Word of the Day – “die Schuld”

schuld-entschuldigen-germanHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll have a look at the meaning of

die Schuld


and I’m sure most of you have seen that before as part of the words Entschuldigung and entschuldigen which are the German counterparts for the common English words to unguiltify and deguiltification.
Now you’re like “Those aren’t even real words” and of course you’re right. Those are more like the literal translations of Entschuldigung and entschuldigen because the main meaning of Schuld is guilt.
German uses that idea in quite a range of words that have surprisingly diverse translations in English. Today, we’ll take a look at all of those, we’ll see how to use entschuldigen correctly, and we’ll find out why Germans are not that much into credit cards.
Seriously… if you want to go to bars and pubs make sure you have cash.
So, are you ready to dive in? Cool.

I just said it,  Schuld means guilt. But it would actually be more accurate to say the core idea is guilt. Sure, Schuld can translate to guilt directly.

  • “Mein Matcha-Jogurt. Er ist weg.”
    “Ich hatte Hunger. Tut mir leid.”
    “Nein, diese Schuld ist zu groß um sie zu vergeben.”
  • “My matcha-yogurt. It’s gone.”
    “I was hungry. I’m sorry.”
    “No, that guilt is too big to be forgiven.”

But in every day life Germans use Schuld where English uses fault or blame.

  • Leute, unsere brandneue Kaffeemaschine ist kaputt. Und wir bleiben hier so lange drin, bis ich weiß, wessen Schuld das ist.
  • Guys, our brand new coffee maker is broken. And we’ll stay in here until I know who’s to blame for that.
  • “Na, toll. Das Bier ist warm. Vielen Dank.”
    “Das ist doch nicht meine Schuld.”
    “Doch! Du hast ewig mit Maria geflirtet.”
    Selbst schuld. Du hättest es ja schon trinken können.”
  • “Oh great, the beer is warm. Thanks a lot!”
    “Come on, that’s not MY fault.”
    “It is! Your flirt with Maria took forever.”
    “Well, it’s your own fault. You could have drunk it.”
  • Thomas ist schuld daran, dass das ganze Team über das Wochenende arbeiten muss.
  • It‘s Thomas’ fault that the whole team has to work the weekend.
    (Note that you can say Schuld haben and schuld sein and both
    mean pretty much the same. To me schuld sein is way more
    idiomatic but that might be different for other regions of Germany
    or Austria.)
  • Die Gesellschaft ist schuld.
  • It’s the societies fault/society is to blame.

All these examples revolve around the idea of who is guilty. The two languages come from different angles. And it’s the same with the words that are related to die Schuld. The translations rarely have the word guilt in it because English uses a variety of words but the idea of guilt is always kind of there.

  • Thomas beschuldigt den Praktikanten, Doughnuts geklaut zu haben, aber der ist unschuldig.
  • Thomas accuses (literally: “inflicts guilt on“) the intern of stealing donuts, but he is not guilty.
  • Maria ist nicht so unschuldig, wie sie tut.
  • Maria is not as innocent as she pretends to be.
  • Thomas hat einen Unfall verschuldet. (sounds formal and official)
  • Thomas has caused an accident
    (this is “ver” in sense of “for”… he “made guilty for”, if that makes sense)
  • Bitte vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unseren Schuldigern.
  • Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
    (this is part of a common Christian prayer. I was really surprised to find that the translation here is NOT guilt but now I feel like trespass might actually be closer to the original version …Berlingrabers, I’m kind of counting on you here:)
  • Thomas will Maria nicht erzählen, wann er seine Unschuld verloren hat.
  • Thomas doesn’t want to tell Maria when he lost his virginity.

Unschuld for virginity… that’s actually a really weird phrasing when you think about it. Someone who hurts or kills someone has lost their Unschuld. Not someone who freaking humps for the first time.

“I had my first time last night and it was amazing.”
“Good for you, now you’re guilty forever.”

Hmmm… who would wanna put such a negative spin on something that should be enjoyed.  Sounds like something religions would do.

Religions© – they mean well but they’re really OCD sometimes

Anyway, let’s get to the most important related word and that is, of course,

Entschuldigen and Entschuldigung

Entschuldigen, literally “to unguiltify”, means to excuse, to apologize. And grammatically it (mostly) works like to excuse in that it needs an object. You can’t just excuse the way you can apologize.

  • I apologize.

This is correct. But these are not:

  • I excuse.
  • Ich entschuldige…. WRONG!!

So when you want to use it in the sense of to apologize – and you do have to do that because German only has this one word for it – then you need to put in one of those self references.

  • Er entschuldigt sich.
  • He excused himself./He apologizes.

Here are some more examples.

  • Ich will mich bei dir für/wegen etwas entschuldigen.
  • I want to apologize to you for something.
  • Thomas hat sich bei Maria dafür entschuldigt, was er über ihre Haare gesagt hat.
  • Thomas apologized to Maria for what he said about her hairdo.
  • Wir bitten Sie, die Unannehmlichkeiten zu entschuldigen.
  • We kindly ask you to excuse the inconveniences.
    (there’s no self reference here because we have a “regular” object)
  • Entschuldigen Sie mich einen Moment.
  • Excuse me for a second.
    (someone at a meeting who is about to take a phone call and leave the room)

The noun for entschuldigen is die Entschuldigung and that can be an excuse in a more official sense  as well as a heart felt  apology. But it always has a genuine tone to it. For a feeble, petty excuse you’d use the word die Ausrede (link below) .

  • Ein Kater ist keine Entschuldigung.
  • A hangover is not an excuse.
  • “Tut mir leid, Schatz.”
    “Entschuldigung angenommen.”
  • “I’m sorry, honey.”
    Apology accepted.”

Now, entschuldigen and Entschuldigung seems to be something beginners are having trouble with because the dictionary says excuse to both of them.
If you’re having trouble with that… here’s a little overview again:  entschuldigen is the verb, it is something you can do. Entschuldigung is a noun, it something you can ask for, demand or accept.
Entschuldigung can be used as an introduction to a (non-verbal) question you ask strangers. And it can be used as a stand alone word in sense of “I’m sorry”

  • Entschuldigung, wissen Sie, wie man zum Bahnhof kommt?
  • Excuse me, do you know how to get to the train station?
  • Entschuldigung… (waits for the other person to step out of the way)

  • Sorry
  • Tschujung (spoken German)
  • “Aua. Passen Sie doch auf, wo Sie hintreten.”
    “Oh, Entschuldigung.
  • “Ouch, you should pay attention where you tread.”
    “Oh, excuse me/I’m sorry.”

The verb entschuldigen can also be used to approach strangers BUT then you NEED to add the formal you.

  • Entschuldigen Sie, wissen Sie wo….
  • Excuse me, do you know….

Without the Sie it sounds pretty wrong. As does entschuldigen used as a one word excuse.

  • Entschuldigen.    WRONG!!!

One might think that -gung and -gen sounds similar but no, not to a native speaker’s ear. Entschuldigen as a stand alone is understandable … but it sounds really really bad, so you try to not mix them up.
So, this was the whole guilt aspect of Schuld. Now let’s get to the other aspect.
Wait, there’s another one?
Yes, and it has to do with money.

schuld, schulden and money

The word guilt doesn’t have a plural. You can have some guilt or a lot of guilt but you can’t have 3 “guilts”. Schuld works the same, but technically, there is a plural. Die Schulden. Schulden doesn’t mean “guilts”. Schulden means  debt.

  • Thomas hat Schulden.
  • Thomas is in debt.
  • Deutschland hat seit ein paar Jahren in der Verfassung eine Schuldenbremse. (it’s really called that)
  • For a few years now, Germany has had a national debt brake in its constitution.

And this fact, the fact that Germans use the same word for debt  that they use for guilt might be the reason why Germans are somewhat restrained when it comes to borrowing money. Sure, lots of people are in debt for some reason or another but generally, it is much less normal than in the US and “Schulden haben” (being in debt) has a very negative ring to it in German. Like… when I hear

“Thomas hat Schulden.” 

my natural reaction is to think

“Aw… poor Thomas. I hope I never get into that situation.” 

I don’t hear the opportunity that debt can offer. Schulden sounds bad. So why did the Germans start using this negative word for debt? The answer is, they didn’t. It’s the word that changed.
Because some two thousand years Schuld was simply about a sort of obligation that you had toward someone. Like…bringing the smith a boar because he fixed your ax or giving the chieftain a barrel of ale because he won the last drinking competition. We could say a Schuld was something that you should do for someone. And if you’re now like “Hmmm,  should and Schuld look really similar and they’re both about obligation… can that really be a coincidence”, then you’re on the right track. Schuld is directly related to should. And that is especially visible when you look at the verb schulden, which is the German word for to owe.

  • Du schuldest mir noch 10 Euro.
  • You owe me 10 Euro.
  • Du schuldest mir noch eine Entschuldigung.
  • You still owe me an apology.

I don’t know… “You should me 10 Euro” … it’s like sooo obvious once you know  it. Really a pretty cool connection.
Anyway, so the original Schuld was just about obligation toward someone, be it financially or otherwise. And this notion of having done something wrong, being guilty came in later. I don’t know… I feel like religion might have had something to do with it. Religion always had a tendency toward guilt tripping people with their obligations toward the Lord.
Anyways, here’s a couple more examples for schuld words with the sense of owing.

  • Ich bin ihr nichts schuldig.
  • I owe her nothing.
  • Thomas hat sich für das Haus verschuldet.
  • Thomas indebted himself for the house.

And one last thing about to owe maybe… we’ve learned that Schuld and schulden has a slightly negative tone. So when people want to use owe in a positive way, for stuff you don’t have to pay back, they’d use verdanken.

  • Maria verdankt ihrem Skilehrer viel.
  • Maria owes a lot to her ski teacher.

And I think that’s it. This was our look at the word die Schuld and the schuld family, which is either about owing or about guilt.
As always, if you have any questions about all of this (I feel like it was actually quite a bit to digest) just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

One bit of random trivia:

The word sin might be related to the German sein as in to be. It’s not certain and there are other theories but that’s kind of deep :).

further reading:

Word of the Day – “die Ausrede”

** Vocab **

die Schuld – the blame, guilt, fault
die Mitschuld – part of the blame (kind of like assistant’s blame)
die Teilschuld – part of the blame (just technical part)
die Unschuld – the innocence, the virginity

unschuldig – innocent, not guilty
schuldig – guilty
etwas verschulden – cause something bad

das Unschuldslamm – innocent lamb
die Unschuld vom Lande – figure of speech for a naive, innocent person
die Unschuldsvermutung – the presumption of innocence

die Entschuldigung – the excuse, the apology
die Ausrede – the petty excuse
(sich) entschuldigen – apologize, excuse (oneself) 

die Schulden – the debt
sich entschulden – to get out of debt
der Schuldner – person owing money
der Gläubiger – person owed money
sich verschulden – go deep into debt
die Staatsverschuldung – the national debt

schulden – to owe
jemandem etwas schuldig sein – owe someone something 



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