English derailed by Deutsche Bahn


As a regular commuter, Deutsche Bahn has caused me quite some headaches in the past. However, they also provide valuable input for this blog. Today, I want to share some of my recent observations regarding their special version of the English language. While it is quite common for passengers to make fun of the staff, you may want to double-check that you are not making some of these mistakes yourself!

Welcome an board

Very often, things get off to a bad start when new passengers are welcome with the phrase “Welcome an board”.

Improper pronunciation of places

Quite a few towns in Germany have an English translation of their name. Examples include Munich, Nuremberg, Cologne, and Berlin. However, the staff of DB tries very hard to avoid using these internationally known names in their English broadcasts, and instead uses the German names that are typically very hard to understand for foreigners. Hence, you often hear sentences such as “The next stop will be Köln.” or even worse “We will now arrive Nüremberg” (yes, they do pronounce the English word Nuremberg with an umlaut!).

Improper use of arrive

There is a widespread misunderstanding at DB that arrive is the direct translation of the German word erreichen. Therefore, the staff construct very strange sentences such as “We will now arrive München” (Wir erreichen jetzt München) instead of “We will now arrive in Munich”. I have even heard the expression “We will arrive the next stop”…

Track vs. platform

DB staff typically translate “Gleis 5” as “Track 5” instead of the more common “Platform 5” used, for example, in the UK. This may cause confusion at the train station.

Opposite and opposide

A very interesting mistake that could also affect others is the incorrect pronunciation of the word opposite, which is often pronounced as if it were spelled opposide (on the other side); the correct pronunciation is given here.

Good bye

Finally, especially in Bavaria, it is very common to hear a friendly good bye with bye pronounced in Bavarian at the end of your journey.

Coffee English

Coffee is not just an important part of my life (I just had my first espresso of the day, prepared using freshly ground beans and a manual espresso machine), but plays a key role for our society. A very readable history of coffee can be found here. In this post, I want to discuss some vocabulary and pronunciation to get you ready for your next visit to the coffee shop, or a discussion with coffee buffs. Due to the enormous richness of the topic, I’m sure that I will not cover everything.

Types of coffee

While I have moved on to espresso, many people are still perfectly happy with drip coffee (also drip brew or filtered coffee), which is prepared by letting hot water trickle through a filter with ground coffee beans. Surprisingly, despite the recent boom of high-quality coffee shops, instant coffee made from hot water and a powder obtained by drying brewed coffee beans is still very popular. Two slightly more sophisticated varieties are the French press and the moka. A moka is similar but not identical to an espresso. It is made with lower water pressure and hence has no crema (as opposed to cream and creme) and has a less oily and thinner appearance. Finally, there is of course an almost endless variety of espresso-based drinks such as the latte and the macchiato. Note that these drinks are made with so-called frothed milk and have milk froth on top (rather than milk foam). All of these varieties can also prepared by using decaffeinated beans. For example, you may order a decaf cappuccino.

Types of coffee makers

The generic term for a device that makes coffee is coffee maker or coffee machine. Among the most popular choices are the electric drip coffee maker, the moka pot, the French press, and George Clooney’s favourite the single-serve coffee maker that uses coffee packs, pods or capsules. The key piece of equipment for coffee shops and enthusiasts is however the espresso machine in combination with a coffee grinder. While I personally prefer a manual machine, there are also semi-automatic machines (which adjust the water volume) and super-automatic machines (which also grind automatically). In contrast to the super-automatic case, manual and semi-automatic machines require you to grind the right amount of coffee, put the coffee grind into the portafilter and tamp it into a puck using a tamper.

Pronunciation pitfalls

First, the word espresso is sometimes mispronounced as expresso (see also this post), that is, [ekˈspresəʊ] instead of [eˈspresəʊ]. More amusingly, the substance that makes so many people drink and crave coffee is called caffeine and is pronounced [ˈkæfiːn] (listen here). German native speakers often confuse caffeine with the German term Coffein, which they pronounce essentially identical to the English word coffin (listen here). Clearly, this may raise some eyebrows among English native speakers. In fact, I believe this potential confusion is the reason why the word caffeine is used in English in the first place.

OK, I think it is time for another espresso…

English for gourmets

Fine dining has become a hobby for many people, so it makes sense to acquire the necessary vocabulary. Because the English-speaking countries were for a long time not exactly known for their exquisite food, many of the expressions are in fact of French origin.

An amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule (listen here) (known as Gruß aus der Küche in German) is an appetizer served for free to get the customer in the mood for food.

Confusingly, an entrée (listen here) can either be the main dish of a meal (in American English, Hauptspeise in German) or a dish before the main dish (in British English, Vorspeise in German). Remember that when you are looking at a menu (not card, for my German-speaking readers) in the US trying to find the main courses!

Finally, the dessert (Nachtisch or Nachspeise) is pronounced as [dɪˈzɜː(r)t] (listen here), in contrast to those really dry regions  called deserts and pronounced [ˈdezə(r)t] (listen here).

The many faces of John

John is not only a very common English name, but actually an English word and part of English expressions. Let me tell you about some of the very interesting meanings of John.

First, we have the noun john, which is used (although not in formal English) both for the clients of a prostitute (the British equivalent is punter) and for the toilet (for example, to sit on the john). Then, of course, there is John Doe, a name used to either refer to a male that is supposed to remain anonymous or to an average man (the corresponding name for females is Jane Doe), see here. Finally, I have recently learned that a Dear John letter is a letter written from a woman to her geographically separated partner to inform him about the end of their relationship. The expression has its origin in letters written by women to oversea soldiers, see here.

Expressions worth speaking about: spoken for and bespoke

Today I’m writing about two interesting expressions derived from the verb to speak that you may not have encountered before.

First, spoken for is an adjective that means “already claimed or being kept for somebody” according to the OED. In particular, spoken for is an old-fashioned but still used synonym for married, although the times when married woman were literally spoken for by their husbands are fortunately long gone in most parts of our world. For other meanings and examples see here.

Second, bespoke is a synonym for tailor-made or custom-made, referring to a product or service designed according to the specific needs or wishes of the customer in mind. A good example is a bespoke suit, which is a suit made to fit a particular person by a bespoke tailor. The expression most certainly derives from the fact that the two parties speak about the product requirements beforehand. Further examples can be found here. For the differences between bespoke and made-to-measure, see here.


How to pronounce Python

A python is not just a rather dangerous looking animal. It also gave the name to a very powerful and popular programming language — Python. Having heard different people pronounce Python in different ways, I decided to look up its pronunciation. This is what I found.

In British English, Python is pronounced as [ˈpaɪθən], whereas in American English it is pronounced as [ˈpaɪθɑːn]. Clearly, the o is pronounced very differently, and explains what I had been hearing. You can listen to both variants here.

If English is not your native language, make sure you pronounce the th correctly (at least when speaking English), as explained previously.

How to pronounce refugee

Given the recent political developments in Europe, the word refugee is now used much more often by non-native speakers. Because most of them are not aware of the correct pronunciation, let me mention it here.

The most obvious mistake is to stress the word on the first syllable. Instead, refugee is stressed on the last syllable, as apparent from the phonetic spelling (‘ indicates stress)


You can also clearly hear the stress on the last syllable here. (In the case of German speakers, putting the stress on the first syllable may be a classified as a pronunciation false friend related to the German word Flüchtling.)

Minor but also quite common mistakes are the pronunciation of the letter g as [] instead of [dʃ] (compare China and John), and the short pronunciation of the -ee ending (the : in i: indicates a long pronunciation).