What is the difference – “mindestens, wenigsten, zumindest”

Hello everyone,

mindestens-zumindest-wenigsand welcome to your favorite German learning podcast (yes, this blog identifies as a podcast now). And today, we’ll have another Wit:D special.
That’s short for What is the Difference and in these specials we talk about words that seem to be synonyms but aren’t.
And today, I’m actually not alone.
Mitt is with me; one of our sound engineers. He’s a little microphone shy but apparently he’s lost a bet and now he has to spend one full show on air and say at least uhm… how much was it?
“I have to say at least 10 sentences. “
Haha… okay… well, at least I got some company for a change… it get’s a bit lonely sometimes, especially when we’re recording till late. So … I am glad you’re here. Do you maybe want to read out the topic?
“Sure… so.. uhm… hi guys, my names is Mitt and I’ll be your co-host for today’s show in which we’ll look at the difference between 

mindestens, wenigstens and zumindest….


and I actually also have trouble with those. They all mean at least, right?”
Exactly. But at least for the most part they are not really interchangeable.

Now, sometimes the reason why we can’t interchange words is the fact that they have different functions… like for example with bevor and vor, which both translate to before. But that’s not the case here. All three words mean the same and they do the same. The crucial point is: they don’t “feel” the same.  Each one has a different take on at least, so to say,  and mixing them up can change the meaning.
So  let’s maybe look at them one by one and see if we can pin down this “vibe”.
“Sounds good… does that count as a sentence?
Haha… yeah, I guess it does.

The meaning of “mindestens”

Mindestens is part a group of words that all look similar. We could call them the “-stens”. These words are basically the most-form of an adjective with an –ens attached. This ending adds the idea of “at the”.  So spätestens for example is at the latest. That’s the pattern….  blah-stens is at the  blahst.
“Wait… is that the same like those numbers… like erstens, zweitens, drittens?”
Yeah… I didn’t realize but I think it actually is.
“So what’s the difference between zweite and zweitens?”
Well… zweit- is an adjective. So it can get all the endings and all the articles but it is second as in the second something. Zweitens is kind of at the second or as the second…. in sense of at the second point. These numbers are used in context of lists

  • Drei Schritte zu einem erfolgreichen Sonntagmorgen:
    1.  (erstens) :aufwachen
    2. (zweitens): umdrehen
    3. (drittens): wieder einschlafen
  • Three steps to a successful Sunday morning:
    1. (first) : wake up
    2. (second): roll over
    3. (third): fall asleep again

 “Ohh… so I couldn’t say erste or ersten or something?”
No. It would be understood, but it would sound really really wrong.
Now, besides those number-things, there are not too many of those stens-words but the ones that exist are used a lot, and often they don’t have a direct equivalent in English.

  • Ich kann frühestens um 7.
  • I’ll be available at 7 at the earliest.
  • Bis zum Marktplatz? Ach das sind höchstens 10 Minuten zu Fuß.
  • To the market square? Oh that’s 10 minutes by foot top/at most.

All right.
Now on to mindestens.  Mindest is the most-form of minder, and minder is the clunky German interpretation of minor.
These two words as well as minus and mini and some others belong to a very old family with the core meaning: little, less, not much.
was used a lot in the early stages of German, but ever since the dawn of wenig, minder has withered. Not completely though. There are still common words with minderminderjährig (underaged), minderwertig (of lesser quality), Minderheit (minority), or the verbs mindern and vermindern which are two of the 413 German versions of to reduce.
It’s much the same with mindest.
“Uhm… I’m lost. What is the same?”
Oh… I mean that mindest has also lost a lot of its original, basic least-meaning to wenig but it is still around. It is super common as part of   “minimum-compounds” … words  like  Mindestlohn (minimum wage) or Mindestalter (minimum age). And then there is the common noun das Mindeste.

  • Das ist das Mindeste, was ich tun kann.
  • That’s the least I can do.

and last but not least we have mindestens and based on what we’ve learned it is a pretty direct translation of at (the) least.
So far so good, but what about the “vibe”? What secret flavor does mindestens add to our statement?
We’ll find out.
But first, let’s maybe talk a little about wenig and see whe… wait a second!
I think someone just scrolled down. Hmmm… too bad, that this person will never get to know the secret 2-step-trick of how to always know the gender of a word.
Oh well… whoever you are, have fun down there.
“That’s what she said.”


the meaning of “wenig” and friends

Wenig comes from a family that also brings us the English words woe and whining. No wonder it resonated with the always miserable Germans, when it first evolved.

  • “Ein Bier und eine Suppe… macht 5 Heller.”
    “Oh… aber ich habe wenig Geld, oh so wenig. Und es war so weeeenig Fleisch in der Suppe.”
    “Hmpf… na gut. 4 Heller.”
  • “A beer and a soup… is 5 pennies.”
    “Oh… but I have “woe-y” money… oh so “woe-y“. And there was sooooo deplorable meat in the soup”
    “Hmp… fine, 4 pennies.”

That’s really where it comes from. Wenig meant you can whine about it.
“Haha… so German, I bet they used that a lot.”
Yeah, they did indeed, and soon they invented the more-form (weniger) and the most-form (wenigste) and the rest is history. Wenig isn’t used in compounds at all but as for the day to day littles and lesses… we’re just really whiny :).

  • Lass uns ein wenig warten.
  • Let’s wait a little.
  • Ich habe wenig bis keine Lust auf Ballet.
  • I have little to no desire/wish to see a ballet.
  • Weniger ist mehr.
  • Less is more.

In fact, we’re so whiny … we even use it to say the opposite.

  • 5 Euro für einen Latte ist nicht wenig.
  • 5 Euro for a Latte is already something.

All right.
Now, wenigste is just the most-form and means fewest or least and so wenigstens, being a stens-word just like mindestens, is also a quite direct translation of at (the) least. So what’s the difference? What does wenigstens have that mindestens doesn’t?
Let’s find out… after we’ve talked AT LENGTH about zumindest.

 The meaning of “zumindest”

 Zumindest is a combination of zu and mindest. Zu often means to and mindest … well, we already know that it was the original least. So zumindest blah blah blah and so on and so on. Time to get to the meat.

The difference? Flavors.

Let’s start with a sample.

  • Ich habe mindestens 3 Euro.
  • I have at least 3 Euro.
  • Ich habe wenigstens 3 Euro.
  • At least I have 3 Euro.
  • Ich habe zumindest 3 Euro.
  • Well.. at least I have 3 Euro.

Can you see a difference?
“Well… I guess. But I really can’t grasp it.”
It is quite subtle. But it’ll be clear in a bit.
Let’s start with mindestens. The actual, precise idea of mindestens is this.

at least this much and possibly more”

That is the spirit of mindestens. Think of minimum wage (Mindestlohn). It’s the minimum, but there are plenty jobs that pay more. Mindestens looks beyond the boundary it defines. It suggests more. And that’s why it works perfectly with all kinds of numbers or other “measures”.

  • Das dauert mindestens 3 Stunden.
  • That’ll take at least 3 hours.
  • Ich bleibe mindestens bis Freitag.
  • I’ll stay till at least Friday.
  • Ich werde mindestens bis Berlin fahren, vielleicht auch weiter.
  • I’ll drive at least to Berlin, maybe farther.

Now, let’s look at wenigstens. Remember the origin?
“Yeah… it was whining.”
Exactly, and that’s still in there. Wenigstens isn’t as “optimistic” as mindestens. That is to say, it does not reach for more. Wenigstens kind of looks the other way and sees that it could have been less. So the actual idea is this:

“good thing I at least have this”

Now, wenigstens does work with numbers and measures too, though not to the same effect as mindestens, but more often it is used to color the statement as a whole.

  •  Wenigstens muss ich morgen nicht arbeiten.
  • At least I don’t have to work.

You could say that after you elaborated why tomorrow will be a shitty day. Maybe you have to go to the dentist. Or ballet. Or both. But at least no work.

  • Du gehst ja  wenigstens ab und zu laufen. Ich mach gar keinen Sport.
  • At least you go running from time to time. I don’t do ANY sports.

This is pretty clear I guess, and mindestens wouldn’t fit here, because it would imply that the person might be doing more than just running. I mean… that’s not wrong. It’s just a different statement.
Let’s look at them back to back.

  • Bleib mindestens bis Freitag!
  • Stay till at least Friday!
  • Bleib wenigstens bis Freitag.
  • At least stay till Friday.

The first one is a rather blunt command to stay till Friday, or longer. The second one is more of a plea… like… “Come on… stay till Friday, you’ve only been here for such a short time, whine whine whine.”
All right.
Now finally, there is zumindest. And that does neither of what the others do. It doesn’t imply more nor isn’t particularly whiny or relieved. It kind of  just acknowledges what is there. So, I’d say the actual idea is like this

THIS at least is for sure. As for more, I don’t know.”

It has a bit of a “here I stand” kind of vibe for me and I do use this word quite a bit in daily conversation

  • Deutsch ist, zumindest meiner Meinung nach, nicht so schwer, wie alle immer denken.
  • German, at least in my opinion, isn’t as hard as everybody always thinks.

I put in a “in my opinion” because I don’t want the whole “youdon’tflippinknowhowdifficultitisnagnagnag”-discussion. And the zumindest kinda shows that I added that as a limitation and it puts a little weight on it at the same time. Like… I don’t know about other people’s opinions but this is what I think.
Here are two other examples

  • Das ist der beste Burgerladen, den ich kenne… zumindest in Friedrichshain (a district of Berlin).
  • That is the best burger joint that I know… at least in Friedrichshain.
  • Du kannst ohne Training nicht einfach einen Marathon laufen… oder zumindest nicht ohne Pause.
  • You cannot run a marathon without training.. or at least not without breaks.

It introduces a limitation to a statement. And it kind of between the lines tells us that I was inclined to make a more general statement but then I just reduced it to the part I am really sure of.
“Can I ask a question?”
Of course.
“So… you said the “vibe” of zumindest was like “here I stand”. And now you gave us all these examples where zumindest introduces a limitation… I don’t really see the connection there.”
That’s a good point. Maybe it’s better to forget this “here is stand” and say that zumindest is mainly used to introduce limitations on statements….and neither mindestens nor wenigstens can do that. Mindestens would be totally out of place with its constant hinting at more. And wenigstens… well… it’s a little whiny… like… “Come one agree with me. At least with that limitation you have to agree with me”. Zumindest is just like… that’s my statement. I limited it, but at least this is what I’m sure of. That’s where I got the here “I stand vibe”. I also feel that if I use zumindest in place of one of the others.

  • Ich habe zumindest 3 Euro.

This sounds like ..

  • Well… at least I do have 3 Euro.

Not as “relieved” as wenigstens and not as “maybe even more” as mindestens.

  • Bleib zumindest bis Freitag!

Same thing here. It is not as blunt as mindestens but it isn’t as begging as wenigstens either. It’s like… “Come on dude, stay till Friday! It’ll be cool.” Does that make sense?
“Well… I’m still not sure about the “here I stand” but I think I get the idea of zumindest.”
Great. So, let’s maybe recap.
Mindestens has a bit of “or more” attached to it and it is mostly used with measures of any kind. The most stereotypical sentence is this:

  • I have at least 10.

Wenigstens is glad that it’s not less and in questions and orders it can sound a bit begging (not in a negative way).
A very typical sentence is this:

  • At least I have ten.

Zumindest is  pretty neutral and just states what is there. It is mostly used in combinations with limitations to statements that were a bit… too general.
A very typical sentence is this:

  • This and that is so and so… at least under this condition.

Now, are there ever situations when they are interchangeable? Yes. Especially in wishes and complaints.

  • Du hättest ja wenigstens/mindestens/zumindest mal anrufen können.
  • You could have at least called.

This is a classic if someone is late. And they all work. The difference is just tone. Wenigstens is somewhat “nag nag nag”, mindestens sounds slightly pissed (as it suggests I could have done more than just call) and zumindest is… just firm ( like “You’re late. Could have called!”)
And… I think that’s it. We’re done. We’re done and you’re free.
“Yeaaaay…. but it was fun actually.”
Haha… great. So… Mitt, thank you soo so much for force-joining me today and to all you guys out there, thanks for tuning in. This was our WotD What is the difference-special with mindestens, zumindest and wenigstens and I hope that you could at least get an idea of the differences and vibes of the words. And that sentence was also the exercise. Which of the three fits, or, if more than one fit, what are the different tones. Some may say that an exercise has at least 3 … uhm… blanks. Fair enough. We’ll do three then. But then at least put one of your OWN examples in the comments. And of course if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment too.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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