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

Hello everyone,

mindestens-zumindest-wenigsand welcome to another Word of the Day – What is the Difference – special.
In short, that would be WotD – WitD. And in a good mood that would be Wot:D – Wit:D.
These specials are about words that seem to be synonyms but aren’t. Today we’ll talk about one of the most mysterious differences of all of them. And 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.

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

  • 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.

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.
Minder
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.

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.”
What?

Oh.

wenig

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.

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 :).

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

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.

 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.

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”.

Now, let’s look at wenigstens. Remember the origin?
“Yeah… it was whining.”
Exactly, and that’s in still 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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

for members :)

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falcao

Yeah I always wondered what the exact difference between these three words was, so here’s my try:

Du kannst kein Spanish, wenigstens kann ich ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen,
Ich will mindestens 4 neue Wörter heute lernen.
Meine Mutti ist die schönste Mutti der Welt, zumindest glaube das ich.

Good? :)

Andy
Andy

Hier ist meine Versuchung:

Mindestens sollen wir in zwei Kneipen gehen… Mein Kopf tut sehr weh, allerdings trinke ich wenigstens 2 Biere… Zumindest sind wir zusammen ausgehen, das ist das Leben!

Andy
Andy

err. Zumindest gehen wir zusammen aus

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

mein Versuch
sind … ausgegangen

Letizia
Letizia

That was great! I have always thought mindestens and wenigstens had exactly the same meaning! Anyway, in Italian one can use the word “almeno” to translate all these three meanings, or one can use three different worlds with something of the german flavor: “almeno”, “quantomeno” and “perlomeno”. Oder zumindest denke ich das… ;)

leo
leo

I was about to reply something similar xD In spanish happens the same, ‘al menos’ can be used for mindestens, wenigstens und zumindestens. But these words can be also translated to ‘cuando menos’, ‘por lo menos’ y ‘al menos’ respectively. I think this spanish feeling made it easier to understand xD

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Danke dir, dass du diese Wörter behandelt hast. Ich hab mich schon mal gefragt, worin da der Unterschied besteht.

JC
JC

Ich hatte nur wenig Zeit, wenigstens habe ich mindestens eine Hälfte vom Artikel gelesen und ich habe die Unterschiede erfahren, zumindest glaube ich so.

Bruno
Bruno

Absolut toll, wie immer. Sehr nützlich!

Cole
Cole

In your Sunday morning section, you probably want to say “turn over” in English. (Or better yet in this situation, “roll over”) Turn around sounds like you got out of bed first.

Thanks for today’s explanation!

SnowOnACactus
SnowOnACactus

As always, thank you. Your posts have helped me understand German much better than many other resources.

Question because I think I may have seen this error in other places, leading me to think it’s not an error,

Ich will fahre mindestens bis Berlin, vielleicht auch weiter.
I’ll drive at least to Berlin, maybe farther.

Does that not mean “I want to drive at least to Berlin, maybe farther”? Or are there special situations where “will” (German) can cross over and mean “will” (English)?

On a side note, a few months ago you released a poll about which words we want to see you write about. Well, I’m still waiting to figure out the proper usage of “doch” and the sporadic “ja.”

Again, you rock. And thanks for all your work.

SnowOnACactus
SnowOnACactus

Also, I’m really hoping that last part didn’t come of demanding. I meant it more jovially.

JC
JC

I’m gonna hijack this and ask, why is it “ich will fahre mindestens…” and not “ich will mindestens bis Berlin fahren”? Danke!

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

“Ich will fahren” bedeutet “I want to drive” und drückt also das Vorhaben aus. Im Kontext – also wenn man schon fest entschlossen ist und eine Gelegenheit hat, zu fahren – ist der Unterschied wahrscheinlich klein, doch der besteht immer noch. Was du tun wirst ist nicht immer was du tun willst ;)

Ahmad
Ahmad

1: Du bist spät . Wenigstens könttest du enschuldigen .
2: Du wärest mindestens 10 euros pro stunde bezalt .(Mindestlohn im Frankreich )
3: Du bist spät gekommen . Du könntest zumindstens mir anrufen . Kan man hier, immerhin statt zumindstens benutzen ?
Im voraus Danke .

Anonymous
Anonymous

es gibt aber auch “zumindestens”. Ich würde sagen das es “mindestenst” am ähnlichsten ist?

andrewstahmer

Brilliant – thanks!

anja
anja

Love it! Thank you for this post. It is fantastic!

igorsrb

“My head hurts very bad but at least I drink two beers (not like you, who is a looser and drinks nothing)”
I understand wenigstens a slightly different – not like “you are the looser” but more defeatistic, like in “Ich arbeite 10 Stunde pro Tage aber wenigstens habe ich einen Job”. Like “it’s bad, but not as bad as it could be”
Ich brauche mindestens zwei Wochen Urlaub, weil ich sehr müde bin.
Sie sind zumindest bis der Mitternacht im Restaurant geblieben. Da habe ich verlasst.

One timy correction – ” Mindestens would be totally out pf place with it’s constant hinting at more” – It’s “its” without an apostrophe :)

Good work, as usual :thumbsup:

Andy
Andy

See I’m confused. With: Ich arbeite 10 Stunde pro Tage aber wenigstens habe ich einen Job” I would have thought to use zumindest. I work 10 hours a day, but, well, at least I have a job! Zumindest sounds to me like looking on the bright side and wenigstens looking at the annoying side.

Andy
Andy

Beiläufige Frage: Wann kann man man das Verb auslassen? Zum Beispiel: Ich kann besser Deutsch als dich. Ich muss nach Hause. Gibt es andere Situationen, in denen man das Verb auslassen würde?

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Wieso glaubst du, dass hier Verben ausgelassen wurden?

Andy
Andy

Ich kann besser Deutsch als dich sprechen. Ich muss nach Hause gehen.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Dass du irgendwelche Verben dazu hinzufügen kannst, bedeutet nicht, dass diese Verben ursprünglich ausgelassen wurden.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Loskönnen ist ein selbstständiges Verb:

http://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/loskoennen

Meiner Meinung nach passt aus allen zuvor angeführten Beispielen nur “kann ich Eis” zum angebotenen Muster (mit ausgelassenem Verb), die anderen sehe ich als selbstständig an (Deutsch können, nach Hause müssen).

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Also, losmüssen und loswollen gibts eigentlich im Duden, lossollen nicht, aber das ist wohl aus Versehen ;)

Jae
Jae

Hey, you know what thank you very much for improving my German a lot. It’s been 5 months since I started to learn German and I was so lucky to find your blog and my German improved a lot. I took B1 exam last week and think I aced it. I am soooo glad to go on a German-learning journey with you :) Furthermore, the comments made by learners are superb!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Your blog is fantastic! Could you do a “What is the difference?” with different translations of “responsible”? i.e. verantwortlich, zuständig, possibly others?

Vienna Dude
Vienna Dude

Excellent Word of the day explanation…..zu Mindestens glaube ich!

Hitesh
Hitesh

Hahaha, i always use the “Thats what she said ” jokes and i laughed out loud like a monkey at your “going down” joke So funny :)

Zoe

Ich muss morgen arbeiten, aber wenigstens muss ich nicht zum Ballet gehen.

Für “erstens, zweitens, drittens,” würde ich “firstly, secondly, thirdly” sagen, aber ich weiß nicht, ob dies wirklich richtiges Englisch ist.

jam
jam

Thank you.-For led me know