Deborah Cole writes in the Guardian (archived) about the humorous side of the Awful German Language:

German has provided some of the most jaw-straining single words in the history of human language. Fußbodenschleifmaschinenverleih (rental shop for floor-sanding machines), anyone? Not to mention
Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, a late lamented state law for labelling meat. […]

Now German, the primary vernacular of about 100 million Europeans, is turning its prickly peculiarities into an asset with an embrace of Zungenbrecher (literally, tongue-breakers) that have touched off a global comeback of the wordplay, even among people who do not speak the language. Its biggest star is Bodo Wartke, 47, a Berlin-based cabaret performer, playwright and pianist who has a remarkable gift of the gab. His songs – intricate rap tales spun out from existing German tongue-twisters and set to infectious beats – have garnered tens of millions of TikTok and YouTube views, beginning with Der dicke Dach­decker, about an overweight roofer, and culminating in Barbaras Rhabarberbar (Barbara’s Rhubarb Bar) parts I and II.

In those monster hits, Wartke and musical partner, Marti Fischer, tell the story “once upon a time” of a bar owner named Barbara who enchants all who try her rhubarb cake, including a group of bushy-bearded, beer-swilling barbarians who bring their barber back to try a bite. A sequel released last month sees the successful Barbara hire help to meet the mounting demand: a “smart, charming and well-read” bisexual woman named Bärbel. The two fall in love, get married with barbecuing barbarians in attendance and rhubarb cake on the menu. Months later, a child is born and then raised in the bar by Barbara, Bärbel and the doting barbarians. In other words, a Rhabarber-Barbara-Bar-Barbarenbartbarbier-Bierbar-Baby. […]

The author Gerhard Henschel, whose book Zungenbrecher looked at the universal appeal of tongue-twisters, said a “high level of difficulty” determined the best performances. But even failure to pull one off without stumbling rarely triggered schadenfreude, he said. “On the other hand a perfectly articulated tongue-twister can get a big laugh.” Wartke said he loves that sense of “relief” in the audience when he performs live and on point, a kind of catharsis familiar from the theatre. His next step toward tongue-twister world domination will be an English-language collaboration with Fischer, spinning a yarn from the classic Three Swiss witches watch three Swatch watches.

Click for clips and links. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Aha, so I suppose Russian головоломка (puzzle lit headbreaker) is a german calque? PS no, it seems it is not.

    (and the Russian name of tongue-twister is literally fastspeaker, so I when I first learned “tongue-twister” I was quite surpised. The Russian name is basically an instruction while Z. and t.-t. are based on different logic.
    “tongue break-FUT.2s” is a grumbling commentary on a text difficult to pronounce).

  2. Keith Ivey says

    Aha, so I suppose Russian головоломка (puzzle lit headbreaker) is a german calque?

    French casse-tête and Spanish rompecabezas also use headbreaker for puzzle, though I think the Spanish word refers only to the jigsaw variety.

  3. The Russian word usually refers to toys (it is used in the Russian translation of the title “Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions” and looks a bit strange).

    More or less everything in this picuture (some have their own names, e.g. Rubik”s cube) except the rightmost one.
    These only appeared with the fall of USSR and everyone around me called them pazzl pl. pazzly🙂 I think my ex-wife who buys them frequently calls them differently but I forgot how.

  4. JorgeHoracio says

    Keith, the usual Spanish name for tongue twisters is


    (though some prefer to call them destrabalenguas)

  5. I have somewhere written down a German tongue twister passed down from my great-uncle. If I find it I’ll post it. Something about a bloated corpse, as I recall. He had that kind of humor (and was a doctor).

  6. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Hovedbrud is used in a more general sense of a problem that needs deliberation to solve. I don’t remember any generic terms for tongue twisters like stativ, stakit, kasket; which is traditional and amazingly hard to repeat fast for something so short.

  7. He had that kind of humor (and was a doctor).

    Eddyshaw will know it. Or at least will know the Kusaal equivalent.

  8. Fußbodenschleifmaschinenverleih is no more jaw-straining than “floor-sanding machine rental shop” is. “Eye-straining” maybe, but orally it is no different than English concatenation. Why does this nonsense persist? My Facebook friends love to post pseudo German “words”, especially the Ivy League ones for some reason.

    And how come Swedish never gets called out? Even ignoring the nonce word “nordvästersjökustartilleriflygspaningssimulatoranläggningsmaterielunderhållsuppföljningssystemdiskussionsinläggsförberedelsearbete” a normal “Krigsmaterielexportöversynskommittén” is no different than German.

  9. David Marjanović says

    a late lamented state law for labelling meat

    Of course not. It’s for transferring the task of supervising the labelling of beef.

    …and its official abbreviation is much more horrible.

  10. RflEttÜAÜG!!

  11. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    RflEttÜAÜG: Danish could do the same, but probably wouldn’t. Sporvognsskinneskidtskrabersangforeningsdirigent is a traditional joke which also partakes of the tongue twister nature to some extent. (Director of the choir association of the tram track dirt scrapers. It’s probably true that on occasion some functionaries of the tramways used special tools to remove dirt from tram tracks, but that it wasn’t their job title).
    (*) Oksekødsetiketteringstilsynsansvarsoverdragelseslov. And a full complement of 5 joining s-es where German has a measly 3..

  12. official … much more horrible

    Sabine Hossenfelder seems to have a large number of bees in her bonnet. Why I’m embarrassed to be German. It seems all my caricatures of C20th Germany are way off the mark. Fair comment?

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Although it’s not what Hossenfelder is going on about, as one who regards Brexit as an epochal blunder largely driven by far-right bad actors and accomplished by fomenting racism and xenophobia, there is a strangeness in watching the horrible rightward lurch in the politics of so many EU countries. More of that, and I might even become partly reconciled to it all …

    Anyway, it’s always salutory to be reminded that the many problems one sees in one’s own country are not, in point of fact, unknown in other countries too.

    (The part of France I know best these days is, alas, a hotbed of RN support. Lovely people, so long as you have a complexion like mine.)

  14. Lovely people, so long as you have a complexion like mine.

    Even if one didn’t, one might be told, “not you, you’re great, I mean in general…”

  15. “Wer a Jud is, bestimm i!”

  16. I was thinking of Himmler’s Posen speeches: “Und dann kommen sie alle an, die braven 80 Millionen Deutschen, und jeder hat seinen anständigen Juden. Es ist ja klar, die anderen sind Schweine, aber dieser eine ist ein prima Jude.” He knew his lesser racists well.

  17. I‘m still confused what Hossenfelder has to do with Zungenbrecher. Partly because AntC‘s link doesn’t seem to go anywhere, at least on my device.

  18. Likewise. I like her videos. I think she’s funny.

  19. I have a personal German trains story from a few years ago. We (others and I, I was not crowned yet) flew into Frankfurt one morning with a plan to end up in the evening in Rostock. It’s not exactly a close by city, but we had tickets in hand and they were pretty reasonable – up North to Hamburg then East to Rostock. Only on Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof we discovered that our train to Hamburg was delayed. No matter, let’s go first North-East, to Berlin and then North. But the train company doesn’t want to change our tickets because the train to Hamburg still exists and a little delay is not a problem. We kiss good bye to the Berlin train and three minutes after it departs our reliable train to Hamburg is delayed another hour or two such that even if it departs at all there is no way to catch a train to Rostock, not that day anyway. Now DB is more cooperative, but what train do we ride on? As it happens, the Berlin train that we missed departed with about a two hour delay and there is another one that we should have missed instead but it’s not departed yet because it’s delayed two hours coming from Stuttgart. We gamely change tickets to this late train and await its arrival. Timetables work perfectly. We are going to have an hour in Berlin to switch trains, just have to decide whether to do it on Südkreuz or go straight to the center. The train arrives with a bit more delay, we hop in and it departs Frankfurt. Ooof. Only it doesn’t depart Frankfurt, it departs the train station and is immediately involved in a competition on who can move the slowest. Minutes tick by, an electronic board on the train honestly shows our presumed arrival in Berlin getting further and further away until it reaches five minutes before the train to Rostock, the last one for the day. At this moment our train either wins or looses its competition and starts to move. It even gains us a few minutes somewhere between Eisenbach and Leipzig where it makes (as shown on the same excellent electronic board) close to 250 km/h. We are getting ready for the run across a Berlin train station from one platform to another, but here the story ends. Rostock train sweeps us out from the same platform the Frankfurt train left us on three minutes earlier. We were so thrilled to ride German trains that would have stayed on our last one even longer and missed the Rostock station if it were not the very last one and we were not asked to leave the premises.

  20. AntC‘s link doesn’t seem to go anywhere

    Yikes! and apologies: messed up my html, I think. Try this (or search for the title I gave).

    caricatures of C20th Germany

    Whilst I’m correcting myself, I mean “second-half C20th Germany”.

    has to do with Zungenbrecher

    Not much, and I’m testing our host’s tolerance by derailing into politics. It was the “official abbreviation” … “for transferring the task of supervising the labelling of beef.” which ought to have been a symptom of the once-famed pedantic efficiency.

    @DE the horrible rightward lurch in the politics of so many EU countries

    I think this week’s election in UK demonstrates a horrible rightward lurch: Labour didn’t win much [**], Reform took away the Tory votes. (SNP crumpled: goodbye Scotland rejoining EU.)

    [**] On a turnout less than 2019, Labour increased its proportion of the vote by barely 2%. That is, Starmer is barely more appealing than Corbyn — even after the Tories’ dreadful performance. Given the stupid FPP system, voters were smart enough to figure out who to vote for to avoid the Tories winning. Reform in some places, LibDem in others.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think there are more fascist supporters in the UK. (Less, in fact, as they progressively die off. Demographics …)

    They were always there. The difference is that they previously trusted the Tories to implement nice racist policies for them, and changed their votes to an upfront fascist “party” when it became clear that the Tories are now not even competent at being evil.

    As for vote percentages, I draw a different moral. The allegedly extreme-left and hopelessly impractical Corbyn actually performed just about as well as the right-wing “pragmatist” Starmer. The difference is FPP.

    Labour would still be the government if we had a PR system, And there is no such animal as a “supermajority” in the UK. The size of the majority is irrelevant (unless it’s very small indeed.)

  22. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    There was something about the Tories being able to set the order of the day in the previous parliament and prevent Her Royal Majesty’s loyal opposition from proposing things that it would look bad to vote against. Like functioning healthcare. Or rather make sure it was never scheduled for debate. Except they couldn’t cancel PMQs or votes of no confidence.

    Maybe that’s what people mean by a supermajority. (In the US, isn’t that something about being able to vote through a motion that a matter be voted on immediately, or whatever the term is, so the other party can’t filibuster).

  23. David Marjanović says

    German trains: yeah, that’s normal. Even as a theoretical baseline, the network already operates at 120% of its capacity, so the slightest delay anywhere has cascading effects throughout the rest of the day and the rest of the country plus a few other countries; and then on top of that come all the construction sites. Decades of mismanagement yadda yadda.

    In the US

    Yes, 60% in the Senate to close discussion and proceed to the actual vote.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Wow, Hossenfelder’s glottalization is good.

  25. David Marjanović says

    the horrible rightward lurch in the politics of so many EU countries

    Extreme-right parties have a hard ceiling of some 35%, and that’s when they have a charismatic leader. The US has so far escaped this limitation by transforming half of its political landscape into such a party that kept almost all the previous base of that half; we’ll see if that changes.

    France, meanwhile, has not broken the ceiling. Check out young Marianne with the beer that Le Monde used to illustrate the following:

    “Live en cours
    En direct : désillusion pour les électeurs du RN dans l’Isère ; la gauche fête sa victoire à Paris, Rennes ou Marseille”

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Extreme-right parties have a hard ceiling of some 35%

    From your mouth to God’s ears …
    But all that seems to mean is, So far it hasn’t happened, except when it has.

    However, Vive la France!

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    I do not purport to understand the intricacies of the U.K.’s convoluted electoral system and its shifts of insider-finagled detail over time, but it does seem from a distance that the key to Labour’s big comeback was (via a causal pathway that is not immediately obvious to me) the dramatic slashing in Welsh representation in Parliament. Which also seems to have redounded to the benefit of Plaid Cymru, up from 3 seats out of 40 to 4 out of 32.

    The very strong outcome for the Tory incumbent in Harrow East suggests a promising potential future as a Hindutva-oriented party, although I’m not sure how many other constituencies presently have the voter demographics necessary for that strategy to be successful. It certainly failed to gain traction in either Orkney & Shetland or Na h-Eileanan an Iar.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    the key to Labour’s big comeback was (via a causal pathway that is not immediately obvious to me) the dramatic slashing in Welsh representation in Parliament

    This was due to a rectification of the cosmic balance. As the forces of Evil had thus undermined the power of the holy Welsh people, the forces of Good fought back by granting a vision of Socialism to the benighted English. Take that, Evil!

  29. Wow, Hossenfelder’s glottalization is good.

    I assume you mean her English language skills. I wonder who her intended audience is supposed to be for that video. Why complain about modern Germany to foreigners? They mostly don’t care and certainly won’t do anything about it. Seems like she is trying to ingratiate herself with the English for some reason.

  30. her [Hossenfelder’s] English language skills

    I appreciate she’s addressing complex subject-matter in a foreign (to her) language. I could cope with her accent, but often it’s her word-stress/cadence that throws me off. She doesn’t seem to have grasped that in English, stress is phonemic. She’s using obscure (to me) polysyllabic technical terms; I often need a double-take to grasp what word that is. Weird because I thought German worked on much the same principles as English.

    intended audience is supposed to be for that video

    Yeah. When she sticks to her core subjects, it’s usually very precisely organised. It seems as a now full-time YouTuber, she’s on the treadmill to turn out something/anything at frequent intervals. I’m all in favour of YouTubers just ‘passing over in silence’ when they’ve nothing to say.

    On the channels I subscribe to, there seems to have been a rash of navel-gazing: should I quit? Why is the algorithm turning everything to crud? Must be Summer up there or something.

  31. David Marjanović says

    Yes, stress is phonemic in German – although stress shift as a method of derivation (e.g. verb recórd – noun récord) is absent. However, where the stress goes in English can be hard to guess from the outside. In particular, German has no compunctions about stressing the last syllable in Latinate words, while English much prefers to first take the Latin endings off and then apply Latin stress rules (or some semblance thereof), so the stress never lands on the last syllable.

    Seems like she is trying to ingratiate herself with the English for some reason.

    I really, really don’t think she thinks that far. She’s extroverted; whenever she has an emotion, it comes with an uncontrollable urge to tell the whole world about it, so it goes on her YouTube channel. 😐

    Why is the algorithm turning everything to crud?

    Because money inevitably ruins everything. Enshittification has a Wikipedia article now.

  32. I think she probably just fell into a career as a content creator, because creating videos explaining physics was something she felt she was good at doing. However, there is a huge difference between doing a bit of that on the side and trying to make a regular living out of it. As already noted, to make a living, one needs to produce new content constantly—both to keep regular viewers engaged and because the (YouTube and other) algorithms will not do much to promote videos from people who only post sporadically. When I was facing the possibility of having to leave academia, content creator was not a job option, but it was not one I would ever have considered if it had been. I understood from a relatively early time that if one is going to work on esoteric topics in theoretical physics, it was going to be difficult to get a permanent, stable position. So I had a backup plan, and I could have switched over to quantitative finance if I washed out as a scientist. I suspect, that Hossenfelder, although her research topics were as exotic as mine—or more so—did not really have a remunerative backup plan in the same way. (Then again, maybe she doesn’t need to. Her husband washed out as a physicist before she did, although I’m not sure exactly when; he’s not easy to search for, since he shares a name with another, much more successful German physicist—the advisor of my closest collaborator in my department, actually. Perhaps he makes enough now that she is relatively free to do what she wants.)

  33. David Marjanović says

    Yes, stress is phonemic in German – although stress shift as a method of derivation (e.g. verb recórd – noun récord) is absent.

    I found a fake example: adjective/adverb perfékt – noun Pérfekt (the tense). But the latter has contrastive stress from Präsens, Imperfekt, Plusquamperfekt, all with initial stress.

  34. Stu Clayton says

    noun Pérfekt (the tense)

    Huh. Good thing I never had occasion to use that word, since I would have applied stress on the second syllable, as in the adjective. And as in Konfekt, Präfekt, Infekt, Projekt, Effekt etc.

  35. David Marjanović says

    It’s like how the names of grammatical cases are all stressed on the first syllable even though all other -iv words are stressed on the last.

  36. the names of grammatical cases are all stressed on the first syllable even though all other -iv words are stressed on the last.
    That seems to be a comparatively recent phenomenon — I have a pdf copy of Siebs’ Bühnenaussprache from 1912 and he has Ablativ with the primary accent on the final syllable and a secondary accent on the first syllable. I can imagine Latin teachers at the time insisting on accenting the -i- and never the first syllable. In fact, they probably would have used Ablativus instead of the vulgar Ablativ

  37. And Siebs 1912 has Perfekt(um) with the accent on the second syllable.

  38. ulr, thank you for those comments on what Siebs gives!

  39. David Marjanović says

    Fascinating. My Latin teachers stressed the first syllables.

  40. Mine too, except of course when they used the Latin forms (like ablativus absolutus).

  41. PlasticPaddy says

    Re GEnitiv, ABlativ, is it possible a rule ě-ĕ-Ē > Ě-ĕ-ĕ has been at work since early 20C, where ĕ (resp. ē) is a short (resp. long) vowel and capitalisation means stress? I believe the word Telefon(buch) changed accordingly in the late 20C. Words like “intensiv” would be exempt because the “in” is a prefix.

  42. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish has first-syllable stress on the more-or-less nativized names of the cases. Except for ak’kusativ (at least for me, but ‘akkusativ is probably out there; I blame German). But we also have the old native-at-all-costs versions navnefald, genstandsfald, hensynsfald, ejefald.

  43. David Marjanović says

    For Telefon I only know /tɛlɛˈfoːn/ (southern?) and /ˈteːlɛfoːn/ (northern?). The former follows the rule that last syllables with unreduced vowels attract the stress, the latter probably respects the original eta.

  44. Telefon? Either [‘te:ləfoːn] or [teːlə’foːn] (that’s a bit pedantic) or [telə’foːn] (the most common variant, I think). Anything but [ə] in the second syllable simply sounds ridiculous.

  45. David Marjanović says

    I was careful to use //, not [].

    1) I haven’t yet encountered a Standard German accent whose “ə” can’t simply be considered the unstressed allophone of /ɛ/ (just as the spelling claims).
    2) Actual [ə] is not actually common; as far as I can tell, [ɵ] is most widespread*, probably followed by [ɘ].
    3) Not all Standard accents even have a reduced allophone of /ɛ/. Good luck finding one in Austria behind the Arlberg outside the Burgtheater. Words like Hände have the exact same [ɛ] twice in Austrian Standard German. (That’s because the Bavarian dialects have almost entirely lost the MHG reduced vowel.)

    * A distinctly rounded sound that I’d interpret as my /œ/ and/or /øː/ if I didn’t know better. I have very circumstantial evidence that some strange method of stenography actually did that.

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