Word of the Day – “spalten”

Hello everyone,

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



And man… what a sound! And maybe that’ just me, but it matches really well with what it stands for. Spalten!
Like… a chasm opening up during an earthquake. Or a bolt of lightning smashing into a tree.
Well okay,  I guess technically those would sound more like “cshrrrkh”. But at least to me, spalten fits well, too. And this notion of forcefully splitting in two is kind of the core of spalten. And not only that verb. It actually was also the core of the Indo-European root *(s)pel-.
Which is uber ancient, btw… just in case you were wondering.
And you’ll be surprised how many words come from it.
But more on that later. Let’s start with spalten itself….

… and a few examples.

  • Thomas Norris spaltet das Holz mit seiner Hand.
  • Thomas Norris splits/cleaves the wood with his hand.
  • Die Kaffee-Frage hat das Team tief gespalten.
  • The coffee question has deeply divided the team.
  • Die Gesellschaft ist gespaltener als vor 10 Jahren.
  • The society is more divided than 10 years ago.

To split and to divide are the common translations. But we need to keep this notion of force in mind. That’s an integral part of spalten. So spalten is NOT the right word for, say, splitting a bill….

“Do you pay together or separately?”
“Oh, we’ll pay together. But hey, could you bring us an ax? We’d like to split the bill.
It’s our Viking ritual… we’re from Norway, you know.”

And same for dividing numbers or groups into subgroups. The proper word for all these contexts is teilen.
Spalten has a notion of force. Or we could say, a focus on some sort of rift being created.
Which brings us right over to the three nouns der Spalt, die Spalte and das Spaltum.
Nahhhh… I’m kidding. Of course, it’s not three nouns for one verb. That would be ridiculous. Of course, only the first two exist :).
Der Spalt is used for a somewhat long, but very narrow space between two separate objects.
Die Spalte on the other hand is a deep narrow gap inside one thing.

  • Ich lasse das Fenster einen Spalt offen.
  • I’ll leave the window open a crack.
  • Das Doppelspalt-Experiment zeigt, dass Licht sowohl Welle als auch Teilchen ist.
  • The double slit experiment shows that light is a wave as well as a particle.
  • Derweil in Alaska: der Löwe und das Zebra springen über drei Gletscher-Spalten.
  • Meanwhile in Alaska: The lion and the zebra are jumping over three ice crevasses.

Yeah… I know… just don’t think about it. It’s just an example, okay.
Please direct your attention back to die Spalte because it’s also the German word for the column of a table or on a page layout. Think about it… it’s deep and narrow and inside one object.

  • “Meine Tabelle hat eine Zeile und eine Spalte.”
    “Das ist keine Tabelle… das ist ein Kasten.”
  • “My table has one row and one column.”
    “That’s not a table… that’s a box.”

Now, these nouns are not the only related words. There’s a bunch more and they span over a wide range of contexts.

  • “Mama, warum nennt man Holz nicht spaltbares Material obwohl man es spalten kann?”
    “Geh Zähne putzen.”
  • “Mom, why is wood not called fissile (lit.: “dividable”) material even though you can split it?”
    “Go brush your teeth.”
  • “Leute… bei dem Tattoo bin ich raus.”
    “Buuuhhh…. sei nicht so ein Spalter.”
  • “Guys… I think I’m gonna pass on the tattoo.”
    “Booohhhh… don’t be such a “group divider”.”
    (is that idiomatic?! The idea of Spalter is someone who is splitting up a group from the inside?)
  • Nach dem sogenannten Esel-Skandal will sich ein Teil der Partei abspalten.
  • After the so called donkey scandal part of the party wants to split off.
  • Thomas ist im Zwiespalt/zwiegespalten. Gym-Date mit Maria oder Beautytag mit seiner besten Freundin.
  • Thomas is torn/divided… gym date with Maria or beauty day with his best friend.

And now that we know spalten and the “inner circle” of the family, let’s turn back to the origin and nerd out over the more distant cousins.
As I said in the beginning, the origin is the uber ancient Indo-European root *(s)pel-, which was about the notion of “forceful separation”.
And I’m sure some of you have been wondering whether split was actually related. Well… it is. And also splinter, splice and spill are part of the family. And also flint-stone, which got its name because it splinters easily. Oh and let’s not forget to spoil. The first thing that comes to mind here are movies, but back in the day, to spoil was about robbing, plundering (just think the spoils of war). And before that, it was about skinning animals.

And of course there’s also relatives on the German side. For example der Splitter, which is the German word for splinter or a small shard.

  • Ich habe einen Splitter im Finger.
  • I have a splinter in my finger.
  • Pass auf, da sind Glassplitter.
  • Careful, there are shards of glass.
  • Die 5%-Hürde soll verhindern, dass das Parlament zersplittert.
  • The 5% hurdle/threshold is to prevent the parliament from getting fragmented (“splintered”).

One that’s a bit more obscure is die Spule. Spule is the German word for coil, and originally it just referred to a cut off piece of wood that you’d wrap your yarn around. And while Spule itself is not all that useful, unless you’re an engineer, you might come across the verbs vorspulen and zurückspulen, which are the German words for to forward and to rewind. 

  • Ich spule immer zu meiner Lieblingsstelle von dem Song vor.
  • I always forward to my favorite part of the song.

Though nowadays, with Youtube, Blu-ray and streaming, they don’t make that much sense anymore. Like…  and people might just say vor- and zurückskippen or vor- and zurückmachen.

  • Kannst du ein bisschen zurückmachen? Ich will sein Gesicht nochmal sehen, wenn er das Einhorn bemerkt.
  • Can you skip back a bit? I want to see his face again, when he notices the unicorn.

And the last word I want to mention is der Spliss. I think, the word also exists in English and it is the condition when the ends of your hair are split.

  • “Puh, meine Haare sind schrecklich. Lauter Spliss/gespaltene Spitzen.”
    “Wegen deiner ganzen Haarspalterei.”
    “Haha… sehr komisch.”
  • “Man, my hair is awful. So much spliss/split ends.”
    “Because of all your splitting hairs.
    “Haha… very funny!”

And thus we’re back at spalten and at the end of this article :). This was out little look at spalten and its family. I didn’t mention ALL the words there are, but I’m sure with what you’ve learned today, you can guess the rest from context.
As always, you can test yourself about the most important points in the little quiz we have prepared.
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.



** vocab **

spalten = to split, to cleave (not for splitting a bill)
gespalten = divided
zwiegespalten = torn (only for people who are tron between two options)
zwiespältig = ambivalent, dichotomously
der Spalt = slit, crack (between two objects)
die Spalte = split, crack, crevasse (withinone object, like a mountain); column (for tables)
spaltbar = fissile
der Spalter = person who splits a group from within by not, say, joining the skinny dipping (colloquial)
der Splitter = the splinter, the shard
die Spule = the coil
vorspulen = to fast forward (from back when there was still tape recording, slowly fading away)
zurückspulen = to rewind (from the days of tape recording, slowly dying out)
zurückmachen = to skip back (in a video, also “zurückskippen”)
Haare spalten = splitting hairs
der Spliss = split ends (for hair)
die Haarspalterei = the splitting hairs (figurative)

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2 years ago

Spall is also an English word, but not widely used. It means to crack or flake, but I only ever hear it in the context of concrete. It’s almost exclusively a construction-related word. Ex: They poured the new parking lot, but the concrete is already spalling and will have to be fixed.

I.D. Kline
I.D. Kline
2 years ago

Here’s two more English derivatives of spalten, having to do with wood:



And beautiful spalted wood!


2 years ago

Ich liebe diese alte Woerte mit interesanten Geschichte!

Du hast gefragt uber was idiomatisch ist fuer eine Persone die eine Gruppe spaltet. Ich habe kein richtige Antwort, aber ich habe mich an einem sehr komischen Teil aus dem Film Life of Brian (Monty Python) erinnert, worin Leute in dem Judean People’s Front nutzt den Begriff “splitter” einen Mitglied dem People’s Front of Judea zu (insult/disparage??). Wenn du Zeit hast, guck mal! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iS-0Az7dgRY

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

oh tut mir Leid!

2 years ago

Wie für das Einführungsthema (Greta T.), der Text auf spiked-online.com – Save Greta – verkündete, was sie erwarten konnte, und wenn sie sich nicht zurückzog, würden die Medienangriffe immer schlimmer werden. Das Hauptmerkmal der heutigen Faschisten ist, dass sie andere Faschisten proklamieren.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Entschuldigung. Mein Deutsch ist zu schlecht für diese Arte von Diskussionen:)
Couple of weeks ago I heard cnn reporter asking British conservative MP: “Why do you use democratic means to obstruct democracy, like in Hungary for example?” (Not to mention Serbia and other small forgotten “democracies”) When we have in mind that Snowden claimed in one of his recent interviews that modern tech is abused in order to narrow human rights and bring extreme right politicians to power. And last but not least, when we remember that Umberto Eco said that new form of fascism will not resemble old ones in concrete manifestations, rather in some common characteristics (attitude towards medias, individuals who think differently, etc) We can see that fascist are already in power in many countries and that their modus operandi is to proclaim that the others, who don’t think like they do, are fascist, thus turn public opinion against them. With so much media power, everyone can be satanized….even saints. The fact that half of your acquaintances agree with this anti-Greta attitude, goes in favor of this thesis.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I agree with you. Too much using that word makes it losing the true meaning.
But there is one thing that can help us to understand is it just about labeling or not.
If in medias or general in public exists self-sensorship (in core of which is fear), then the situation is already very serious.

Next time, just linguistic comments:)
Best regards!

2 years ago

For spooling a cassette tape forward the phrase was “fast forward” (or “ffwd>>|”). Your vikings wanting an axe to cleave a bill in two made me think of this fairly amusing sketch from Harry Enfield and Chums where some ropy super heroes use their powers to tidy away a breakfast table. “Behold! The table has been split in twain!”

2 years ago

I’m not sure we have a good word for Spalter in the sense of group divider. In that context, one might just say “Don’t be lame.” The old school version might be “Don’t be such a party pooper.”

2 years ago
Reply to  Jake

I just saw Elsa’s suggestions about spoilsport and killjoy, those are great too.

I.D. Kline
I.D. Kline
2 years ago
Reply to  Jake

Along those lines, “Don’t be so divisive.”

John Medway
John Medway
2 years ago

In English we also have the word “spool”, meaning something onto which something is wound – eg a spool of film, tape or cotton.

2 years ago
Reply to  John Medway

It’s also the verb for winding and unwinding stuff onto or off of said spool.

2 years ago

So, how did your stay in Canada go? Hope you liked it (assuming you’re back in Berlin now…)
“earth quake” is just one word
“die Spalte because s also” (it is also)
“don’t be such a splitter” is not idiomatic and it makes little sense, I’d use “don’t be such a spoilsport/killjoy”, although there are many other idioms…
“forcefully separation” (forceful separation)
“whether split was actually related. Well… it does” (well… it is)
and maybe “spliss” exists in English but I’ve never heard it or seen it written anywhere… I looked it up and nothing appears, although there’s a German video teaching you how to get rid of split ends without cutting your hair that I wish I could understand :)

One question, what does the verb “spulen” mean on its own (if it exists)?

Bis bald!

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yep, I know 90% of videos like that (if not more) are useless (or try to sell you useless stuff), but I keep hoping to find some of the 10% that actually give you good advice. Anyway, after watching the video I realised 2 things:
1) I actually understood most of it or at least the gist of it :)
2) The scissors the girl showed were deceptive. I thought it was about avoiding them, but nooooo – it was about how to use them to cut your split ends yourself (so no, I don’t wanna do that, but thanks for your kind offer!)

2 years ago
Reply to  Elsa

Splitter is a word but it’s not much used these days and it is more to do with political factions than party poopers.

I.D. Kline
I.D. Kline
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Not in that form. Perhaps as “Representative Weiss’s rhetoric has split the Dummkopf Party down the middle on the issue of tariffs.”

Abgasstufe Es-Zett
Abgasstufe Es-Zett
2 years ago
Reply to  aoind

Splitter.= Shrapnel. bomb fragment

2 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

sports fans know a splitter to be a type of pitch in baseball. It’s a fastball thrown with a split-finger grip which causes the ball to dive violently at the last second. That’s why if you look at word usage over time for splitter, there’s a dramatic spike around the 1940s when baseball became popular in America. The drop in word usage at the end of the 90s corresponds to the pitch losing popularity. Only a dozen or so pitchers still throw it these days

Last edited 2 months ago by david_l