic movie called “Emanuelle IV- body of legislation”. Who get’s to get into that body is decided once every 4 years when.... John, what is THAT? Is that supposed to be funny??… Steve why are you laug … hey… HEY… stop laughing you guys out there in the control room. That ain’t fair…what?….. … …. … … … … MAN, I told you I had NO TIME to read it in advance… …. … … oh whatever, you’re making me look like an idiot here… what? … … … oh you guys just wait… my vengeance will hit you when you least expect it. Now bring me my IPad with the Wikipedia App and I’ll do that myself….
Sorry guys… my team thinks they’re really funny… so… let’s try this

how do we vote

In 2 weeks from now on the 22 of September I think there will be Bundestagswahl in Germany. The Bundestag is the name of the German parliament so it is the important election in Germany. Now some may ask “But isn’t the election for the chancellor/president the most important one?”. Well, Germany doesn’t have that. We only elect our parliament and they do the rest but I’ll get back to that later.
So in the Bundestagswahl we vote our parliament which counts around 600 seats. The way we fill those seats is kind of particular. Because we have 2 votes… called Ersttimme and Zweitstimme (first voice, second voice).
Germany is divided 300 so called Wahlkreise (election circles/districts) which all  have the same number of voters. So a big city like Berlin has several Wahlkreise while in rural areas a Wahlkreis might include several villages. Every party can nominate a direct candidate for a Wahlkreis. And with my Erststimme I choose which direct candidate I want to go to parliament. The one with the most votes gets a seat no matter what. That is cool because it gives small parties a chance and you could even run as a private person and get elected into parliament. Now… since we have 300 Wahlkreise, 300 seats are taken by direct candidates. And now we get to the Zweitstimme. It is totally independent of the Erststimme and it  is where we vote for the parties… so if I want the Social Party to get many seats I’ll make my cross there. Those votes are then translated into a percentage and then… basically it works like this:
Let’s say our parliament has 100 seats and our party gets 20% of all Zweitstimmen. That means that the party has to have 20 seats in the parliament. Then they check how many direct candidates of the party won their Wahlkreis. If it is only 10, then there is still room for 10 more and parties then use their internal list of people to fill up their 20 seats.
Now let’s say the party has been really successful with its direct candidates. 30 of them won their Wahlkreis. But our party only has a right for 20 seats. What to do now? You can’t tell a successful Direktkandidat to go back home, because that would be discarding the will of the people. So you can either just say “Well… good for the party” or you make your parliament bigger so that 30 people is 20%. And if you think this is complicated… well, the reality is much worse. There has been a case in Dresden where people would vote for one party and the other party would get a seat more because of those votes… I don’t fully understand that but it is true.

who do we vote

Anyway… how many parties are in the German parliament? After the war, we started of with just 3… the Christian Democrats (CDU – our conservatives), the Social Democrats (SPD . our labor party) – those were the big ones – and the Free Democrats (FDP – our liberals).  It kept going like this for a while but new generations came and they of course wanted more parties…. haha… the party pun… so obvious.
So, in the 70s and 80s the Green party evolved from a strong environmental movement and today the sit around 10 percent.
Then, the wall came down and bam…  Germany all of a sudden had a very strong Socialist Party (PDS) in the former Eastern part. For a while this was a regional thing but then around the year 200 something happened that changed everything. The Social Democrats SPD and the Green Party were in power at that time and they did a number of reforms to the labor market and the social security system. Those reforms were overdue and necessary. The problem is they were considered harsh and unsocial by many in the SPD... so much so, that a lot of people decided to quit the SPD and make their own party … a real social labor party as they called it… but they did mix in some communists as well. Anyway… a few years later, I think 2005 or 6 or so, this new left party and the Socialist party of the east joined forces and a new socialist-labor party was born … die Linke. So now we have 5 parties in parliament. And a new egg has hatched… the Pirates. They started as a movement for a web without surveillance but they evolved into a real party with a focus on direct democracy and web related issues and they grew quite rapidly.. so much that 2 years ago they got 11% in the elections for the Parliament of Berlin. They have been on the decline since then but they still have chances to get 5% in Germany… which is minimum percentage you need to ENTER the parliament… get it… enter… like …pirates…no?… ok, I tried…
Anyway… so maybe we’ll have 6 parties this time. It is becoming messy :).
In Germany no party has ever had enough votes to get the majority so we always have a coalition. And those will then make new laws, make old laws more complicated by adding amendments and generally vote on things … and their first decision is for the chancellor.

President and chancellor and so on

Germany does have a president. But it is not like the president of other countries like Russia or the US… the role of our president has been reduced to to living in a castle in Berlin, giving hall mark speeches and signing laws.  I think they did that because we’ve made really bad experiences with a powerful president in the past. On paper, he is still the head of state but all our president has to do is representing and keeping it real.
In practice, the leader in Germany is the chancellor. He or she gets to select all the ministers or secretaries over which he or she then has a so called Richtlinienkompetenz… a really long and scary word that only expresses that the chancellor kind of says what the broad direction should be. Compared to other countries the powers of the chancellor are limited though. For example, he has no direct command over the army (the parliament does) and he cannot dissolve the parliament (he can only ask the president to do it). So… all in all the German parliament is pretty powerful compared with the situation in other countries… again, because of our history.
Now, our chancellor at the moment is the lady that is known for the “down to earth”-ness of the corners of her mouth… Angela Merkel. And the upcoming elections will show whether we’ll have her for 4 more years or not.

And that’s it. Sure there is much more to know about Germany but this should be enough to give you some insight into the upcoming elections.
Germany is full of posters at the moment so if you’re here I am sure you’ve seen some.

If you’re interested and you want to dig in a little deeper and work your German along the way, I’ll add a number of funny and interesting links below.
Else, I hope you enjoyed it a little bit. If you have any questions, be it about the word Wahl, about German politics or about Angela just drop me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Cool links:


This is a great tool. They give you 38 statements and you have to decide whether you agree or disagree. You can also mark a statement as especially important for you. And then, they compare your answers with the ones they got from 28 German parties and tell you with which one you have the most in common.
I think it makes only sense if you speak a fair bit of German and if you know a bit about what Germany is discussing about at the moment but then it is really a great thing.

Programme in simple Deutsch

Every German party has a program. And since not every German is able to read or comprehend twisted political talk they also provide a program in “Leichter Sprache”… easy language. Simple, short sentences with easy words.
This is a great idea… in theory… but the CDU went one step too far.
Their version is so dumb-ed down… it sounds like it is for 4 year olds. Also, it is full of mistakes and inconsistencies. Examples?

“Jeder soll nur so schnell fahren
wie es erlaubt ist.
Das finden wir schlecht.”

So… they want people to speed or what?? Or how about this… it puts Goethe to shame:

“Die Tiere schützen.
Und die Pflanzen schützen.
In Deutschland gibt es viele Tiere.
Und viele Pflanzen.
Die Tiere und Pflanzen
wollen wir schützen.
Das Wasser schützen.
Und den Boden schützen
Sauberes Wasser
und sauberer Boden
sind wichtig.
Für Menschen.
Für Tiere.
Und für Pflanzen.”

This is serious. I was shocked when I first read that.

Anyway… if you are a politics nerd and you want to know what the parties stand for , or if you want to laugh at the CDU… here are the links.


Every party makes a TV add… just one? Yes, I think basically just one. The German TV stations are obliged to send them, no matter whether they like the parties or not. My favorite 2 are of the parties I like the least of the pack… CDU and FDP. The CDU spot is just a tired looking Merkel talking slowly as if we’re school children. It is filmed with shaky cam as it it were Transformers and it has one really odd shot of her hands in it.
The one of the FDP is funny because of 3 things… first of, it contains a number of totally lame puns, secondly… the guy (who is their main guy) is OBVIOUSLY drunk and third… the biking family at the end is stock footage that was also used by the German Nazi party and a Finish curd-commercial… better check your stuff next time :)
The others… well… meh… but the SPD one sure gives you a variety of German dialects.

Die Partei

German politics can actually be fun… Die Partei is a party founded by one of the biggest satirical magazines in Germany (Titanic). They don’t REALLY want to do politics but they have everything done by the book so they are an officially accepted political party. That means, I can vote for them. And that also means that the TV-Stations MUST broadcast their add… this add:

The German version of the BBC had to show this Wednesday evening after the news as if it were a real party ad. Also, Die Partei keeps sending people to serious talk shows and stuff…. if you want to “learn” more about Die Partei, then here is their “program” – it is called “Overcome Content!”

Would I vote for them… of course not… but it is great that stuff like this is possible :)