Deciphering die Norddeutschen

Way back when, when SG was but a brand new flickering flame of romance, my flatmate said to me upon meeting him, ‘he is a typical north German.’ I didn’t quite know what that meant because I didn’t know any other north Germans, just a lot of Westphalins. I simply thought, ‘if by typically north German you mean wonderfully handsome, then how marvellous.’ When talk of visiting Kiel sprung up among my Westphalin friends, they spoke of the famous aloofness the northerners possess, the arm’s length they hold you at. Once or twice, I seem to recall, the word ‘cold’ popped up. At the time, I was struggling with the Münsteranian arm’s length, the lack of hellos to passersby – I had visions of arriving in Kiel and being frozen to an ice chip by averted gazes, being cowed by a whole new level of German directness, gasping for air in conversational vacuums.

Falsch my friends. Falsch.

Over the years, due to moving around the country a bit, and cohabiting with a typisch Norddeutsche, I have come to appreciate what being a ‘typical north German’ means. Direct, self deprecating, funny, and cheery. Yes, cheery. Schleswig-Holsteiners are happy people, they ranked as the most content Germans last year – I suspect it is the sea air. They are energised by innovation and by projects that focus on communities. And they love the north, protecting their borders with the same vigour all Germans protect their regions and all they contain. They also love holidaying in Denmark, but that’s a different story for a different day.

One thing about nothern Germans that became very clear very early on, is that they don’t waste words. Perhaps this tendency to say things as succinctly as possible, or indeed in as few words as possible, could account for their reputation of über-directness. Most Germans are, when push comes to shove, direct, but some regions are chattier than others, padding out conversations and interactions with the type of conversational fat I am more used to. The Oberpfälzers, for example, could talk under wet cement. Trust me, I tried it out with our landlord. He just kept talking. The notherners, however, have no interest in conversational padding. They have their own brand of directness that seems to spring from a desire to make themselves understood as quickly and effectively as possible. Indeed, you can have an entire conversation with a Sprotte, by simply employing three key words; Moin, jo!, mmmm. The latter isn’t even a word – this is the level of conversational efficiency we are dealing with.

dienord

Moin

Moin is the only greeting you need in the northern parts of Germany – Northern Friesland, Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen, Hamburg, and MeckPomm – and you will have it bounced at you by all and sundry regardless of time of day and the formality (or informality) of the situation. Often, when one is greeting friends or family, ‘moin’ is followed up with ‘naaaa?’ which roughly translates to ‘how’s it going’ and can be responded to with a counter ‘naaaa?’. North Germans enjoy a good handshake, so the classic greeting will encompass a firm handshake while the ‘moin’ is being passed back and forth. One has the choice of responding to a ‘moin’ with a ‘moin moin’ although only if you really feel the situation calls for it.

A little research reveals that ‘moin’ also pops up in the east and north of the Netherlands, in Denmark’s Southern Jutland and despite its apparent connection to ‘morgen’, it actually more than likely springs from the East Frisian word mōi, which means good or lovely.

Jo!

Often, I will write SG a text containing some detailed information, not lacking in verbosity, and he will respond with a merry, ‘jo!’ (pronounced, naturally, ‘yo!’). Just one word. Or, a transaction in a shop will begin with a crisp ‘moin’ and end with a rally of ‘jo!’ being volleyed back and forth between the guy slipping the purchase into a bag and the customer tucking his wallet back into his pocket. This peppery little syllable is most often used as confirmation, can also make an appearance as a greeting, particularly when answering the phone to a pal, and also to wrap up a conversation. Where we might get trapped in the endless cycles of, ‘okay then, alrighty, good, yep, okay then, sounds great, stay in touch, I will too, take care, yes I will too, okay I’ll pass it on, yep, good, chat soon, yep, yep, byeeeeeee’, the northern Germans snap out a fizzy ‘jo! Tschüss’ and end the conversation there and then.

Mmmm.

This is a key one to master, because if left misunderstood, the ‘mmmm’ can wound an English speaker, crippling their confidence in the hitherto-believed affectionate friendship. I first encountered the ‘mmmm’ with SG’s Mum and left the house certain she despised me. What else could account for a conversation ending with an ‘mmmm’? And an ‘mmmm’ uttered, no less, with a slight chin-led nod with nothing following.

Say ‘mmmm’ to an English speaker and we think you’re deep in thought and will soon deliver your opinion on the given conversational topic. We’ll wait for you to say something, to weigh in. But here, the ‘mmmm’ isn’t an indication the person you’re having coffee with is thinking about what you’ve just said, it’s more likely they’re bringing that chapter of the conversation to a close. ‘Mmmm’ very often means ‘right. Okay then. What’s next on the agenda.’ It isn’t a filler while you ponder, it is a punctuation mark.

Mmmm can also be used to signal a world of disapproval, in which case there is a slight tonal difference to the ‘mmmm’ that signals a subject change. The disapproving ‘mmmm’ hangs in the air, it withers nearby plants.

Sometimes an additional syllable is added to the ‘mmmm’ and it becomes ‘mmhmm’ and that generally signals simple comprehension and may precede some questions on the matter. This is the least terrifying of the ‘mmmms.’

33 thoughts on “Deciphering die Norddeutschen

  1. Moin! Vielen Dank für diesen herrlichen Artikel. Ich bin gebürtige Oldenburgerin und in Bremen aufgewachsen. Die Liebe für die Norddeutschen ist in meinem Herz.
    Ich hoffe Du kommst in dem wunderbaren Flachland auch zum Fahradfahren. Es ist die ideale Gegend dazu!

    1. Moin moin! Bis jetzt habe ich kein Fahrad – ich habe ein kleines bisschen Angst vor diesen schnellen, bossy deutschen Radfahrern! Aber vielleicht in der Zukunft werde ich ein Radfahrer werden. Mal gucken …

    1. I have heard a loooot about this Hessisch, and frankly it makes me quiver in my boots. I am going to give this guide a crack and see what happens down there!

  2. Liv You are the best writer and for some reason zI can not ever read one of your really good posts without becoming teary eyed. I know why. Because you are so incredibly honest and forthcoming with your experiences and thoughts and emotions. That may be easy to read but it is much harder and riskier than some might imagine.

    Also, I can so relate to how challenging it can be to relocate to a country like Germany, it is not like OZ to UK or USA or vica versa. So the other point that makes me feel so emotional is that you relate your experiences brilliantly capturing the most detailed subtlety and insights shared without a single bit of intellectual pretension as you lay down and break down the sociological and cultural text of a nation. Your blog should betext for Prep schools and Universities.

    Liv you are so nice and on top of it all you are like a friend to anyone who reads more than two bkog entries and uou Love and adore your husband and you are expecting a new bsby and I cannot see for the salt from the tears of joy for you and who and how you are.. please zGod Bless You and Keep You and As ll of Your Loved Ones Always

    Michael

      1. THANK YOU Michael, for your lovely messages and ongoing support. Appreciate it enormously.

  3. I have personally not been looked at funny yet when saying Moin to someone here in Düsseldorf, even though most people here give you the full “Guten Morgen” or the short “Hallo” when they greet you 😀

    1. Love that you crack out a ‘moin’ in response – so much more satisfying than a Guten Morgen.

  4. Love this! When I was living in Hamburg, I noticed it’s more of a Moin Moin rather than the single Moin that’s so common here in Bremen. And I think that ‘Naaaa?’ (along with ‘Doch!’) is one of the most brilliant inventions of the German language. So much communication going with so few words — maybe that’s why I feel so at home in northern Germany. 🙂

    1. Looove naaa, unwittingly implement it in conversations with people back home, because it just speaks volumes and is one sound. Amazing. The ‘doch’ I am yet to completely master, in that I think I leap in too soon with the doch and use it as a blanket disagreement instead of waiting for the ‘nein’ that I can then disagree with. So many delicate layers of doch-ing.

  5. so right, so right. the template for the norddeutsche conversation: “moin, (main content/request/demand), jo, danke, tschüß!”

  6. G^day mate, very cool description of northern Germans, it fits perfectly. I live in Kiel and would say that we are kind of like that. Jo!

    1. Oh Lordy, I could never attempt the Swabians (unless I go deep into the wilderness for years, in the name of research). And as for the Bavarians, I could only attempt the Oberpfälzers, and we all know they are not quite Bavarian!

  7. moin, love the way you describe the North Germans. I’m from Australia too and moved to Kiel about 30 years ago, friends warned me about the aloofness of the North Germans, but I must say I loved them from the first day on and I love the northern lifestyle, the people and the countryside

    1. Yesss, I am so pleased you see it too – the friendliness and cheeriness. I find the northerners quite like that fresh Baltic breeze – bracing, refreshing, no nonsense and, with the right jacket, a lot of fun.

  8. Jo, moin ook … toller Bericht! Freu mich schon, im Herbst mal wieder nach Kiel zu kommen … wetten, dass es dann wieder regnet? LOL
    Take care and enjoy the German Gastfreundlichkeit.

    1. Ich bin sicher, dass es dann regnent – es ist Kiel! Aber wir haben einen schönen Sommer gehabt.

  9. Beautiful! I have shared this blog with my international students at Kiel University. It will certainly help them to feel at home quickly and to better understand our “Northerners” ways. Thank you very much! Jo!

  10. hahahahaha, when i read this it was the first time i realized that this is a northern-german thing!! Only now i understand that it wasn’t bad luck i met so many “chatty” people in other parts of germany, but absolutely normal because it’s ME who is different with using only few (the necessary) words 😀 and i live in schleswig holstein my whole life, in Kiel for 9 years now 😀 😀 thanks for that enlightenment!

  11. My folks (now deceased)were Hambugers All my life I heard that the Nortdeutscher is snotty and standoffish and that they and Berliners speak the perfect hochdeutsch. After many visits I am still looking for the unfriendly etc nortdeutscher. Personally speaking, next to Paris, Hamburg is the greatest city in the EU.
    Loved your blog. Will read it often

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