and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll have a look at the meaning of
You might never have heard of it (because I made it up and it is nonsense) but experts usually classify German as a TOO-FAT language. That’s short for “there are other options for a thing” and unless you’re completely new to German, you most probably know the pain.
Spüren is a perfect example, because it is one of those “other options” for the idea of feeling/sensing. And of course it’s totally NOT synonymous with the main translation fühlen.
So today, we’ll look what kind of sensing spüren exactly is and what the difference is to fühlen.
And it’s actually a noun, that’ll get us on the right … ahem… Spur ;).
It all started with the super hyper ancient Indo-European root *sp(h)er(ə), which apparently was about the foot and its movements.
Now, the main purpose feet besides receiving massages is making steps. And unless you’re treading on rock you’ll probably leave a trace.
And that’s exactly the meaning the word die Spur took on very early on. First, it was used by hunters for literal animal foot prints, but it soon broadened to all kinds of traces.
- Das Eichhörnchen berichtet der Waldversammlung, wo es die Einhornspuren gefunden hat.
- The squirrel tells the forest meeting, where it found the unicorn (foot) prints.
(should I say hoof-prints here?)
- Emanuel hat schon wieder ein Einhornbeispiel gemacht. Von Originalität keine Spur.
- Emanuel gave a unicorn example yet again. No trace of originality.
- “Schatz, ich rufe jetzt bei der Polizei an.”
“Deine Bauchmuskeln. Die sind einfach spurlos verschwunden.”
“Haha, sehr komisch. “
- “Honey, I’m gonna call the police now.”
“Your abs. They’ve just disappeared without a trace.”
“Haha, very funny.”
- Dieses Müsli hat viele Ballaststoffe und Spurenelemente.
- This muesli has lots of dietary fiber and trace minerals/elements.
Now, imagine you’re following the footprints of a wolf in the snow. You basically follow a line, right. So makes perfect sense Spur can also mean track, mainly in context of traffic.
- Die Tonspur ist total verrauscht.
- The audio track is super noisy.
- Wegen Einorndung auf der Fahrbahn ist die linke Spur in Richtung Berlin blockiert.
- The left lane toward Berlin is blocked due to unicorn manure on the road.”
(I know from the comments that this is not idiomatic English, but decided to keep it, because it’s closer to the phrasing in German)
- Marias Bruder lebt ein Leben auf der Überholspur.
- Maria’s brother is living a life on the fast lane. (lit.: “over take lane“)
So Spur is all about tracking and tracing. And that’s also the idea of the verb spüren started out with. It quite literally meant to find traces and track them.
In fact, this is still super visible in the word Spürhund. A Spürhund is not a very emotional dog with a lot feelings. A Spürhund is a dog that sniffs out stuff.
- Die Tiere im Wald entscheiden bei der Versammlung, ihren Drogenspürhund auf Einhörner umzutrainieren.
- At the gathering, the animals in the forest decide to retrain their drug detection dog to unicorns.
Now, if you want to find traces and track stuff, you need to be quite attentive, observing and perceptive. And slowly the word spüren shifted toward a more general and “internal” idea of “sensing, perceiving” and became what it is today.
But the original notion of tracking is still in there and it’s actually the main difference to fühlen.
Spüren is kind of targeted and looking for information.
Fühlen has more of an emotional component and it sounds more “whole”.
To make it really absinthe … uh… I mean abstract, fühlen is a cloud, a nebula, spüren is a sensor, a looking glass.
Let’s look at them back to back.
- Ich fühle mich gut.
- Ich spüre mich gut.
Here, the difference between the two is super clear.
The version with fühlen talks about how you feel as a person at the moment (you feel good). The version with spüren is basically the equivalent of “I can see myself in the reflection” or “I can hear myself snore.” for the sense of touch. Like… you can perceive your body well when you touch it.
But the difference isn’t always that big.
- Ich spüre, dass etwas nicht stimmt.
- Ich fühle, dass etwas nicht stimmt.
Those two are REALLY similar and they both mean
- I sense/feel that there’s something wrong.
The difference is tone. The spüren-version is the more common one and it sounds more like you’re having an abstract itch somewhere, an inkling. Like… I could imagine someone squinting their eyes a little for that sentence, like their trying to track down the cause.
The version with fühlen sounds softer, and at least to me, a bit esoteric. Like… you sense it, but not through one particular channel. It’s a holistic experience.
Hmm… not sure if that actually makes any sense. Let’s just look at some more examples …
- Nach dem Workout habe ich alle Muskeln in meinem Körper gespürt.
- After the workout I felt all the muscles in my body.
- Ich spüre deinen Herzschlag.
- I feel your heart beat.
- Ich habe gespürt, dass du das sagen willst.
- I sensed that you want to ask something.
So, to give you a rule of thumb:
Spüren is usually the right choice for tactile perception as well as all sorts of inklings. Think of a hunter tracking new information.
But of course German isn’t very consistent about it and the word for the antenna of a snail for instance is called Fühler. Even though Spürer would make more sense, based on what we’ve learned.
Now, what does Spürer mean instead?
But spüren does have related words.
For example the adjective spürbar which means perceivable but it’s also commonly used for significantly.
- Heute ist es spürbar wärmer als gestern.
- Today, it’s noticeably warmer than yesterday.
Or the noun das Gespür which is sense, feeling in the sense of having a talent for something.
- Ich habe kein Gespür für Timing.
- I have no sense for timing.
And last but not least, we have a couple of prefix verbs: verspüren and aufspüren. Verspüren is pretty much a synonym for spüren and it’s the more idiomatic choice in contexts of cravings or yearnings.
- Ich verspüre Appetit nach Pizza.
- I feel an appetite for pizza.
- Ich habe gestern seit langem mal das Verlangen verspürt, Sport zu machen.
- Yesterday, I felt the yearning/desire/urge to do sports for the first time in a long while.
And aufspüren means something like to find after tracking down, so it’s pretty much the original spüren. It’s kind of rare though and I actually couldn’t aufspüren an example for it ;).
And that’s it for today. This was our look at t… oh hold on, there’s a call. Joana from Peru, welcome to the show.
“Hey Emanuel, I have a question if we still have time.”
Sure, sure, go ahead!
“Oh awesome.. so when you mentioned die Spur, I immediately thought of the English to spur and I was trying to make a connection but I couldn’t think of anything. So are they actually related?”
Great observation! And I’m glad you’re bringing that up because the connection is actually kind of funny. Do you remember the original idea Spur came from?
“Uhmm…. it something with foot, right.”
Exactly!! Now, there’s also the noun the spur.
“Like… spur of the moment?”
Yes, but that’s the abstract meaning. There’s actual a real world object called spur: that little metal thing riders sometimes have on their boots. So basically, on their feet. Hold on… here’s a pic…
The idea of these things is… you twitch your feet thereby pushing the spur into the horse’s side to make it run.
“Ohhhhhhh… the horse quite literally feels a spur. Or spürs a spur in German.”
Haha, yeah. And then, over time, the verb to spur just shifted toward the general idea of sudden “inspuration”. Oh while we’re at it… German actually also has a verb that’s based on the horse-spurs: anspornen. Which is a mix between cheering and motivating.
- Der Motivationstrainer soll das Team anspornen.
- The boss wants to motivate the team with his speech.
It’s a bit rare but I thought I’d mention it.
“Cool, thank you so much!! That was really interesting.”
Well, thank you for bringing that up.
And to all of you out there, thanks for tuning in. This was our little look at the verb spüren which evolved from tracing footprints to a general sense of tactile and intuitive perception.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions about this, especially about the difference between spüren and fühlen, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.
** vocab **
die Spur – the trace, the track (recording, trains, foot prints), lane (car traffic)
die Überholspur – the fast lane
spüren – sense, feel (tactile, intuition)
das Gespür – the sense (in sense of being good at finding/spotting)
spürbar – noticeable (ly)
verspüren – feel (context of urges and appetites)
anspornen – motivate
die Sporen – the spurs
I found this article particularly brilliant. Many thanks for the clear, elegant explanation.
Vielen Dank :)!
The verb spuren means to track or to obey? follow faithfully?
Oh, nice one.
It’s a somewhat rough sounding “obey, follow the lead”. Think of dog owners or angry parents.
It’s only used to describe behavior (or lack thereof). So no one ever uses it as an imperative like “Spur jetzt!!”
That sounds super super awkward. I think the word is on its way out, actually.
So would you say that spüren is closer to wahrnehmen?
As opposed to “fühlen”? Hard to say. It’s close to “spüren” in that it’s kind of direct and raw, but “wahrnehmen” works for all senses, not just touch and intuition.
Does that help?
Great article! One thing I might add is the English word “sign”.
This word is very much part of the hunters’ lexicon and used when tracking animals or seeing their traces. So it is the same root idea, but used mainly by outdoors people. It is usually used in the context of searching and hunting.
“Did you see the deer sign (could be prints, feces [scat], or even hair stuck on thorny shrubs) up the trail?”
Another example, “There is too much bear sign here for comfort. Let’s head back down the mountain.”
And the generic, “Any sign of him out here?”
Fans of Frank Herbert’s Dune series will also be familiar with the term “wormsign”.
Oh wow, I didn’t know that. You’d totally say “Spur” auf Deutsch, even if it’s just a broken twig with a bit of fur.
“Zeichen”, the “normal” translation for sign, would sound super weird in all the contexts you mentioned.
Honestly, it sounds a little weird to laymen, at least the “deer sign,” “bear sign,” “wormsign” usage. But it is definitely idiomatic.
The last (less technical) usage lost in desert mentioned is really common, though. For whatever reason, you tend to use the singular in a negative or interrogative way, and the plural when it’s positive:
– There’s no sign of intelligent life anywhere. (Buzz Lightyear quote)
– Any sign of him out here?
– We found signs of a struggle at the scene.
i’m trying to learn german while my disability keeps me unable to go to school or work, and i found this website and it has made me very happy!
I am really excited to work through your wonderful articles – and I am very grateful to those of your subscribers who were able to subsidise my membership while i am broke and bed-bound. now learning german can keep my mind off my illness – and hopefully one day i’ll be able to read some of my favorite german writers in their original language.
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AT first glance. It seemed like, “Beside the track” AT first glance.
After a short radio silence, a friend got in touch by writing that he was “neben die Spur”. It seemed like “beside the track” on first glance but dict.cc translated it as, “out of it”, which is, actually, beside the track.
Yeah, “neben” in German seems like it has a much stronger feel of “next to, NOT at/on/in” than its English equivalents.
I remember an exchange on a bus one time in Berlin that went something like this:
Busfahrer [over loudspeaker]: Wenn der Dicke aus dem Türbereich kommt, dann können wir losfahren…
dicker Mann [angrily]: Ich bin daneben!
Small correction: the idiom is
Ich bin neben der Spur. (not “die”)
Which is what he wrote – I‘m guilty of slaughtering it when I transcribed from my failing memory.
Oh, don’t you be such a fatalistic drama queen about it… you made a mistake, is all. No “guilt” of “slaughtering” by “a failing memory” :):).
Mein Lieblingsdeutschefernsehenserie ist Tatort in Köln mit Max und Freddy (mit Untertitle natürlich). Ich denke dass sie Spür für “clue” sagen. Aber, mein Wörterbuch hat das nicht. Habe ich das verhört?
Ja, das kann sein. Wenn du auf Englisch sagst:
“We have no clue where he could be”
Dann ist das sehr nah an
“We have no trace of him.”
es gibt auch den Ausdruck “zu spuren”, also flott das zu tun, was angeschafft wurde. “Ich werde dich noch zum Spuren bringen” oder “Das Pferd spurt nicht”.
Ja stimmt. “spuren” heißt sowas wie “obey a command”. Und das ist nicht weit von der Idee “stay in lane”.
Kleine Korrektur: “angeschafft” ist nicht das richtige Wort hier. Ich glaube, du meinst “verlangt”
the vocab thingy at the end was very helpful actually!!
Ich kenne dieses Wort von letzten Zeile eines meiner Lieblingslider https://spacemanspiff.bandcamp.com/track/zeit-zu-bleiben
Nice, thanks for sharing!!
I believe the German and English definitions of spur are related. To spur on someone is a very common saying. It’s hard to say about spur being used to describe a type of road (for me). I have a felling it is but I’m not sure because my GPS is set to German and constantly tells me to spur in another lane. It’s quite the bossy GPS. I mean it’s not set to Sgt. Schulz mode, but it’s very direct. I think English GPS systems tend to want to appease their owners; they tend to understand that one curt statement could cause immediate ejection from the automobile(home), but the German GPS systems don’t care if their owner chucks them out of the car or not; maybe they have a good union?
Hahaha…. that’s awesome!! I don’t have much experience with GPS systems but the idea that they have varying degrees of “politeness” depending on the language is really funny to me.
BUt yeah… I can imagine myself getting triggered by a German GPS being like “Drehen Sie um” even though I KNOW where I am going. I mean… I get triggered by stupid iPhone trying to help me type :).
I almost forgot: thanks for one more wonderful lesson, Emanuel!
I can´t find the button to mark this lesson as done. I had thought that was due to me not being logged on but even after I had logged into my account the button did not show.
Oh, that’s my bad. I actually forgot to mark it as “completable” in my settings :). Should work now.
In English, there is also the word “spur” used in several closely connected ways. 1) A spur on a map is a typically close-angle side road off a main road. 2) Spurs are worn on boots to prompt a horse to move, or to spur him on.
Same for a spur line, or a spur track (though spur tracks dontd usually go anywhere). And if something is spurious it’s something that was added to the original
“Spurious” looks like it has a bit of a different origin, originally meaning “illegitimate” (in the sense of “bastard”).
Yeah, just checked Etymonline and it says there, it comes from Etruscan:
Would never have known. Thanks
Yeah, I’d definitely associate ”spur” with rail more than road.
I love your “kein Gespür für” meta-joke! (And if you didn’t make it intentionally, I have identified one!) This distinction between ways of “feeling” – (or rather, the existence of such a distinction) is one of the reasons why I adore Germans. The idea that something like a feeling is to be sniffed out, determined, deduced! That everything has to have reasons. I love it and feel so at home with it. (I am not saying that it is necessarily psychologically healthy, only that it is charming and, for me, like crawling into a warm bath).
Do you mean the badly timed timing? That was intentional :).
This example spurred further reflection…. So Gespür would be right for “timing” but, apparently, Gefühl would be used with “time”. Right? Ich habe kein Gefühl für Zeit. Whereas in English “sense” would work for both, better than feeling.
Very nice example.
– Ich habe keine Gefühl für Zeit.
This is a great example for this nebulous holistic vibe of Gefühl.
With “Gespür” it would sound a bit like you’re not able to spot a good time for something.
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Hi, kannst du mir eine email schreiben? firstname.lastname@example.org (oder JeDra?)
“Hoofprints” geht, aber ich hätte “Einhornspuren” als “unicorn tracks” übersetzt.
Andererseits klingt mir “track” eher ungewöhnlich als Übersetzung für Fahrbahn. Im Zusammenhang mit Autos bringe ich “tracks” nur in Verbindung mit Rennbahnen (oder Autospuren). Nach dem Zusammenstoß zwei Einhorngülle befördernden LKWs, sagt man, “Due to unicorn manure on the roadway…”. Kommt ja jeden Tag in den Nachrichten vor.
Ich stimme den Berlin-Grabers zu. In den USA handelt es sich im Verkehrsfunk immer um “The left lane on I-95 north is blocked due to…” o.Ä. Keine Ahnung was die Briten sagen.
Was sagen die Briten? Genau wie ihr. “Tailbacks due to lane closure on M6 northbound, junctions 16 to 18”.
Wow, wissen alle immer so genau in welche Himmelsrichtung sie gerade fahren??
Ich höre bei Verkehrsnachrichten fast nie zu, aber ich glaube in Deutsch sagen sie fast immer einen Ort dazu.
Ja, sonst wird man die Verkehrsnachricten ziemlich nutzlos finden.
Stimmt :). Blöde Frage.
Ach woher denn! Soll man immer in Deutschland wissen, wohin er fährt?
In Chicago haben unser Expressways Namen wie “Eisenhower Expressway” oder “Dan Ryan Expressway”. Ja sicher, sie haben auch offiziellen Namen (I-290, I-95) etc, die mit seinen Nummern zeigen die Richtungen, aber die echte Chicagoans nutzen meistens diese personlichen Namen. Und sogar es gibt etwas schlimmer: die Nachrichten bekurtzen (shorten? abbreviate?) die richtig Namen, und bezeihe nicht Richtung wie East-West, sondern ob man Fahrt hin oder weg von die Stadt, so: “Two semis hauling unicorn dung have crashed. The outbound Ike is closed, inbound Ryan is stop and go”. Deshalb sind die Verkehr-Nachrichten ganz verwirrend für Fahrer, sie die Namen (Und slang Namen!) nicht kennen.
Ja, ähnlich ist es in z.B. Dallas, wo I-35E meistens eher “Stemmons Freeway” genannt wird, wie auch I-30 “R.L. Thornton Freeway”, TX Spur (!) 366 immer “Woodall Rogers Freeway” usw. Allerdings ist da die Rede immer von der Himmelsrichtung.
Das wäre irgendwie cool hier…
“Wegen Einhorndung ist die Merkel in Richtung München gesperrt.”
Sind die Namen immer irgendwelche Politiker? Oder gibt’s auch zum Beispiel den “Miles Davis Freeway”?
Ohhhh… gibt’s überhaupt irgendwelche weiblichen Freeways :)?
Ja, einige: https://www.aaroads.com/forum/index.php?topic=14479.0
There’s a similar word ín English. Spoor. It means the physical track or trace of an animal – well, as far as I know. I’ve never seen it used for persons.
Oh cool :). Didn’t know that!
Just a few quick responses on the questions about idiomatic phrasing…
– Das Eichhörnchen berichtet der Waldversammlung, wo es die Einhornspuren gefunden hat.
– The squirrel tells the forest meeting, where it found the unicorn (foot) prints.
(should I say hoof-prints here?)
“Hoof-prints” works well, but “footprints” (or especially just “prints”) wouldn’t strike me as wrong.
– Wegen Einhorndung auf der Fahrbahn ist die linke Spur in Richtung Berlin blockiert.
– Due to unicorn manure on the track, the left lane in the direction Berlin is blocked.
(this is probably not idiomatic English, how would that be in proper traffic news speak?… danke :)
This is a little tricky, and probably better answered by a Brit or somebody. In the parts of the US where I’ve lived, cardinal directions are usually used: “…the west-/eastbound left lane is blocked.” If the highway were identified by its direction, I’m guessing it would most likely be “the left lane on [name of highway] toward Berlin.” “In the direction of” is fine but has a lot of syllables, so it wouldn’t tend to be used in reporting.
– Marias Bruder lebt ein Leben auf der Überholspur.
– Maria’s brother is living a life on the fast lane. (lit.: “over take lane“)
“To live life in the fast lane” is idiomatic (that’s how I’d phrase it in AE), but there’s also the term “passing lane,” which translates “Überholspur” more directly. (Just FYI.)
There’s also that 80s (?) song ”life in the fast lane’. I wonder if it was an idiomatic phrase before then, or just since the song came out.
He or she is living “Life in the fast lane” has been a saying as long as I can remember, which is well before the 80s. I imagine it began with the Interstate Highway System.