German Word of the Day – “trotzdem”

trotzdem-germanHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will look at the meaning of

trotzdem

 

Trotzdem is a super super important word, and in my opinion, it should be among the first 50 or so words that we learn in a new language. What makes it so important? Well, just like weil or dass it is one of these essential function words. Imagine, you don’t know a word for becausein the language you’re learning. That would suck! I mean, how would you express reason then? You definitely can’t use your hands to somehow point out because or sign it the way you can sign arm or apple or even hammer. So it makes complete and utter sense for a textbook to pages of food vocab and body parts right in the beginning and do the impo… oh wait.
Maaan, I really am a textbook hater :)
But anyway… so trotzdem is super important and we’ll learn all about it today.

At the heart of trotzdem is the word trotz, which must be one of the most German German word. Not only because it has no real relatives in any other languages but also because of the sound. Trotz. Ka-chunk! A word like a machine sound. No elegance… just harsh and solid. And the sound matches the meaning nicely. The search for translations leads to words like defiance, contumacy, obstreperousness or ostentacounterpracticity …yeah…  one of those is totally made up.  But all this Latin jargon totally fails to capture the vibe of Trotz  –  the feeling and behavior of “Hell no!”.
It is pouring outside and your partner tells you it is not a good idea to go running? Hell no! You’ll go and you’ll do the long turn.
Your mom wants you to finish your spinach? Hell no!! You’ll poke it with your spoon until it’s cold and you get send to your room. Your boss wants to cut costs by replacing the Nespresso capsule machine with instant coffee? Hell freaking no!!! Let’s picket this godforsaken office.
All that is Trotz – A (stubborn) resistance that is somewhere between proud and pout.
And that has been so since a while. One example for the use in medieval times is the word Trutzburg. Those were basically strongholds built to counter another stronghold. Like..

“You want to take my land?! Haha… good luck. I will sit in the safety of 
my castle and raid your troops.”
“Okay… Then we’ll build our own castle right over there and raid your
raiding parties.”

Sounds childish but it was a common military tactic actually. But anyway, here are some examples for today

  • “Tim hat heute beim Mittagessen einfach seinen Teller runtergeschmissen.”
    “Wieso das denn?”
    “Einfach aus Trotz… weil es Rosenkohl gab.”
    “Kenn’ ich… meine Tochter ist auch ein kleiner Trotzkopf.”
  • “Today at lunch, Tim threw his plate on the floor.”
    “Oh Why would he do THAT?”
    “Simply out of spite/to own me… because we had Brussels sprouts.”
    “I feel you… my daughter is a _____ too.

I really don’t know how to translate Trotzkopf. Just look at these pictures at Google image search…  Pictures for Trotzkopf...  that should give you a good idea of the feel of Trotz.
Now, the concept or idea of Trotz must have been very practical and soon just having a noun wasn’t enough. So people started inventing new forms. For example the verb trotzen which is something like to resist.

Trotz has also become a preposition that means despite…. by the way, despite has nothing to do with spite… it comes from the spect-root so despite is like “not looking at something“…

And that brings us right to trotzdem.. because trotzdem is simply trotz dem written as one word. But wait a minute… isn’t trotz a genitive preposition? Like

Well… it’s true that trotz wants Genitive now… but when it was invented some 300 years ago it was designed to take Dative. And that’s why it is trotzdem.
All right.
Now let’s get to the meaning and the use of “trotzdem”.

meaning and use of “trotzdem”

Hey headline… I just said that.
If we look it up in a dictionary we get all kinds of words… however, still, yet, though, regardless, nevertheless and more. Some are quite good (nevertheless) some are really quite fail (however) but if we really want to understand trotzdem we need to forget about those.
The key to trotzdem is ..  despite that . Not just despitedespite THAT.And not only because it is the literal translation but because the two work the same.  You see, there are many ways to express one thing…

  • Thomas is tired. He reads the book regardless/anyway.
  • Thomas is tired. Nevertheless, he reads the book.
  • Thomas is tired. [ Despite that] he reads the book.
  • [Despite his tiredness] Thomas reads the book
  • [Although Thomas is tired], he reads the book.

The message is the same for all sentences. The first two use just one word to express the “despite-ness” and leave the rest to context. The others have a word to express “despite-ness” AND the actual fact … either as a noun (tiredness) or as an activity (is tired) or just as a reference to what has been said before. Together, they answer the question “despite what?“… so we could call them a [ despite-box ].I (I’ll add a link to our post on boxes below).
And  trotzdem is just like despite that. It expresses “despiteness” and it references something that has been said before. And it fills the despite-box completely.

With that in mind let’s look at how trotzdem works.
Just like any other box the despite-box takes one slot in the sentence. And for German that means if it is in the beginning, the verb has to follow in position 2.

  • Thomas ist müde. Trotzdem, er liest… is wrong
  • … . Trotzdem liest er das Buch… is correct

Another feature of boxes is that we can move them around quite freely. Here’s a longer sentence with all possible positions.

In English, the standard slots for this are at the beginning and the end. In German, we have more options. There’s a tendency though. The further we get to the end, the more likely it’ll be wrong. And the very end itself , it rarely works. You really need a lot of Sprachgefühl for that. So as far as the position of trotzdem goes, I would say… stick to the beginning or the first half.
Finally, since trotzdem “fills up” the box completely, we cannot connect stuff with is…

  • Deutsch hat Fälle, aber [ trotzdem ] die Fälle mag ich es… is WRONG
  • German has cases, but [despite that] the cases I like it… just as wrong

The despite-box is full. Die Fälle (the cases) are not in it, and so they just sit around in the sentence without any friends or connections. Awww… poor cases.
If we want to connect a thing, we need a preposition.

And if we want to connect an activity… we need a conjunction. And that brings us right to obwohlObwohl means although and it does the exact same thing… it expresses “despite-ness” and connects an activity, or in other words, a sentence that contains a verb. Together, they fill the despite-box.

Now… with all we’ve just learned what’s the answer to the following question:

Are “obwohl” and “trotzdem”  interchangeable?

Considering all the annoying things you’ve seen German do… what would you guess?
Exactly.
They’ not.
In grammar terms trotzdem is an adverb, obwohl is a subordinating conjunction. And that means they have completely different functions.
Trotzdem fills the despite-box alone, references something that has been said before and cannot connect anything. Obwohl references nothing, doesn’t fill up a box alone and connects an activity.

Can you see? We can use them to convey the same message but it’ll be two completely diffe… oh I see we have a call here…uhm… Tinley from Tibet, welcome to the show
“Hi Emanuel. I have a question about what you just said.
Sure… go ahead…
“So… I think I have seen trotzdem being used just like obwohl and it was a text by a native
speaker. Was that like old use or something”
Ohhhh… no, you’re absolutely right. I totally forgot. Trotzdem actually can be used like obwohl. But then you’d have to say it differently…
“Oh…”
Normally trotzdem carries the emphasis on trotz... TROTZdem. If you want it to function like an obwohl you need to say trotzDEM.
“Wow really?! I didn’t know that stress could make such a difference in German.”
Well, there aren’t many cases where it makes such a difference but for trotzdem it’s really important.
“Would you understand it though?”
Actually, maybe not… at least I would be really confused for a second.
“Cool, thanks a lot.”
Thank YOU for bringing that up, man.
I totally forgot about that. It is a rare use, that’s for sure. I think I never do it in daily life and I don’t think I’d write it either because the reader has no pronunciation. It does sound super fancy though to say

You could use that to show off in German class.
Here, for comparison, the standard versions.

All right.  I think we’re almost done but a couple more things.
First off, trotzdem is often used as  a one word sentence so let’s do one example for that…

Then, if you have to write a longer text and you don’t want to use the same words all the time… German has come up with a few synonyms for trotzdem … 

  •  dennoch,  nichtsdestotrotz, nichtsdestoweniger, nichtsumsokein

…yeah…one of them is totally made up.
Now I guess we should do some examples for the synonyms but … meh… let’s just not do it. We’ve done enough for today.
That was our German Word of the Day trotzdem. It means despite that and that’s really all there is to say. Whenever despite that fits, trotzdem will be a translation. If not, then no trotzdem.
One of our interns here has created a neat little exercise for you. I’ll add it at the bottom. You can try out how well you can “spot” a trotzdem and if you want a nice challenge you can also try to translate all the sentences :). I’m looking forward to your solutions in the comments.
And of course if you have some questions or suggestions or you want to get some of your examples corrected, just leave me a comment too.
Good luck with the exercise, I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Jump to comments

Exercises:

a)
Every statement with trotzdem can be rephrased into a statement with obwohl… but you need to do more than just replace one word with the other. Here are a few sentences to train. The solutions are in ugly, unreadable  yellow… uargh… just mark it, to see it :) (let me know if that is to sucky on mobile)

Example:

– Obwohl ich Thomas nicht mag, habe ich ihn zu meiner Party eingeladen.
– Ich mag Thomas nicht, aber ich habe ihn trotzdem zu meiner Party eingeladen.

  1. Maria hat keine Laktoseintolerant und bestellt trotzdem einen Latte mit laktosfreier Milch.

    Obwohl Maria keine Laktoseintolleranz hat, bestellt sie einen Latte mit laktosefreier Milch.

  2. Ich habe Windows neu installiert und mein Computer funktioniert trotzdem nicht.

    Obwohl ich Windows neu installiert habe, funktioniert mein Computer nicht.

  3. Obwohl mich Oper nicht interessiert, werde ich in Don Giovanni gehen.

    Oper interessiert mich nicht. Trotzdem werde ich in Don Giovanni gehen.

  4. Obwohl mein Deutsch nicht perfekt ist, konnte ich mich mit Muttersprachlern unterhalten.

    Mein Deutsch ist nicht perfekt. Trotzdem konnte ich mich mit Muttersprachlern unterhalten.

b)
This one’s a bit tougherer… only some of these sentences can be translated with “trotzdem”. Which ones?

  1. I am tired. I’ll come to the party though.
    Ich bin müde. Ich komme (aber) trotzdem zur Party.

  2. I’d like to come to the party. I’m tired though.
    Ich würde gerne zur Party kommen. Ich bin aber/allerdings/jedoch müde.

  3. Though I am tired I go to the party.
    Obwohl ich müde bin, gehe ich zur Party.

  4. It’s raining but I’ll go running anyway.
    Es regnet, aber ich gehe trotzdem laufen.

  5. We have no more butter but I was going to go to the store later anyway.
    Wir haben keine Butter mehr, aber ich wollte eh/sowieso später einkaufen.

  6. Regardless of the hefty prices I would recommend the restaurant.
    Trotz der gesalzenen Preise würde ich das Restaurant empfehlen.

  7. The prices are hefty, but I would recommend the restaurant regardless.
    Die Preise sind heftig, aber ich würde das Restaurant trotzdem empfehlen.

  8. I’m  really trying and yet I can’t seem to remember any articles.
    Ich gebe mir echt Mühe, und trotzdem ich kann mir irgendwie keine Artikel merken.

  9. I’m trying really hard but I can’t remember all of them yet.
    Ich gebe mir echt Mühe aber ich kann mir noch nicht alle merken.

  10. I begged you to do the dishes and still, there they are, dirty as ever.
    Ich habe dich bekniet, das Geschirr abzuwaschen und trotzdem, da ist es, dreckig wie eh und je.

  11. I left the dirty dishes this morning and they are still there.
    Ich habe den Abwasch heute morgen stehen lassen/nicht gemacht, und er ist noch da.

 

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Further reading:

German Sentence Structure – “The Box Model” (find out what I mean by boxes)