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Odd German Animal Names, Part I

Once you've been speaking a foreign language long enough, you tend to associate the name of something with whatever that name represents, and no longer notice how really strange that name might be. As we know, German tends to string words together to make new words, and many animal names are constructed this way. If we look at the root words of many of these animal names, however, they look pretty odd!

 

Er spricht das Faultier Sid.

He speaks (the voice-overs for) the sloth Sid.

Caption 6, Rheinmain Szene: Hochheimer Weinfest

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If you combine the adjective faul with das Tier, you have a "lazy animal." That's a pretty logical name for the sloth, which is known for its very slow movements.

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Ein fremdes Murmeltier ist ins Revier eingedrungen und wird verjagt.

A strange marmot has intruded into the territory and is chased away.

Caption 36, Alpenseen: Kühle Schönheiten

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In this case, however, it makes less sense. The verb murmeln means "to mumble," thus leaving us with "the mumbling animal." Marmots are not, however, known for mumbling, nor for speaking clearly, either. The name derives from an Old High German word murmunto, which itself is derived from the Latin word for "mountain mouse." That's one big mouse!

 

Da haben wir aber wirklich Glück gehabt mit der Köchin. Trampeltier. Aber eine gute Köchin.

We were really lucky with the cook. Clumsy oaf. But a good cook.

Captions 36-38, Marga Engel schlägt zurück: Arbeiten für den Feind

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In this case, we are dealing with the slang usage of animal names. Thus the word that is used for a Bactrian (two-humped) camel in formal German is used here to impolitely mean somebody who is clumsy. If you break the word down, the verb trampeln and the noun das Tier are put together to make "trampling animal." But the name actually derives from the dromedary, the one-humped camel, which in Middle High German is tromedar. Say it for a few centuries and eventually it will sound like Trampeltier. Language evolution is grand, isn't it?

 

Further Learning
Let's conclude the lesson today with the rest of the odd animal names that end with -tier: das Stinktier, das Gürteltier, das Schnabeltier, and das Maultier. Maybe you already know these German animal names, but if you don't, try translating the first half of each word and combining them. Then try and guess what animal is meant! You can also go to Yabla German and watch the videos listed above to find out more about these animals in context.

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