Word of the Day – “sonst”

sonst-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day and today we’ll take a look at the meaning of:

sonst (pron.: zonst)

And be it in the smallest of all talks, at the  fruitest of all stands at the farmers market or in the momest of all “do-your-homework-or-no-TV”s, sonst is certainly there and does its small word magic. What that? Oh… momest is weird you say? It is not a even a word you say…  well,  I have one word for you: minivan.… uh… actually uh… it’s not the word that matters but the link.
So …. sonst is an important word, it is all over the place so it deserves no less than the explanast of all nations, an explanation that is even more in-depth than Lehmann Brothers right before it collap… oh wait…  that was in debt…  Anyway… let’s start with sonst, shall we?

If you look up sonst in a dictionary you’ll most likely find else as the main translation. This is correct but  sonst can also be used as usually, before or besides and I have heard from quite a few people that they find sonst rather hard to grasp. Maybe a look at the origins can clear things up a little.
There are 2 different hypopota… hypothem… uh… ideas as to where the word  comes from. One really makes a lot of sense and helps a great deal at understanding the meaning of sonst …. the other theory… well… not so much.
So we’ll talk about this one first. It basically says that sonst comes from sus and is related to the English thus, which basically is a form of this.  Well, that makes sense when you just look at the sounds but sonst kind of means the opposite of thus and I don’t really see why this change would have taken place.
The cool theory about the origin comes from the Duden, which is kind of the German Merriam Webster and it says that sonst used to be 3 words a few hundred years ago… so ne ist (so nicht ist)… means something like “if it is not so“. This was then slowly fused together and became the sonst that we have today… but the original idea of so ne ist is still alive and fits all the different situations in which sonst is used… but maybe let’s flesh out this idea a little more before we look at examples.

sonst in use

  • Sonst basically refers to everything else BUT the thing you have said before

it or in other words it means “if not that then…”… hmmm … you look confused. Let’s go to a bakery then to buy some things

  • “Guten Morgen”
    “Morgen, na, mal wieder am Deutsch erklären?”
    “Haha… ja, genau”
    “Was darf’s denn sein?”
    “Also, ich hätt’ gern 5 Brötchen und 1 Stück Mohnkuchen.”
    Und sonst noch was?
    “Nee, das war’s.”
    Dann sind’s 3 Euro 75 bitte.
  • “Good morning”
    “Hi, teaching German again?
    “Haha… exactly.”
    “So what will it be today?
    “I’d like to have 5 buns and a piece of poppy-seed-cake.”
    Anything else?
    “Nah, that’s all.”
    Then it’ll be 3 Euro 75.”

Here, the sonst refers to all items in the bakery I haven’t bought yet. This usage of sonst is really common and I am sure you’ll here the phrase “Darf’s sonst noch was sein?” if you buy things in Germany. The short form sonst noch was can also be used if someone piles up task for you to do…

  •  I need you to do this, this this and this and then that and that and that, too.

When your boss says that to you you can just secretly mumble…

  • Sonst noch was?

Which means something like.

  • Are you done yet? Will there be anything else my king?

So again we see that sonst kind of refers to everything but what has already
been said.
Now, in the examples we had so far we had sonst noch as a fixed phrase and you can’t really skip the noch. I think the reason is that we’re talking about countable items here and the noch helps getting the idea of “more items” across… as opposed to just “everything else” which can be also a topic… yeah… I didn’t really understand that last part either :). The whole point is that sonst can be used without noch, too… for example in small talk.

  • “Na, wie läufts auf Arbeit?”
    “Oh, gut gut ich hab’ gestern erst blah blah blah blah blah….”
    “Hmm, ja….”
    “Ja ja…”
    “Und sonst so?”
  • “So, how’s work going?”
    “Oh good, good, just yesterday I blah blah blah blah blah …”
    “Hmmm, yeah…”
    “Well, well..”
    And else/otherwise/besides?”(lit.)

With the und sonst so the person is asking for the other aspects of the persons life… like family or hobbies or pets or stuff… so it is asking for other thing than the one they have already talked about. The phrase und sonst so? has become kind of a fixed phrase that you can use to break a somewhat long pause in conversation in a mildly ironical fashion… like, you sit around, you discuss something and then you’re done with the discussion and no one says anything… then people sometimes say und sonst so? to break the silence and at the same time acknowledge that they might have run out of topics.

And as we’re in conversations… another example sonst often occurs in conversation about what people do…. like someone is explaining his job in detail and the other person wants to know about the rest of the day…

  • “… blah blah blah… und ja, das ist meine Arbeit.”
    “Oh, klingt interessant. Und was machst du sonst so?”
  • “blah blah blah … so yeah, that’s what I do for living.”
    “Oh sounds interesting. And what are you doing when you’re not working?”

Sure, I could use else as a translation but sonst feels a little more open and a little less like listing things to me but I might be wrong… anyway
So far we have used sonst to refer to other items, other topics or other activities. What else can it do…
It can also refer to other points in time… or other occasions.

  • “Wo ist Thomas? Es ist schon 10 nach.”
    “Komisch. Er ist sonst immer pünktlich.”
  • “Where is Thomas? It is 10 past , already.”
    “Weird. Usually, he is always on time.”

So here, sonst refers to basically all other meeting except this one. Here is another example.

  • “Ich trinke sonst immer Kaffee aber heute trinke ich Tee.”
  • Normally, I always drink coffee but today I’ll drink tea.”

Now be careful. Sonst is not really a translation of normally or usually. It only is if THIS time things are different. So if you just want to make a statement about how something is in general… do not use sonst. Use normalerweise. You can also use it instead of this temporal sonst but not the other way around.
All right. What else have I mentioned in the introduction… ah yeah… the mom-one.
So sonst is also used to announce consequences.

  • Mach deine Hausaufgaben, sonst kündge ich deinen World of Warcraft Account.
  • Do your homework or (else) I’ll terminate your World of Warcraft account.

So here, sonst refers to all situations in which the homework is not done and in all those realities, there will be no more level 80 Night Elf “Legolas’ Reckoning” with his +50 awesomeness bracelet…. but couldn’t we just use oder in that case? Well we can but sonst sounds more serious. that mom means business and  That kid is certainly going to sit on ass and do ‘dem fractions.
But anyway … of course not all consequences have to be as severe.

  • Zieh dich warm an sonst erkältest du dich.
  • Dress warm or you will catch a cold.
  • Ich nehme meine Sportsachen direkt mit auf Arbeit. Sonst muss ich nachher nochmal nach Hause vor dem Sport.
  • I’ll take my sport wear to work with me. Else, I would have to go home again before sports. (probably not the best English phrasing… sorry)

All right. So… I hope you have a good impression now of what idea sonst carries. Now we need to talk about some related words and some other things you need to know.

In English you can ask:

  • What else?

if you really want to know what else is there. The German question

  • Was sonst?

is not the same. In general the combination

  • Was/wo/wer/wie/warum sonst?

expresses, that you actually consider all those alternatives somewhat useless… like the version you already have is the best and most obvious one.

  • “Wo ist dein Kühlschrank?”
    “In der Küche. Wo sonst?
  • “Where is your fridge?”
    “In the kitchen. Where else (if not there)?”

And this happens also for was

  • “Was für eine Pizza nimmst du?”
    “Salami. Was sonst?”
  • “What pizza are you gonna get?”
    “Salami. Of course (because I always and exclusively take salami)”

So… if you want to ask what else you need to add a noch and actually leave out sonst completely or it won’t mean the same.

  • Wir brauchen Eier, Mehl und Zucker … was (sonst) noch?
  • We need eggs, flour and sugar … what else?
  • Wir brauchen Eier, Mehl und Zucker… was sonst?
  • We need eggs, flour and sugar… duhhh /of course.

All right.

words based on sonst

Now let’s get to the related words and the first one is ansonsten. The usage of ansonsten has been increasing in the recent decades (while sonst is going downhill) as you can see here and it is kind of a synonym. However, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and I can’t really explain it. I’d say, it works fine in longer sentences that are NOT questions.  

  • “Wie war’s gestern im Club?”
    “Och naja, wir mussten ziemlich lange anstehen und Marie war total betrunken und hat auf die Bar gekotzt aber ansonsten war es eigentlich ganz lustig.
  • “How was your night out?”
    “Oh , we had to wait in line for quite a while and Marie was totally wasted and uhm .. barfed on the bar (no pun intended) but other than that it was quite fun.”

And ansonsten is maybe a bit more general. So you wouldn’t use it for very strict cause-effect relations and also not for items… kind of like other than that  or a really general or.

All right. There is also an adjective of sonst which is sonstig (e/n/r/m/s)The meaning of this? Well… pretty much other.

  • Heute reden wir nur über die Frage von Thomas. Alle sonstigen Fragen müssen bis nächste Woche warten.
  • Today, we’ll only talk about the question of Thomas. All other questions will have to wait till next week.

Yeah.. I know it’s a stupid example. It is hard to find good ones for sonstige because in daily life most of the time andere just sounds better and you should go with that. Sonstige is, at least to me, a term for legal writing and it is used to denominate this all-the-rest-category in questionnaires or opinion polls or even in offices that collects all the rare options… like, in a poll when they ask “Why are you learning German?” they will list only the most common answers like “Because it sounds beautiful”, “Because I want to read Shakespeare in the original”, and “I always wanted to learn a language with 4 c… but I digress.
Don’t bother using sonstige in spoken German. It’s enough to understand it when you see it.

The next word is that is more useful… umsonst. Umsonst used to be 2 words… umbe sus and it meant “für ein sonst” or in English “for (a) so/this”. And here we actually see that the other origin story, the one that says sonst is related to thus and this, makes sense too. Maybe they’re both correct and sonst is the result of pronouncing 2 different words the same way. It doesn’t really matter though after all. So umsonst was “for this” which by itself doesn’t make much sense. But people back a few centuries used a gesture to accompany the words… waving your hand as if you are casually  tossing something to the side… man, sometimes I wish this wasn’t radio here… but anyway… together with the gesture umbe sus meant pretty much for nothing and that is exactly what it means today.  This gives it a double meaning though because for nothing can mean for free or in vain and umsonst is used for both.

  • Ich war gestern umsonst im Kino. Mein Bruder hat mich eingeladen.
  • I was at the movies for free yesterday. My brother invited me.
  • Ich war gestern umsonst im Kino. Der Film, den ich sehen wollte war ausverkauft.
  • I was at the movie theater for nothing yesterday. The movie I wanted to see was sold out.

Now… marketing and advertisement people don’t really appreciate this double meaning so the use words like gratis or kostenlos instead. And there are also some occasions in daily life when someone would correct me by saying:

  • Du meinst kostenlos, nicht umsonst.
  • You mean free of charge, not in vain.

But honestly, I think in daily life people use umsonst in both senses and only the context makes it clear what they mean.

  • Ich hab’ sooo viel gelernt. Trotzdem hab’ ich die Klausur verkackt. Alles umsonst.
  • I’ve been studying soooo much and still I flunked the exam. All for nothing.
  • Hey, in der Bar da ist so ‘ne Aktion… wenn du 2 Bier kaufst, kriegst du eins umsonst.
  • Hey, there is this special in that bar… if you buy to beers, you’ll get one for free.

The last example is of course the purest fiction… like … “Star Trek: beer special in Germany”… there is just no such thing :).
All right … I am getting a little tired and I feel like you are too so let’s quickly look at this last one and then call it a day…
.. we’ve already talked about question words followed by sonst. Now we shall talk about sonst followed by question words…  dun dun dun.

It doesn’t really work for all question words but for wo, wie ,  was and maybe wann it does and in spoken language you can hear:

  • sonst(e)was, sonstwo, sonst(e)wie, sonst(e)wann (the e is present in Berlin dialect)

Those words are not in the Duden and they might be written as 2 words but they feel so common to me that I would say they should be in there. They basically express, that I consider a place, or thing or manner really weird, far fetched and inconvenient…. and the best translation for me is god-knows-where/what/how/when

  • Ich hab’ keine Lust sonstewo hinzufahren, nur um diesen Art House Film zu sehen.
  • I don’t really want to go god-knows-where, just to see this art house movie.
  • Mein Boss hat mir soooo viel Arbeit gegeben… ich werd’ echt erst sonstewann Feierabend haben.
  • My boss gave me soo much work… I’ll be done god-knows-when.

If you dare try to use it in spoken language and impress your friends with your new “nativeness” :).
All right. That’s all. This was our German Word of the Day sonst. The theory about the origin says that sonst is just a mumbled, fused together so nicht ist which basically means “if not so”. If we say “if not this” instead, we basically have the meaning of sonst. It just refers to other things than what has been said before and the main translation is elf… I mean else.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. Ansonsten,  I hope you liked it and see you next time.

18 responses to “Word of the Day – “sonst”

  1. Thanks for this post; sonst is one of the more confusing common words (along with doch, which you already pretty well cleared up) and this was very helpful for me.
    Also, thanks for letting me know the secret ingredient in Mohnkuchen in your first dialogue. I will probably avoid it from now on.

    Like this

  2. How would you write the ‘ansonstigen’ example using sonst (supposing, of course, that you actually can)?
    And what is the situation when we should use sonstig instead of ander? I mean, it didn’t get quite clear in the text.

    By the way, it is good to know that there is such a huge difference between a question with sonst using noch or not. Thanks for showing us it!

    Like this

    • Ok, so ansonstigen doesn’t work although I guess people would understand…. and as for sonstig instead of ander… well, you’re right… it’s not very clear in the text and I’ll change that paragraph probably but I’d say you don’t need it at all… it is for legal writing and as a catch all category in questionaires… like for instance religion:

      - Christlich
      - Muslim
      - Hindu
      - Buddhismus
      - Sonstige

      I don’t think I use sonstige in daily life at all and if I really get into a situation where (for some reason) I don’t want to use ander, I would go for sonst noch instead… like:

      - Hast du sonstige Ideen?
      - Hast du sonst noch irgendwelche Ideen?

      There is also the word weiter(e/s/m/n) which is also used in similar contexts so don’t worry about sonstige :)

      Like this

  3. Prima!
    Deine Artikel sind sehr interessant,

    Like this

  4. Hello,
    I’m brazilian and I’m trying to learn the German language! Your blog is absolutely brilliant! Your explanations about the uses of some complicate words is precise and didactic, You’re a very good teacher.
    Thanks for your time creating a blog to help people all over the world.
    I’m starting to follow the blog NOW!

    Like this

  5. Hi Emanuel,

    I love your blog and your posts, they really fuel my love for linguistics, language and German. I don’t know if my ability to speak and interpret the language would be here today without it and it really prepared me for my trip to Germany this year, which was wonderful. Having stayed there for six weeks and going to school with my exchange partner I pretty much became fluent, was constantly in an AWESOME environment (language and grammar analysis EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME. My host family’s mother was also a very very avid linguist, best coincidence ever!) and it cleared up essentially every issue I had with understanding parts of German beforehand. I really just need to get faster, more articulate and broaden my vocabulary. However with that being said there was one thing I simply could not get my head around even after thinking about it for six long weeks, and I was hoping you could clear it up for me.

    How the hell do you use ‘asozial’? It’s not the same as antisocial in the sense that I heard it in a lot of situations that made little to no sense in English. I did however understand the concept vaguely without having to ask for clarification. What really surprised me was how often it was used, as antisocial is used quite seldom in English, especially in younger, teen environments. (such as mine)
    I even heard it being used as ‘asi’ (eg. ‘Das ist voll asi, Alter! Mach’s eher nicht.’). What this suggested to me was that it’s become somewhat of a slang word that has this crazy feeling and idea around it, of just being plain rude. I couldn’t for the life of me make the connection and clear up the origin and morphing of the meaning. I’m a man of order and this really seemed to be the only thing that I couldn’t make rhyme or reason out of, despite understanding the gist of the meaning that was intended…

    Hope you can help after reading my wall of text! Thanks man, much appreciated, Keep Up The Good Work! :D <3

    Like this

    • Haha… Asi… :). Yeah youngsters say that a lot …. so it comes from the Noun Asozialer which comes from the adjective assozial… this is probably no nes yet though.However, in Germany for some reason the focus of it is not so much on the relationship part but on the money and appearance part. The context in which I got to know this word first was for people who dress in old dirty clothes and don’t really keep their flat clean … and all that to an extend where simply having little money doesn’t explain it. So, I think assozial is kind of “out of societies standards with regards to money and hygiene”. You can’t really call a violent, self-absorb, alcoholic millionaire “assozial” as he is lacking the feature “poor”.
      All this might have to do with the fact that the social welfare (the bottom one) used to be called “Sozialhilfe”. But anyway… you can call a Verhalten (comportment, behavior) “assozial” though and that might mean antisocial but assozial alone doesn’t focus on the relationship-part at all.
      And as for Asi… as I said, that is just a shortened version of assozialer. Kids use it to insult people by calling them “poor, dirty, dressed in second hand clothes, long unkempt hair etc”… money plays a big role for th young, why else would brands matter so much :)… anyway… Asi then also started to be used for “asshole” behavior….

      - Was bist du denn für ein Asi?

      Someone might say that to his friend upon hearing that he won’t come to the party with him.
      And then finally asi(assi) also evolved in some sort of synonym for scheiße (used for things that suck)…. I mean with all the negative connotations it has, that comes as no surprise

      - Abwaschen is voll asi, Alta… lass ma’ ‘ne Spülmaschine kaufen.
      - 3 Stunden im Stau… war voll asi, ey

      By the way… there is also an adjective made from the adjective asi which is “assig”. I used to use that quite a bit also as a synonym for scheiße.
      So… I hope this cleared it up a little :). The main difference is the money aspect in German and the fact that is is soooo incredibly widespread (although I think it is slowly withering away)
      Thanks a billion for your incredibly nice comment by the way… :D that made me really happy

      Like this

  6. Hey, dude! I’ve been doing some research about “sonstig”. Can I consider it as “remaining”? It seems to fit better your example and some others that I’ve seen.

    Like this

    • Great artical! I suggested this word a while back and it really cleard some things up for me.
      now my question, can you explain this “wieder mal am Deutsch erklähren” sentance to us, I’v done some research and it looks like “am” can be used for a prosses that is currently happening like “Im working right now/Jetz bin ich am arbeiten”. can you elaborate on this pleez.

      Like this

      • Oh, there isn’t actually much to elaborate as you pretty much nailed it :)….

        It is called die rheinische Verlaufsform because it comes from the Rhein-Region of Germany but it has somewhat spread… and as you said, it is used to indicate that something is done right now:

        - Ich bin am Kommentare beantworten.
        - Du bist am Lesen.

        “Grammatically” it is “an + dem (dat) + Lesen (nounified verb)

        I have to say that I don’t really use it that much but it doesn’t feel like any particular dialect to me when I hear it. I would say:

        - Ich les’ grad.
        - Ich bin grad einkaufen.

        I think in modern literature you might actually find it here and there but you can’t compare it to the English progressive tenses. “Ich bin am …” is definitely something colloquial.
        It isn’t really applicable for things though.. or maybe it is… don’t really know :)

        - Es war die ganze Zeit am Regnen.

        That would be the past.

        - Er wäre die ganze Zeit am Essen gewesen.

        That would be conditional past.
        Just treat it like you would treat

        - Ich bin am Tisch.

        to get the tenses right :)… hope that helped… oh and here’s a link if you want to read more (in German):

        http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/zwiebelfisch/zwiebelfisch-wie-die-sprache-am-rhein-am-verlaufen-ist-a-350958.html

        Like this

    • Hmmmm… nice idea… but then we need to make a restriction. Sonstig(e…) does not mean the remaining in sense of remaining pieces of cake… it has no notion of “being left behind while other things move” if that makes sense. So maybe ultimately “remaining” is a bit misleading. I checked “sonstige” on linguee.com …. here’s the link:

      http://www.linguee.de/deutsch-englisch/search?source=auto&query=sonstige

      and other seems to be the most common translation. However, remaining is fine… just don’t use it for left over stuff :)

      Like this

  7. Your posts are awesome and so much more entertaining than my German textbook! :) I mean Kontakte is ok, but it would be so much more engaging with examples like “Mach deine Hausaufgaben, sonst kündge ich deinen World of Warcraft Account.”

    Like this

  8. absolutely brilliant examples, as always. i think i’ll be muttering “sonst noch was?” fairly often under my breath this summer und werde sicher auch “sonstewann” mehrmals verweden. Z. B:

    “Hey Sarah, am Abend gehen wir fort! Kommst du mit?”
    - Na, schauen wir mal. Meine Chefin war so lieb meine Fehler in einer Liste zu schreiben. Ich werde sonstewann mit der Verbesserungen fertig.

    Hoeffentlich passen die Saetze, und hoeffentlich passieren sie nicht. ;)

    Like this

    • Ahhhh… ich hab’ dich total vergessen…. Ich wollte was zu deinem Beispiel sagen… es ist zwar technisch alles richtig aber es klingt ein bisschen komisch weil es wie ein einfaches Statement klingt:

      - Ich werde um 3 /sonstewann fertig.

      Sonstewann sagt auf jeden Fall auch immer was darüber , was du über die Zeit denkst… nämlich, dass es voll spät ist… man würde es aber mit anderen “Gefühlswörtern” kombinieren, denn sonst wirkt es in dem sonst so pragmatischen Satz etwas verloren.

      - Ich werde wohl/wahrscheinlich/doch/dann/wieder erst sonstewann fertig.

      Das “erst” sollte meiner Ansicht nach auf jeden Fall drin sein, denn es unterstreicht und verstärkt die Idee von “maaaaan, sooooo späääääät”. Von den anderen Wörtern kannst du je nach Kontext wählen … gern auch mehrere:

      Ich werde wohl erst wieder sonstewann fertig

      Ich kann dir leider nicht genau erklären warum aber komplett ohne Partikel oder Wörter wie wahrscheinlich oder wohl funktioniert sonstewann in so einem Satz nicht so richtig :)

      Like this

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s