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Using German Numbers – A Travelers’ Guide

13 February, 2012

So how cultural can numbers really be, you ask? We learn them as a kid and just use them. Well there are differences on how things are presented and used in Germany. Here is a guide to them from an American expat’s point of view.

Not Just Numbers – Culture

So there is more than just counting to 10 here. There is culture in so many small things that we don’t even think about at first glance. Like sleeping or laundry or numbers.

The Decimal Comma

Yup the decimal point is a comma and the commas between hundreds and thousands are points. So a price of 3,50 is just 3 euro 50 cents not 3 thousand. I’ve lived here a while and my first reaction is still to freak sometimes when I see bills or bank statements.

Building Floors

There is a ground floor (Erdgeschoß) and the numbering starts above that (1. Stock, 2.Stock). This may be more common around Europe, but it seems odd to the American instinct.

Dates

The order of Day Month Year is the standard here, often with periods between the pieces (dd.mm.yyyy).  So 3.7.2011 is third of July, not March seventh.  The idea is that a date goes from smaller time to larger time. It does make some sense, but takes some getting used to. Remember this when filling out forms, birthdays are fairly important to get right on official bits.

Calendar Weeks

Germans count the weeks. Deadlines at work are always discussed in KW (Kalendar Woche). So while in English we would talk about week containing 19th of Feburary or week starting on the 3rd of March, Germans discuss things as KW 12.

There seems to be a mental training to do that, as I keep having to check the calendar in my email as it has the weeks numbered. And not every year has 52. Some have 51 weeks and some have 53 depending on what day of the week that Jan first falls on.

Meters, Liters, Celsius and Grams

No more feet, inches, miles or Fahrenheit here. Germany is firmly in the land of the metric. I find this hard to deal with as I grew up used to American measurements, but I do get how it makes much more sense to have the metric.

Even after many years, I have to guess and estimate what things weigh or how far something is away. I still have my favorite weather website switched to Fahrenheit.  Here are a few approximations I use.

  • About 37 Celsius is body temperature so is 98.6F. This would be an intolerably hot day.
  • I bake just about everything in my oven at 200-230C. Yeah, I mostly cook chicken, grilled cheese toast and french fries, but it works.
  • 1 kilo is roughly 2 pounds (2.2 to be exact), so 500grams is one pound and 250 grams is half a pound. I think of 100grams as roughly a quarter pound. So for meat it would be one portion.
  • Meters are similar to yards.

There are still things that use inches though. Jeans and bike tires for example still are sized in inches.

Telephone Numbers

The German system of telephone numbers allows for variable length numbers. So some numbers are only 5 digits long while others are 8 or 9. Each number has an area code that also can be variable length. Despite all of this, the system works well.

A German telephone number called from within Germany starts with a 0. If you call from outside of Germany, the country code is +49 and that 0, that you would use inside of Germany, is not called.  This is often written as +49(0).

The next piece of the number is a 2 to 4 digit area code. Unlike the US where area codes seem to be assigned at random, the codes here are very attached to location. Larger cities like Munich have a two digit code (89 is Munich). Smaller cities like Freiburg have a three digit code (761 is ours). And even smaller towns will have longer codes. The cool thing is that while Freiburg is 761, a smaller town near us might be 7633. The codes are related and share the 76.

This is all true only for landlines. Cell providers each have their own codes that they give numbers for. A specific code would imply that the number was originally given by a specific company.

"Everything has an end, except for sausage, they have two." - German Saying

Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier..

It is straightforward to learn the basic numbers. This is not the point here. The point is all of the cultural differences with how counting goes and how numbers are used.

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16 Responses to Using German Numbers – A Travelers’ Guide

  1. Diana says:

    Interesting post! I’ve noticed all the differences you’ve mentioned above, however, I hadn’t really considered them altogether. There are quite a few differences when it comes to numbers between the US & Germany! The dates sometimes screw me up now, because depending on what I’m writing I will use the German system or the US system and when I go back later to look at it, I forget whether it’s March 7 or August 3! haha…

    • Andrew says:

      Indeed. As you can see from other comments, there are a number of other numerical differences that didn’t make the cut for the post. It is definitely one of those things that is different enough to cause problems, but not something that is thought about for travelers so much.

    • Andrew says:

      Nice link. I do use a few of those. The temp conversions again are the most common for me in my head. For the distance I know how much 10cm is when I hold my hands apart. So I can be seen measuring things in my head virtually by hold my hands apart so far. It is there, but not as instinctual as feet.

  2. Many of this I am familiar with. However, the metric system and Celsius would take some getting used to. A lot of it is very practical but I think some of our numbers are better and some in Europe are better.

  3. Heinrich IX says:

    Heinrich’s collection of useless knowledge:

    a handwritten German 1 (one) is likely to be taken for a 7 by American readers

    a German billion is an American trillion

    “seventyfour” would be “four and seventy” in German

    yawn, too tired to think of more tonight ;-)

    • Andrew says:

      I remember the 1 vs 7 thing. I have to remember to remind friends that want to mail me things as we have several sevens. And with the US writing, it is possible they get interpreted as 1s.
      The Billion-Trillion thing is weird, but it is rare I ever have to deal with numbers that high. I had the reversing of numbers in my draft too, but though I would stay out of the linguistic end and keep to reading/using printed numbers.

      I like useless knowledge, bring it on.

      • Heinrich IX says:

        Andrew, you asked for it…

        There are actually some 5 digit area codes, afaik especially in the FüNeuBuLä (fünf neue Bundesländer;-) Example: 033654 for Fünfeichen (small place somewhere in Brandenburg)

        Normally they try to assign you a 10 digit number (incl. area code), if you apply for a new landline.
        Old telephone numbers have not been converted, so in a village near us you might still find numbers like “321”, unchanged since before the war. And having a prestigious 6-digit number in Hamburg makes you member of an elitist circle of natives, “alter Telefonadel” (old telephone nobility).

        • Andrew says:

          That about the telephone nobility is cool. A friend of mine who has been here for nearly 20 years can look at older numbers and tell what part of town they are from. So at least at one point they assigned even the local base numbers based on part of time. I don’t know if it is still true though.
          I remember a pizza place that had a 5 digit local number and one of the taxi companies still does.

  4. Sabrina says:

    That’s a great summary of all the things regarding numbers that used top confuse me when I first moved to Texas :) May I add one more? Counting with your fingers… in Germany you start with the thumb and end with the pinky, in the US you start with the index, your pinky is four and adding the thumb makes five :)

    The saying “Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei” made me laugh. It was a fairly popular song at a certain point amd gets dug up around carneval a lot…. and now I’m gonna get homesick a little because I’m missing it again this year :(

    • Andrew says:

      I don’t remember where I heard the Wurst thing, but I like it. Carneval is in a week. I still want to see a Kölner one at some point, but will settle for Venice this year.

      I had the fingers thing in my original draft, but took it out for length. Thanks again for the reminder. I like the German way for 3, the American way of holding down the pinky isn’t as easy.

      • Sabrina says:

        I always have trouble with the three :) Venice sounds awesome. I think Cologne is very different from both the South of Germany and Venice. As a kid, we went to Neustadt one year to visit my mom’s friends and I was sooooo disappointed with their parade. The whole atmosphere was so different and much more somber I felt like. Then again, they probably think people in Cologne are nuts with the parties that are going on there!

        • Andrew says:

          Three is hard. Especially for kids. You see them holding the pinky down at times.

          Venice will be fun. I’ve been once to Carnival there. Cologne though is still somewhere that I want to see in Carnival. I don’t really like chaotic parties, but it sounds wild to see. Basel as well is supposed to have a big thing, but it starts really early on a Tuesday morning. A Tuesday that I don’t every get off of work for.

          I was watching a movie on a friend’s phone of a Fasching thing in Hessen. It was a presentation of dancers. Groups would practice and perform. Dunno if this was in addition to a parade, but looked cool. Apparently the drinking begins after the dancing ends.

  5. Aside from the “standards” of length, temperature, mass, etc., the basic point of metric is the focus on units of 10, 100, 1000. In Canada, the whole country was dragged kicking and screaming in the late `70s from Imperial to metric : all signage, everything was printed in *both* units, from price per lb or kg in the market to kilometres per hour and miles per hour on the street/highway.

    What I also totally dig is where cars are registered just by looking at their plates. When I lived in Heidelberg, I got used to seeing a lot of ‘HD’ and ‘MA’ (Mannheim) license plates.

    Thanks for your post, Andrew!

    • Andrew says:

      Hi Henry. I studied a lot of science and engineering. The powers of ten makes a lot of sense I agree. This is however at odds with my grown instinct of measurement. The temperature is the one that still gets me after years.

      I like the car plates too. I know a lot of the local towns as well as the larger towns by sight. I like the Hansa Städter still have H with them. So H is Hannover while HH is Hansastadt Hamburg.

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