Telling time across languages…

Image by MoteOo from Pixabay



Are you able to tell time in all your languages?

Speaking several languages doesn't mean that we feel confident in telling time in each of them. When we switch from one language to the other, we may prefer a more generic way to tell the time in order to avoid misunderstandings, when agreeing on an appointment for example.

Fact is that time can be indicated in different ways even in the same language, depending on where you are / with whom you are speaking.
In German one can say "viertel vor zwölf" or "dreiviertel zwölf" (lit. three quarter twelve) for "quarter to twelve", depending on the region.

"Viertel zwölf", literally "quarter twelve" actually means "quarter past eleven", 11:15, which is "a quarter of the 12th hour".




I personally find it difficult to switch between ways to tell time in German. I prefer checking twice to make sure what the person means when using "viertel" (without "vor" or "nach" – in oral speech people tend to talk fast and sometimes omit the preposition...) and "dreiviertel" to indicate the time.

If you read German, I invite you to have a look at a funny comic in the German newspaper Die Zeit, where they illustrate the difficulty of understanding the various uses of indicating time in German.

In one comment, "Norbert Z" says: "Außerdem ist drei viertel Acht genau eine halbe Stunde nach viertel Acht, und eine halbe Stunde vor viertel Neun. Außerdem darf sich jeder, der sich um viertel Neun mit anderen verabredet hat, stattdessen auch um viertel nach Acht erscheinen." / "three quarter eight is exactly half an hour after quarter past eight, and half an hour before quarter nine. Furthermore, everyone who arranges to meet at quarter nine, can also show up at quarter past eight"

The use of "half seven" in English, meaning 6:30, and "half zeven" in Dutch and "halb sieben" in German all indicate 6:30.

There are also ways to tell time more precisely, like in Swiss German: "foif voor halbi zwölfi" "five minutes before eleven thirty / half twelve" (11:25), same in German "fünf vor halb zwölf" or "fünf nach halb zwölf" (resp. 11:25 or 11:35). In Dutch we also have: "tien voor half drie" which means "ten before half three / half past two", i.e. "twenty past two" / "zwanzig nach zwei" (2:20) or also "vijf na half vier", "five after half four/half past three" (3:35) or "tien na half vier", which is "zwanzig vor vier" in German (3:40).

When learning a new language, being able to tell the time is part of the first lessons. Nevertheless, we if we usually learn the standard use of time telling, not the regional variants. When children are schooled in an additional language, teachers often assume that they learn how to tell time in their home language and the school language, and expect children to be able to use the school language spontaneously.
Not every multilingual family teaches how to tell times in all their languages as it can be quite different from language to language, and many parents find that it is more important that their children know how to tell and read the time in their school language.
I personally find that being able to tell the time in all our languages is part of the general life skills our children need to be able to do – and we, adults too! – in order to function in those languages.

When I asked if people are familiar with different ways to tell time in my facebook group, this is what some replied:

"When I talk to people from English speaking countries in German and we have an appointment at 12:30 and they say "Wir treffen uns um halb zwölf, oder?" I usually just agree. Never failed to be there in time because I know they really mean "halb eins", but the English "half twelve" interferes too much." (B.H.)

"I love Swiss German with its 'foif ab halbi zwölfi' (five past half past eleven) for 11.35 - this totally messed with my mind when I first heard it. Far too much Maths involved there for me (and I apologise for the horrendous spelling of the CH-De!)" (H.S.)

"The funny thing is, I learned "halb zwoelf" in German, before I ever heard "half twelve" in English, my native language... Just as I got used to it meaning 1130, I now had to learn it means 1230 in English!!! (because that seems to be a British thing and I'm Australian)" (F. C.)

And as time is considered in different ways across cultures – some use linear time others a more flexible one (or monochronic vs. polychronic): "When you are married to an Arab you need to check if they mean they will be back in an hour by the clock or an hour that extends as long as required" (J. OB.)


About UhrStunde in German, uur in Dutch, and why we can't say "es ist 13"...

Another interesting difference is the use of "Uhr" or "Stunde" in German, in contrast with "uur" in both contexts in Dutch. "Uhr" doesn't only define the object of the watch in German, but also the "time", Uhrzeit. It goes back to the Latin HORA "time, time of the year, time of the day, hour", for when we say "es ist fünf Uhr" (it is five o'clock). Uhr remains singular at any time it refers to (the same ways we don't say *it's five o'clocksBut in German we can also omit the word Uhr to tell when we're meeting: wir treffen uns um drei, the same way we can say it in English: we meet at three. Only when we use the 24 hours system, after the 12th hour we need to add "Uhr": wir treffen uns um dreizehn Uhr (lit. we meet at 13 hour), which applies to the time between 13:00 and 24:00. This kind of indicating hours of the day was introduced after WWI and are used in official settings. In this interesting article about this fact, they point out that the expression jetzt schlägts aber dreizehn! (lit. now it strikes thirteen) with the meaning of "now it's enough!", was in use before introducing the 24 hour countings, since the late 19 century. The reason for this expression was that, as the clock can only ring 12 times (and then starts from one again), and saying that the clock now will "strike thirteen" indicates something that goes beyond the possible or acceptable!

Do you have similar sayings in your language? 


  • I'm curious to know: can you tell the time in all your languages?
  • Can your children tell the time – also in different ways – in their languages?
  • Do teachers at your children's school teach different ways to tell times across languages?
  • What kind of telling languages do you prefer, feel more comfortable with?

 This is an ongoing post, which means that I will be adding more information, anecdotes, experiences etc. 

Further readings:

Kaenguru Comics in DIE ZEIT



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