German Word of the Day – “merken”

namen merkenHello everyone,

ad welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a look… actually a gaze at the meaning of:



Merken is one hell of a word…. I don’t think that I would be taking much of a risk if I bet… 10 Cent that every German uses, hears or reads merken or one of its dairyta… diriv… devira… uh… its children at least 10 times a day. And yet, merken is often overlooked by many learners because whichever word it can translate to in English seems to have a better “default” translation in German… for example, merken is often a translation of to remember.But most of you know remember as erinnern… comprehensive dictionaries might list merken, too, but pshhhh… who cares for just some synonym.
However, merken is much more than that.  Merken is all over the place and is one of the most impote… important 200 verbs. I would even go as far as to say that it is more important than sein and haben combined… Hain which is the German word for grove … and if you don’t find that very convincing consider this: we even named our current chancellor after merken. And our chancellor is a pretty powerful and important person and I think she even has like really good connections to our government, too … so you see… merken is one hell of a word … hah, they have no idea yet that its grammar is an even bigger he… oh wait… did I write that last part out loud??? Oh crap, I will have to edit that out in post… get it ? … in POST.. like blog post.. What’s that? You want more plays on words? What? Oh you want to learn about merken and  NO plays on words anymore… oh… okay then, let’s start.

So… there are actually 2 merkens with totally different meanings and significantly different grammar… there is a “normal” merken and a reflexive or self-referential merken, a sich merken.


Possible translations for the normal merken are to notice, to realize and to feel…  if I had to give a definition of it myself I’d say it is is the process of becoming or being aware of a fact with a focus on intuition and not so much logic or mere unimodal sensual perception… yap… let’s stick with the translations :).
Merken can mean all those words but the usage is a little tricky. Sometimes merken is really by far the best translation and in other seemingly similar situations it would sound pretty odd.
So let’s list some characteristics of merken  to really get a feeling for when to use it. First of, merken always takes some time. It is not an instant realization but a process.
Also, it tends to be a bit unclear in the modality of perception. If you notice something just with your eyes or your ears, merken is not a good choice.
With regards to the context we can say that merken is not often used for simple things like a table or heat and NEVER for persons. You cannot merken someone.
So what can you merken? Well… we could call it facts, maybe… so, things like

  • It is late.
  • Thomas is angry.

Grammatically speaking facts are information that needs to be phrased.. so you need a verb to state it. That means merken is probably a good translation for either of the above mentioned words (to realize, to feel, to notice, to sense) if a subordinate clause is involved. By the way… short word for Subordinate Claus is Elf … badumm tish…

So…  in phrasing like these merken is by FAR the best choice. You should not use fühlen in any of the examples. Fühlen just is too connected to tactile perception on the one hand an to the soul on the other… merken is a little less involved… kind of like the 2 following sentences.

  • I feel your anger.    vs.     I sense your anger.  (please native speakers, let me know if I am mistaken here)

Now, would  merken be a good choice in these sentences? No,  because merken is used for facts, but here we just have a thing… the anger.

  • Ich merke deinen Ärger.

Technically, that is correct I guess but it sounds odd to me. Let’s rephrase it using and fact.

This is much much better.Let’s just look at a couple of more situation.

  • I noticed that you put on make up.

Is this something for merken? We do notice a fact here… you put on make up…. so based on that merken should be okay. Still it is not a good choice for 2 reasons. Firstly, I doesn’t take very long to notice that and secondly the noticing  is purely based on visuals. You might as well say „I see that you put on make up.“ There is nothing left to intuition here…

  • I sense that you put on make up today.

That would be weird. Like … a blind one could maybe say it to his friend because he hears the lipstick or he smells the fine perfume of the products or the grumpy waiter in the coffee shop they always  go to has been extra friendly… but I digress. So merken is not good here. Let’s try one more.

  • Marc didn’t notice Mary.

Is that a merken case? Super-No, clearly not because you cannot merken people, it is not a fact AND it is likely based on visual only AND  it was likely very quick. You can just check to insert a slowly in the examples. If it doesn’t work, then merken won’t either.

  • Marc slowly noticed Mary.

Now, let’s rephrase.

  • Marc noticed that Marie was there, too.

Here, merken would be okay because we have a fact, we can insert slowly and we’re not clear as to how he noticed it (see, hear, smell, clothes laying around,  clean kitchen… intuition).
So…. I really hope that helped you to get kind of grasp of how merken works. Here are some more examples that do work well with merken

One little note on grammar… merken ALWAYS needs an object or a sentence to explain what is being realized. In grammar jargon, we could say, merken is super-transitive… so it is not just sort-of-transitive like so many English verbs…

  • Yeah, I noticed.

There is no object here. It is just assumed that I noticed whatever has been said before. This doesn’t work in German. You can’t just say:

  • Ich habe gemerkt.

There has to be at least a reference there, a direct object, if you’re into grammar lingo.

Alright, so to recap, merken is to somewhat slowly notice a fact (not a person or a thing) using senses and intuition.

sich merken

And now on to the second merken… the sich merken. Fortunately the meaning of that one a little easier grasp as it is basically to memorize. Now you may say „Pshhhh who needs that? I never use memorize so why should I remember that word in German?“
Well, you should remember that because that last sentence would actually be translated using sich merken. The thing is, English speakers use to remember a whole lot and it has a really broad meaning. Dictionaries suggest erinnern as a translation but that only covers one facet of remember… the actual recall.
There are about 5 different ways to remember is translated to German. I think I will do a post on that at some point but for now I’ll just say sich merken covers the memory part of to remember. When you say

  • Why should I remember that?

then you are not asking why you should recall that but why you should make an effort to keep it „recallable“ or simply to memorize it. This very question cannot be translated with erinnern… sich merken is what you need here.

Some more examples.

Now, I think most of you are not totally comfortable with the whole reflexivenonreflexivewhichpronounusedativeoraccusativecase-thing. So what’s up with the whole sich, mir, dir and how does a self reference make any sense with to memorize?
Well, a look at the etomylg..ngn..l.. the origin of merken will clarify a lot of things. Both merkens, this one and the one we already talked about, come from the Germanic mark, as in landmark or text marker. While the English to mark has a narrow meaning, the German merken has broadened incredibly but still… the relation is still visible sometimes.

This example also make sit understandable why there is a self reference in the German sentences… like I mark something for myself. I admit, it feels a bit redundant but this is how we say it in German… and because we have cases we don’t say for me but rather the case that expresses that idea… the dative.

Now, I can certainly mark something for someone else… like the typos for the student. So can I merken something for someone else? No, that does not work, because it is the combination between the self reference sich and merken that makes it to memorize.

  • Ich merke dir…WRONG

This is complete nonsense. There is no self-reference so it is NOT perceived as to memorize but as the first merken to sense or to notice… and you can not sense something to someone else…. like “Yo, I sense you some of my joy.”
So… to sum this one up… sich merken literally means to memorize but it is also a translation for to remember and we do use it as such a lot. No one would ever say

The crucial thing is the self reference in dative case. If that is missing, it does NOT mean to memorize anymore. People would understand the normal merken then and this can be incredibly confusing.

  • Ich merke deine Telefonnummer…. WRONG
  • I sense your phonenumber…    oh do you? So you’re psychic huh?

The best thing would be if you just learn it by sound. Don’t think too much about cases and reflexive… just say “Ich merke mir…” “Du merkst dir ... ” until it comes out automatically.

We are almost done for today but I wanted to give you 2 words that have merken in them. The first one is merklich is relating to the first meaning of merken so it shouldn’t be too surprising that a possible translation is noticable.  I am too laz.. have problems to come up with basic examples here so I would refer you to linguee (which is a great web site by the way). There you can see all kinds of translations but the core idea is always… stands out or can/has been marked.
Then there is the word merkwürdig, which  is an example for a word that comes from the memorize-merken. Würdig can mean either dignified or worthy. Here it means the latter so merkwürdig should logically be worth to remember or  remarkable… which again shows the origins of merken. Well, it certainly meant that once, but it has shifted and now it means strange. 

So it has narrowed down basically… strange things are sure worth remembering but not all things that ar wroth rembeergin aer sra.. uh you know what, I think it’s enough for today. I just can’t concentrate anymore :).
So… this was our German Word of the Day merken. It comes from the word to mark, it means to slowly notice a fact, and adding a self reference like myself changes the meaning to to memorize or to remember.
If you have any questions or suggestions, leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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