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 part of what I would call “The Everyday German Toolkit”. And yet, learners often overlook or ignore it because it doesn’t really have THE ONE word it translates to. It does have translations, of course, but each of them seems to have a better “default” translation in German.
For example, one of its translations is to remember, but most of you know to remember as erinnern.
Today, we’ll find out all about its meanings and when to use it and of course, we’ll also get to the difference between merken and bemerken (#inspiring).
Lots to talk about, so let’s jump right in.
For merken it makes sense to distinguish between the normal use and the reflexive use sich merken, because they each cover different ideas.
And we’ll start with the “normal” use.
The core idea of the “bare” merken could be described as the process of becoming aware of something so it covers territory of to notice, to realize and to feel.
The devil is in the details, because merken has a specific vibe and doesn’t always work as a translation.
What’s important is that merken goes beyond pure sensory perception. There is a holistic or intuitive component to it and it usually takes some time. It’s not instant. Like… you feeling a stone in your shoe or noticing a chair in your room would NOT be merken.
As such, merken is not often used for simple things like a table or heat. And it is NEVER for people. You cannot merken someone.
Instead, merken is for noticing a fact about reality. Like:
- It is late.
- Thomas is angry.
- I need some rest.
All these are things you can merken. So from a grammatical angle we can say that merken works well, if the stuff we notice, realize or feel is a Subordinate Clause. By the way… do you know what the short word is for Subordinate Claus?
Get it? Get it? Santa Clause’s subordinates are elves.
“Please continue the explanation, Emanuel.”
Okay… I’m sorry.
- Ich merke, dass du schlechte Laune hast.
- I sense/feel/notice that you are in a bad mood.
- Ich habe nicht gemerkt, wie die Zeit vergangen ist.
- I didn’t feel/notice the time passing.
- Merkst du nicht, dass du mich gerade nervst?
- Don’t you realize that you’re going on my nerves right now?
- Am Anfang hat mir der Job Spaß gemacht, aber dann habe ich gemerkt, wie langweilig er ist.
- In the beginning I enjoyed the job but then I realized how boring it was.
And of course, merken also works with pronouns that stand in for such a fact .
- “Ich war bei meinem Vortrag super nervös.”
“Echt. Das habe ich nicht gemerkt.”
- “I was super nervous during my presentation.”
“Really?! I didn’t notice that.”
Now, how about the following sentence?
Would that be a good translation for “I sensed your nervousness.” ?
- Ich habe deine Nervosität gemerkt.
The answer is: not really. Yes, the message is pretty much the same as in the example with the presentation.
And some people might say it, but spüren or fühlen would be MUCH more idiomatic here, simply because we’re talking about a noun.
Here are the two versions back to back:
- Ich habe deine Nervosität gemerkt.. nope
- Ich habe gemerkt, dass du nervös bist.… yup
Merken sounds good with facts (things phrased with a verb). That’s a pretty good guideline.
But is it really enough?
Take this sentence:
- I didn’t notice that you have a new hairdo.
We have a fact (“You have a new hair”), so we should be fine with merken, right?
Well, no… and the reason is that noticing a new hairdo is usually done purely by vision. There is no “intuitive” component. And ALSO, it is really quick. A new hairdo is nothing you gradually notice. You either see it, or you don’t. There’s isn’t really a process.
Using merken wouldn’t be outright wrong, but it’s not the best choice here.
We don’t have to stray far, though…
Because such quick realizations are exactly what bemerken is for. It does work fine for things that we just suddenly see or hear and as such it does work for nouns and also for people.
- Ich habe nicht bemerkt, dass der Kellner zu viel berechnet hat.
- I didn’t notice that the waiter charged too much.
- Als der Wanderer das Einhorn bemerkte, war es schon zu spät.
- When the hiker noticed the unicorn, it was already too late.
- “Hallo Maria.”
“Oh… hi Thomas, ich hab dich gar nicht bemerkt.”
- “Hi Maria.”
“Oh… hi Thomas, I didn’t notice you.”
In the first example, we could also use merken without the message being too different, but in the other two examples, merken would sound wrong. Because we’re not having a side sentence but a thing instead.
So basically, there are two ways for us to think of the difference between merken and bemerken.
One is to remember that merken is somewhat slow and has an element of intuition, while bemerken is quick and can be just based on one of our senses.
And the other way is the pure grammar…. merken only sounds fine with facts while bemerken works for things and people.
The two do overlap a little bit here and there, but generally, they’re not interchangeable.
They do have one thing in common though, and that’s the fact that they both MUST have an object.
In English, you can say this:
- Yeah, I noticed/realized.
This does NOT work in German, neither with merken nor with bemerken.
- Ich habe gemerkt.
There has to be at least a reference there, a direct object, if you’re into grammar lingo.
Das habe ich gemerkt/bemerkt.
We’ll practice the use of merken and bemerken a little in the quizz (once I have prepared it), but now let’s move on to sich merken and the other big idea of the verb. And that’s actually kind of what comes after noticing someone.
We notice and realize all kinds of things throughout the day. And most of them are boring. But some of them, we might want to remember. And that’s when sich merken comes in, because that is about the idea of putting something into your memory.
- Das muss ich mir merken.
- I have to remember that (put it into my memory).
And this is the perfect time to bring up the origin of merken. Because merken is actually part of the family of to mark and there is one English phrase that really shows the connections:
- Mark my words!
- Merk dir meine Worte!
We want the other person to “notice” our words, and we want the person to memorize them, to make a “mark” for themselves. We don’t only have both core ideas of merken in here, we also have a logical reason why the self reference is Dative.
- Ich merke mir…
- Du merkst dir...
- Er merkt sich…
It’s because we make a “note to self“, so we’re the indirect object, the receiver. And that role is typically expressed through Dative.
So sich merken is to remember but ONLY in the sense of storing a memory, not for the recall later.
Time for examples:
- Warum sollte ich mir das merken?
- Why should I remember that?
- Thomas kann sich keine Namen merken.
- Thomas can’t memorize/store names in his brain. (lit.)
- Thomas is bad with names./Thomas can’t remember names.
- Ich muss mir dringend merken, wie man das macht.
- I absolutely have to remember how to do that.
- Merk dir das!
- Remember that!/Don’t forget that!
And here it is back to back with sich erinnern, which is the “main” German option for to remember.
- Oh, ich muss mich daran erinnern.
- Oh, ich muss mir das merken.
Both are basically saying that I have to remember that, but the first one has the focus on the recall. Maybe I am in front of an ATM and I’ve entered my pin wrong two times already. Now I REALLY have to remember the correct one.
The second version on the other hand says that I feel a need to store something in memory that I learned, because I assume that I’ll need to recall it at some point.
Now, we’re almost done for the day, but there are a few really cool related words to merken so let’s take a look at those before we wrap up.
And we’ll start with the noun das Merkmal, which is the German word for feature…. a characteristic that allows you to notice something.
- Sauberes Arbeiten ist ein Merkmal für einen guten Koch.
- Clean work is a feature/sign of a good cook.
Next up, there’s the adverb merklich, which means noticably in the sense of being over a sort of threshold.
- Am Meer ist es merklich kälter als in der Stadt.
- At the sea it is noticably colder than in the city.
And then we have the adjective merkwürdig. Which sure looks like it carries the idea of being worth noting, being remarkable. And it used to mean that, but it doesn’t any more. Because merkwürdig has shifted the idea idea of strange. I mean… something that is strange is definitely something you’d note, so there’s at least some connection there.
- Du bist heute merkwürdig still.
- You are strangely/ remarkably quiet today.
- I have no credit on my phone. That is strange.
- Ich habe kein Guthaben auf dem Handy. Das ist merkwürdig.
The new German word for the idea of noteworthy is bemerkenswert. Though that leans more toward remarkable in the sense of something being great.
- Es ist bemerkenswert, wie gut Maria in der kurzen Zeit Deutsch gelernt hat.
- It’s remarkable how well Maria learned German is this short a time.
And the word remarkable conveniently ties right in with the next word: the noun die Bemerkung.
Because that’s the German word for the remark. Like… a short statement or comment on something. You verbally make “a mark”, if that makes sense.
- Thomas’ ironische Bemerkungen gehen mir auf die Nerven.
- Thomas’ ironic remarks get on my nerves.
Actually, in books the verb bemerken is sometimes used in this sense of saying something. But that’s not a use for daily life.
And last but not least we have anmerken and die Anmerkung which are also about making remarks, but they are a little more constructive maybe. Like… an Anmerkung is trying to help, a Bemerkung is often a little… subversive.
I’m sure there are a few more flying around out there, but we’ve seen the important ones and I think we’ve done enough for today :).
So yeah, this was our look at the meaning of merken and sich merken and bemerken and I hope you got a bit of a sense of what they are and when to use which.
If you want to practice and recap you can take the little quiz I have prepared … well… once it’s finished… I’m working on it (October 2020).
And as usual, if you have any questions or remarks just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.