Why is There No Simple Word for German “an” in English?

As a native speaker of German, English is funny. It is a related language, both branched off from some common ancestor, and often you can view it is a twisted form of German, not literally, but in a sense. And you could also view it the other way around. English also received a major input from the Romance languages via Norman, French, and Latin which runs very deep and makes it different in a way.

I would say that English is often more concise than German, which is renowned for its long words although that is somewhat overblown. Words are often spelled together in German which makes them look more impressive. But occasionally, German also has an edge. For example, I cannot understand why there is no handy word for “human being,” which comes across as a philosophical term out of context. In German, it is “Mensch.”

Or English “delicious” seems awkward compared to German “lecker” *). There is also “tasty,” which can compete, but that is more colloquial. The word “Schadenfreude” is also beloved in English. However, I would say that its meaning in German is rather innocuous: It is a feeling that you can’t help. It does not have to mean you gloat over someone’s misfortune. It can be that, but does not have to. A really mean sort of “Schadenfreude” in German is actually “Häme.” But that has not caught on in English, probably because it looks too short to pass for German.

Prepositions in German and English are related, but there has been a shift. I don’t know which side started it. The word I will obsess about for a moment is the German “an.” It means that something is so close to something else that it literally touches it. You would for example say that a row of houses stand “an” the street. You can express the same idea also in English as that it stands “right next to” the street, but that’s unwieldy.

I don’t know which English word has the same root as German “an.” Is it “at” or is it “on?” You sit “an” the table in German, and “at” the table in English. You put your clothes “an” in German, “on” in English. But then both “at” and “on” imply that something is rather on top of than next to something. German “an” does not have that connotation: two objects are on the same level.

“On” seems like the same word, but then this is “auf” in German, which is basically “up” in English. However, that means that something moves upwards, whereas German “auf” is a position. You can also use it in the sense that you put something on something else, but then the result counts. The German equivalent of “up” is “hoch,” which is basically the same word as English “high.” So we have this ladder of words:

“an” — no real equivalent

“auf” = “on”

“hoch” = “up.”

no real equivalent — “high” (“hoch” is also an adjective in German as in English).

There is also “bei” in German, which, too, means that something is next to something else, but then it does not touch it. So a row of houses could also stand “bei” the street. But then this would mean there is some distance between the two. Basically you also have “closeby” and “nearby” in English with a similar intuition. English “by” sometimes applies as well.

So my hopeful, but hopeless suggestion to English-speakers (Englischsprechende) is this: please adopt “an,” which would make translation so much easier. In a grand bargain, German-speakers (Deutschsprechende) could surrender “hoch” and replace it with “up.” That would save many trees with two fewer letters.

Come to think of it: Maybe we could negotiate this as part of a Brexit deal, which would make it only slightly more complicated?

*) The original meaning of “lecker” seems to have been “beautiful,” but in German it narrowed down to only “delicious.” In Dutch or also some German dialects it has retained its original meaning. And so Dutch “lekker meisje” or “lecker Mädsche” in Rhenish dialect, ie. beautiful girl, sounds weirdly cannibalistic in German.

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