In this blog post, I mention some online dictionaries. These are intended as examples only and not as advertising. Other online dictionaries are available.
Autumn is well and truly here (well, at the time of posting this, it’s pretty much winter…). With this time of year come the colder days, the darker evenings, and of course the beautiful autumn colours. Scrolling through Facebook one evening last month, I happened across some photos a friend of mine had posted of her new autumn decorations. The photos were accompanied by this caption:
Es herbstet? That’s new to me. I’ve of course heard of Herbst, ‘autumn’, but only as a noun. This appears to be a verb – and not just any verb, but a verb without any kind of real subject or object. Sort of like es regnet or es wird geschlafen. Hmm.
*Looks up the verb herbsten*
The online English-German dictionaries seem to give us a few different translations.
According to dict.cc, herbsten can be translated into English as ‘to harvest’ something, specifically grapes. That doesn’t seem to fit here, I can’t see any grapes in the photos…
The same result comes up when I use dict.leo.org. Here the translation is ‘to harvest grapes’. I’m still none the wiser.
The results on linguee.com are more varied. They include Herbsten as a dative plural of Herbst, ‘autumn’ (‘…mit milden trockenen Herbsten…’), and herbsten as an inflected superlative of the adjective herb, meaning ‘harsh’ or ‘hard’ (‘…die herbsten Einbrüche…’). The meaning of ‘autumn’ is the closest, but again, it’s a noun here, and I’m looking for the verb.
I scroll down further on linguee.com and… ah! Es herbstet!
So this phrase apparently means ‘the autumn is coming’. Maybe it’s just a fixed phrase then?
I looked up es herbstet on dict.cc, and lo and behold!
Aha! So if it ‘autumns’, it means autumn is on its way. I like that! It makes the eve of autumn sound a little like a weather condition, but it’s a quirk of German that brings a smile to my face. It’s like when this part of the world is done with summer, it starts autumning.
There also seems to be another variant, es herbstelt:
The extra ‘l’ in herbstelt makes it so there’s just a ‘touch’ of autumn; it gives it a diminutive effect (see my blog post on Fröscheln for another brief mention of this diminutive -eln – and for a mention of a similar construction, es fröschelt!).
So it seems you can change the noun Herbst into a verb in the phrase es herbstet to announce the arrival of the season. This changing of nouns to verbs (or any part of speech to another part of speech) is called conversion, and it’s not an uncommon phenomenon. From the noun water we can make the verb to water (e.g. a plant), or from the verb to ask we can make the noun ask, as in “that was a big ask”.
In German, you can do the same. To convert a noun to a verb, you can often just add –(e)n to the end. For instance, from Öl (‘oil’) you get ölen (‘to oil’). When you convert a verb to a noun, you often simply make the first letter uppercase, like with kochen (‘to cook’) to das Kochen (‘the cooking’).
Now back to es herbstet. The question is, if it’s so easy to convert a noun to a verb like this, can it be done with the other seasons?
A search for es sommert in the online English-German dictionaries gave me nothing.
A search for es frühlingt in these online dictionaries also gave me nothing. (Although dict.cc did suggest es wird Frühling, which it translates as ‘spring is approaching’. Same meaning, but no conversion of Frühling into frühlingen.)
A search for es wintert in these online dictionaries, again, gave me nothing. A Google search, however, did give me a CD with the title Es wintert scho eina… and a song of the same name. So it does exist, just seemingly not in the world of dict.cc and co.
But this is just when I look for these words in the bilingual online dictionaries. What about the Duden?
Sommern? Aha! It exists! It’s defined as Sommer werden, ‘to become summer’. An example being es sommert schon, ‘it’s already becoming sommer’, or ‘summer is already arriving’.
And what about herbsten? Yes! The definition here is allmählich Herbst werden, ‘to gradually become autumn’. Funny that they mention that herbsten is gradual, but they don’t with sommern.
I’m not seeing much of a pattern, other than es herbstet is far more common than any of the variants with the other seasons. Why could that be? Perhaps because the change from summer to autumn is one of the more obvious? What with the falling leaves and the autumn colours? But by that logic, es frühlingt should be very popular too. Maybe we just need a cute little phrase like es herbstet especially for autumn to make the transition to winter that little bit more bearable?
I also tried this conversion out with other things like months of the year, days of the week, and times of the day, but I couldn’t find any examples of es jännert, es montagt or es morgent. Although saying that, you can say es nachtet. Which, like es herbstet, is a transition from a lighter time to a darker time. So maybe these constructions are more common when we move from light to dark? But no, because how would es sommert fit into that? German, make it make sense!
Whatever the reason (or lack of reason) behind which seasons or times can be converted into verbs, I for one am enjoying the fact that it’s currently autumning. I prefer it when it summers, and I’m not looking forward to when it winters, but I like it when it autumns – because when it autumns, it halloweens!
Final thought: The German version of ‘Winter is coming’ from Game of Thrones is ‘Der Winter naht’ – I was very much hoping it would be ‘Es wintert’!
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