An English word here? Really?

English words often show up, completely unnecessarily, in texts written in other languages. I came across a flagrant example last week in the weekly literature email from the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The following extract shows the English intruder in bold:   

Ein offenbar programmatisches Statement der Jury findet man dann unter den Sachbüchern, die sie für den Preis der Leipziger Buchmesse nominiert hat. Als könne es nicht abseitig genug sein, ist ein Hörbuch mit „Jahrhundertstimmen 1945-2000“ nominiert. Die Fortsetzung eines ersten Teils mit „Jahrhundertstimmen“ von vor drei Jahren. Really? Es gibt gerade Sachbücher, die in die Krisen- und Kriegszeiten, in denen wir leben, Differenzierung bringen und analysieren, was vor sich geht. Die den gesellschaftlichen Debatten eine Grundlage geben. Aber wir sollen uns „Jahrhundertstimmen“ anhören?

Here is my translation:

Moving to the list of non-fiction books nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, we find the Jury making an evidently programmatic statement. As if that couldn’t be far enough from the mainstream, they have nominated an audiobook called Voices of the Century 1945-2000. The sequel to Voices of the Century from three years ago. Really? There are indeed non-fiction books that provide nuance and analyse what is happening in this time of crisis and war. That provide a basis for public debate. But we are supposed to listen to Voices of the Century?

Now, why did the author feel the need to use really instead of the various German equivalents? It seems affected. But perhaps the author is just trying to display ironic wit—maybe following on from the other pointedly foreign word (Fremdwort) Statement earlier in the passage I have quoted.

German words for really

Really isn’t a German word. Really! At least, if it is, it hasn’t yet found its way into the online German dictionary at Duden.

Several German adverbs have meanings corresponding to ‘really’:

  • wirklich means ‘in reality (Wirklichkeit), not just in appearance, theory, fiction or imagination’.
  • tatsächlich means ‘indeed, in actual fact’, perhaps conveying a nuance that what is stated had not originally been believed. A synonym for tatsächlich is the prepositional phrase In der Tat (‘indeed’, literally ‘in the deed’). Tatsache means ‘(actual) fact’.
  • eigentlich refers to ‘what exists in reality’. It implies a contrast with what only seems to be the case or with what people mistakenly believe to be true. Adjectivally, eigentlich can mean ‘literal’ (as opposed to ‘figurative’: uneigentlich or übertragen). It refers to what is intrinsic, and what is most important—in contrast to what is only secondary. The adjective Eigen means ‘own’ or ‘characteristic’ and Eigenschaft is the noun meaning ‘characteristic’.
  • echt means ‘genuinely’. As an adverbial modifier of an adjective (or of another adverb), its tone is colloquial.
  • wahrhaftig means ‘in truth (Wahrheit)’, and is slightly elevated in style. Wahr means true.

The above words are all also adjectives.

Several other words also can mean ‘real’ or ‘really’, but are more marginal or specialised than the ones listed above.

Really standing alone

Beaton (2001) says that wirklich and tatsächlich can be both stand alone, expressing surprise or doubt about what has been said in the same way as English really. He says that tatsächlich is stronger.

Person A: Niemand durfte das Gelände ohne polizeiliche Genehmigung betreten. Person B: Wirklich!
A: ‘No one was allowed into the area without police authorisation’. B: ‘Really!’

Perhaps surprisingly, Beaton punctuates his example with an exclamation mark, not with a question mark.

Wirklich v eigentlich

Eggeling (1961) has an interesting example:

Ja, ich bin wirklich gekommen, aber eigentlich hätte ich nicht kommen sollen.
‘Yes I really did come, but I really should not have come’.

Eggeling says that:

  • wirklich indicates here that I did come after all.
  • eigentlich shows that I think my original reasons for not coming are still valid.

Another interesting example is in Beaton:

Das ist wirklich sehr schwierig.
That is really difficult.

Beaton says this is just a general statement. But consider what happens if tatsächlich replaces wirklich. Das ist tatsächlich sehr schwierig implies that it had not been thought that it would be difficult.


A Practical Dictionary of German Usage, KB Beaton (corrected paperback edition 2001)

Using German Synonyms, Martin Durrell (2000)

Mastering German Vocabulary: a Practical Guide to Troublesome German Words, Bruce Donaldson (2004)

A Dictionary of Modern German Prose Usage HF Eggling (1961)

Duden: online dictionary

One comment

  1. In American English, at least, “really” expresses a sarcastic combination of astonishment and disapproval. Are you serious? As in a parent scolding a naughty child.

    There’s a website HiNative where people can ask native speakers about expressions and pronunciations. One of the recent questions was:

    How do you say this in German? Really (as in sarcastic).

    The first reponse:
    Wirklich? / Dein Ernst? / Ernsthaft jetzt?
    Translated they would mean “Really?/ Are you serious?/ Seriously
    And you can basically use them at any given situation.

    This supports Peter’s point about affectation. Why borrow an English word when German words are available?

    Peter’s comment also reaffirmed my nervousness about consumer use of Artificial Intelligence apps in their current state of development.

    Recently, Microsoft added their AI search app called Copilot into Windows on my computer. So I asked Copilot this question:

    Is the English word “really” used in German slang?

    Copilot’s reply:

    Ja, wirklich! The English word “really” is indeed used in German slang. Germans often incorporate English words into their everyday conversations, and “really” is one of those borrowed terms. Here are a few ways it’s used:
    1. Expressing Surprise or Disbelief:
    o “Alter! Ist das euer Auto?” – “Man! Is that your car?”
    o “Alter Schwede! Was hast du gemacht?” – “My God! What did you do?”
    o “Alter! Mach doch!” – “Man! Get on with it.”
    2. Greeting or Addressing Someone:
    o “Alter, was geht ab?” – “Man, what’s going on?”
    o “Alter, wie alt bist du?” – “Man, how old are you?”
    So, feel free to sprinkle some “really” into your German conversations—it adds a touch of authenticity!
    [End of quote from Copilot]

    I asked about the use of the English word “really” in German, but I seem to have gotten a reply about use of the German word “alter” (literally “old man”) as German slang for “dude”. Copilot’s response, while acknowledging that German has borrowed “really” to express disbelief, did not offer one single example. Because Copilot did not cite a single source supporting or documenting the use of “really” in German at all, my confidence level in Copilot’s reply wasn’t very high.

    I asked Copilot a more specific follow-up question:

    What are examples of the English word “really” used in German to express disbelief?

    And guess what? Copilot gave the identical reply (“Ja, wirklich”, etc, word for word) as it did to my first question. All focused on “alter” rather than “really”.

    Copilot pointed me here for additional information:

    No help insofar as word-borrowing of “really” in German.

    I asked Copilot an even more direct third question:

    Has slang German borrowed the English word really?

    The reply: same, word for word, as Copilot’s reply to questions 1 and 2.

    My conclusions:
    1. Microsoft has work to do on Copilot.
    2. Beware AI.

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