The meaning and use of “trotzdem” and “obwohl”

trotzdem-germanHello everyone,

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

trotzdem and obwohl

And even though they can be a little tricky, they should be among the first 200 or even 100 words a learner learns. At least one of them, anyway.
Why?
Because their absolutely essential “function” words, just like because or that.
I mean… Imagine, you don’t know how to express the idea of because in the language you’re learning, the idea of reason? That would be quite the limitation for every day life.
And it’s not like a lot of nouns that you can point to or express with signs or gestures. You can’t use your hands to somehow “sign” the idea of  because. Either you KNOW the word for it, or you can’t express what you want to express.

And that’s why it makes perfect sense that beginner textbooks introduce these words very early in A1 and don’t burden the learner with useless vocabulary like vegetable names or household appliances.
Mad respect for German beginner textbooks. Keep up the good work, textbook authors. Very impressive.
Yeah… irony game is strong today, obviously. Sorry for the rant.
I just really despise textbooks.

But anyway, today, we’ll look at how to use trotzdem and obwohl and see if they’re interchangeable or not (Spoiler: they’re not).

And we’ll also explore the family of trotzdem a bit because why not.
Here are the quick links so you can jump around.

  1. The origin and meaning of trotzdem
  2. How to use trotzdem
  3. trotzdem vs obwohl

And now, let’s jump right in.

The origin of “trotzdem” (and its meaning)

At the heart of trotzdem is the word trotz, which must be one of the most German German words.
For one thing, it doesn’t have any real relatives in any other languages but there’s also the sound of it.
Trotz.
Ka-chunk!
A word like a giant piston of a machine. No sophistication or elegance, just blunt force.

And the sound matches the meaning nicely.
If we look it up in a dictionary, we’ll find words like defiance, contumacy or obstreperousness and other spelling bee material.
But all this high brow Latin totally fails to capture the VIBE of Trotz – the sense of:

 “Screw that!”

It is pouring outside and your partner tells you it is not a good idea to go running?
Screw that!! You’ll go anyway.
Your mom wants you to finish your spinach? Screw that!!
You’ll poke it with your spoon until it’s cold and you get sent to your room.
Your boss wants to cut costs by replacing the Nespresso capsule machine with instant coffee? SCREW THAT!!! Let’s picket this godforsaken office.
All that is der Trotz: 

a (stubborn) resistance that is somewhere between proud and pout.

Let’s look at some examples for how the word der Trotz is used today

  • Ich gehe der Erkältung zum Trotz schwimmen. (sounds a bit high brow)
  • In defiance/ of my cold I go swimming.
  • “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 from the second example.
Just take a look at these pictures at Google image search of  Pictures for Trotzkopf.
That should give you a good idea of the feel of Trotz.

Cool.
So that’s the noun der Trotz, but the whole concept of “Screw that!!” is obviously an integral part of daily life and so it’s no wonder, people started making up other word types.
For example the verb trotzen which is something like to resist.

  • Ich trotze dem Wetter und gehe raus.
  • I brave the weather and go outside.

Then, trotz has also become a preposition with the meaning despite.
Oh and by the way, despite has nothing to do with actual spite. It instead comes from the same root as spectacle and respect, and the original sense was something like “not looking at something“.
But yeah, trotz is a preposition, too. It tends to go with Genitive, and it sounds a bit formal, perfect for official letters, but you can absolutely hear it in daily life from time to time.

  • Ich gehe trotz meiner Erkältung schwimmen.
  • I go swimming despite my cold.

And that brings us right to trotzdem.
Because trotzdem is simply trotz (preposition)  + dem  (article in Dative) written as one word.
Now some of you are probably like “Wait a minute, didn’t you JUST say that trotz comes with Genitive?”
To which I say:
“I never said that!”
Slick move, I learned from politicians.
But you’re right of course!
The preposition trotz does go with Genitive:

  • Trotz des hervorragenden Weines bin ich von dem Restaurant enttäuscht.
  • Despite the outstanding wine I am disappointed by the restaurant.(lit)

But the thing is… it does go with Genitive NOW.
When it was invented some 300 odd years ago however, it was designed to take Dative. Just like wegen, which STILL uses Dative today.
But that’s for another time ;).

So yeah, the word trotzdem is simply two words that over time got fused, and the its meaning is literally

despite that

That’s the core idea and it’s the PERFECT guide to understanding how and when the word is used.

How to Use “trotzdem”

If we look up trotzdem in a dictionary, we’ll find plenty of translations

  • anyway
  • (and) still
  • yet
  • though
  • regardless
  • nevertheless
  • and more.

But the key thing to understand is that trotzdem really only expresses the one core idea we just learned: despite that.
And the reason we have so many translation options is that they all CAN be used in the sense, or the spirit, of despite that.

  • Thomas is tired. [Despite that] he reads the book [despite that].
  • Thomas is tired. He reads the book regardless.
  • Thomas is tired. He reads the book anyway.
  • Thomas is tired. Nevertheless, he reads the book.
  • Thomas is tired. Yet/And still, he reads the book.

The message is the same for all sentences and hence, we can translate them all with trotzdem.

  • I’ll join you at McDonalds. I don’t have anything at home anyway.
  • Have you seen the movie yet?
  • It’s not the best pizza but still, it’s pretty okay.

Here on the other hand, trotzdem would be super confusing. And why?
Because here despite that wouldn’t work either.

Trotzdem is despite that, quite literally.

And it’s also important to realize that it’s not just despite. You see, despite by itself doesn’t mean much.

  • I’m not talking to Maria despite.

This sounds incomplete and we’d ask “Despite WHAT?”.
The phrase despite that on the other hand does NOT sound incomplete.

  • I’m not talking to Maria despite that.

Sure, we need to know what “that” is referring to, but the sentence itself is fine.
And even though it might seem obvious, let’s also point out that because trotzdem is a complete element, a full box, we CANNOT connect stuff to it.
Learners sometimes say stuff like this:

  • Deutsch hat Fälle, aber [ trotzdem die Fälle] mag ich es.  (WRONG)

They say it because they think of trotzdem as despite. But of course the sentence is wrong and it would be wrong in English too.

  • German has cases, but [despite that the cases] I like it. …. uh… nope.

The dem (that) already answers to despite what, so we can’t just fill that position twice. If we want to connect a thing, we’d use JUST trotz, the preposition..

  • [ Trotz der Fälle] mag ich Deutsch.

Cool.

Now before we move on to the difference between trotzdem and obwohl, let’s mention a couple of structural thing about trotzdem.

First of, trotzdem is a “complete” element (a box, as I call them) like today or my brother. And so if a sentence starts with it, it takes up the first slot and that means the verb has to come after it.

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

And the other thing I want to mention is that, like all “complete” elements, we can move trotzdem around quite a bit. In English, we can move around despite that as well.

  • Thomas is tired. He is watching Netflix despite that.
  • Thomas is tired. Despite that he is watching Netflix.

In German, there’s a little more freedom, and in a longer sentence, there are quite a few options for where you can put the trotzdem.

Es ist schon um 1.
[Trotzdem]
muss ich… /Ich muss  [   ] vor dem Essen [    ] mit meiner Kollegin [   ] die Präsenation durchsprechen.

It is already 1 pm.
[Despite that], I’ll have to go over the presentation with my colleague before lunch, [ despite that].

There’s a tendency though.
The further we get toward the end, the more likely trotzdem will be out of place. It can be at the end of a sentence, too, but that’s not as common as in English. But don’t worry, all this will make sense once we talk about word order.
That’s for a different day, though.
For us now, it is time to get to the actual big 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.

  • [Obwohl ich müde bin], lerne ich Deutsch.
  • Ich bin müde. [Trotzdem] lerne ich Deutsch.

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

  • TrotzDEM ich viel lerne, kann ich mir nie die Artikel merken.

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

  • Obwohl ich viel lerne, kann ich mir nie die Artikel merken.
  • Although I study a lot, I can’t ever remember the articles.
  • Ich lerne viel aber trotzdem kann ich mir nie die Artikel nicht merken.
  • I study a lot and yet, I can never remember the articles.

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…

  • ” Ich will nicht, dass du einfach Sachen aus meinem Fach nimmst.”
    “Aber der Jogurt wäre eh abgelaufen und du warst noch im Urlaub.”
    Trotzdem. Es geht um’s Prinzip.”
  • “I don’t want you to just take stuff from my shelve.”
    “But the yogurt was going to expire and you were still on vacation.”
    Whatever/Still. It’s a matter of principle.”

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.

Exercises:

The first one is some general questions about the article and some about “trotzdem” and “obwohl” in particular.

And here, as a little bonus something quite hard.
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.

Further reading:

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