The German language is full of interesting proverbs that hold valuable life advice.
German learners, memorize some or all of these if you’d like to add some weight to your words… or simply to impress your German friends.
Proverbs that are similar in English and German
1. Du siehst den Wald lauter Bäumen nicht
Literally: you don’t see the forest for all the trees
Since this proverb is so similar to the English equivalent, its literal and metaphoric translations are the same! This proverb is a good reminder to not just look at the details, such as specific failures or successes, but rather the whole picture.
2. Erst denken, dann handeln
Literally: first think, then act
While this might translate directly, the more common English equivalent is ‘think before you speak,’ or ‘think before you leap.’ Essentially, this proverb is instructing you to take a moment and consider possible consequences and outcomes before doing anything.
3. Kümmere dich nicht um ungelegte Eier
Literally: don’t care/worry about the unlaid eggs
This proverb is fairly similar to the English ‘don’t count your chickens before they hatch.’ However, this version isn’t suggesting we shouldn’t rely on means we don’t have, but rather to not worry about things that haven’t and might never happen.
4. Wer ernten will, muss säen
Literally: whoever wants to harvest will sow
While this proverb’s literal translation might seem unrelated to any English proverbs, it has the colloquial meaning of ‘you reap what you sow.’ It’s one of the many ways of saying ‘what goes around comes around,’ good or bad. For example:
Ich fiel mein Prüfung aus! (I failed my test!)
Wer ernten will, muss säen. Du hättest studieren sollen. (You reap what you sow. You should’ve studied)
5. Das Auge isst mit
Literally: the eye eats too
In English, the proverb becomes ‘eat with your eyes,’ and is perhaps more popular among chefs/cooks. It highlights that our eyes see things before we eat them and can alter perceptions about the food.
A similar proverb that can be applied more generally would be ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ or ‘verurteile niemals ein Buch aufgrund seines Covers.’
German proverbs about learning
6. Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren ist Kunst
Literally: to start is easy, to persist is art
Anyone who has tried to start a new habit, learn a new skill, or even tried to get kids to clean up after themselves has probably felt this German proverb. Essentially it means that starting to do something is much easier than seeing it all the way through.
7. Aus Schaden wird man klug
Literally: through detriment/disadvantage one becomes smart
A more metaphoric translation of this proverb would be ‘failure makes one smart.’ This is probably a particularly helpful reminder for perfectionists. We don’t have to be perfect at everything we do, and in fact, failing actually does help us learn!
8. Übung macht den Meister
Literally: practice makes the master
This German proverb is pretty similar to the English ‘practice makes perfect,’ but instead emphasizes mastery over perfection. Even if you’re naturally good at something, you won’t become a master at it without practice. Here’s an example:
Komm schon. Du spielst immer Geige, kommst an den Strand. (Come on. You always play the violin, come to the beach)
Vielleicht später. Übung macht den Meister. (Maybe later. Practice makes perfect)
9. Was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr
Literlly: what Hansy/little Hans doesn’t learn, Hans will never learn
This proverb can be seen colloquially as ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Generally, it is thought to mean that if you don’t learn something while you’re young, you won’t learn it at all.
However, it can also be taken to mean that if you don’t teach your kids the fundamentals (i.e., manners, patience, resilience) when they’re young, then they won’t have those things when they’re adults and will struggle to acquire them later in life.
German proverbs about relationships
10. Jeder sollte vor seiner eigenen Tür kehren
Literally: everyone should sweep their own door
More metaphorically, this saying translates to ‘clean your own doorstep,’ and is similar to the English ‘clean your own house first’. It means that before you judge and criticize others, take care of your own messes or issues first.
11. Wer A sagt, muss auch B sagen
Literally: who(ever) says A must also say B
This German proverb is suggesting that if you’re committing to something, you need to commit all the way, not only to the parts you want to do. This is a good proverb when dealing with your loved ones, since it serves as a good reminder to follow through on your promises.
12. Der Ton macht die Musik
Literally: the tone makes the music
Everyone has definitely had an instance where they’ve said something, or had something said to them, that on the surface was fine but was said with a tone indicating otherwise. This German proverb is for those exact moments and suggests that the way something is said matters just as much as what is said. For example:
Putzt dein Zimmer bitte. (Clean your room please)
Ich werde Mama. (I will, mom)
Hast keine Einstellung! (Don’t have an attitude!)
Ich habe nicht. (I don’t)
Der Ton macht die Musik. (The tone makes the music)
13. Er hat Haare auf den Zähnen
Literally: He has hair on the teeth
This is another one having to do with tone, though its meaning is slightly less clear from the start. English-speakers are probably more familiar with the term ‘sharp tongue’ than ‘hairy teeth,’ but the two have relatively the same colloquial meaning.
14. Eifersucht ist eine Leidenschaft, die mit Eifer sucht, was Leiden schafft
Literally: jealousy is a passion that searches with eagerness for what creates pain
This German proverb not only offers wisdom about jealousy, but it also works as a fun play on words. Its proverbial meaning is essentially the same as the literal one and it serves as a good reminder of the pain jealousy can bring if you give in to it.
German proverbs about life
15. Kleinvieh macht aus Mist
Literally: small livestock/domestic animals also make manure
This German proverb serves as a good reminder that even the small things add up, both good and bad. On the one hand, perhaps you think that not recycling is fine since others do it, but if a bunch of people think that way, then those ‘individuals’ make a big impact.
On the other hand, if you put away even 2% of your paycheck each month, then over time you’ll have a much larger amount. This alternate scenario is a bit optimistic, though, and generally this proverb is used for negative actions.
16. Wenn zwei sich streiten, freut sich der Dritte
Literally: when two fight, the third is happy
Essentially this German proverb is saying that when two people are fighting, there might be a third person profiting from the conflict. It’s a good reminder to be aware of the circumstances and understand why you’re even fighting with someone in the first place, and whether it’s really worth it.
17. Krummes Holz gibt auch gerades Feuer
Literally: bent wood also makes straight fire
This is another good proverb for perfectionists or people who struggle with waiting for the ‘perfect’ opportunity. It’s suggesting that you don’t need, or even perhaps shouldn’t, wait for the perfect moment, but rather work with what you have.
I think it’s especially good as a reminder that sometimes we do have to create our ‘perfect’ opportunities; they won’t just come along on their own.
18. Pünktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Königs
Literally: punctuality is the courtesy of kings
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a German proverb about punctuality. It actually originated as a French proverb, but ended up being adapted in Germany. A bit obviously, this proverb is suggesting that punctuality is an important quality. Here’s an example:
Entschuldige, ich weiß, dass ich zu spät bin! (Sorry, I know I’m late!)
Pünktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Königs. (Punctuality is the courtesy of kings)
19. Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof/Wunschkonzert/Zuckerschlecken
Literally: life is not a pony farm/musical request program/lick of sugar/bed of roses
Much like in English, German also has a saying for how life is not like X pleasurable thing. There are a couple of different ways to get this sentiment across in German, so I’ve included them all here. You can pick and choose depending on which you feel life is least like at the moment.
20. In der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen
Literally: in an emergency, the devil eats flies
While this German proverb conjures up some funny images, it’s suggesting that we can’t always be picky. Thus, if there’s an emergency, then the devil will turn to flies for sustenance due to scarcity.
English-speakers might be more familiar with the proverb ‘beggars can’t be choosers,’ which is what this proverb is imparting.
21. Blinder Eifer schadet nur!
Literally: blind zeal only harms
Lastly, this German proverb is a good reminder that while sometimes we can be enthusiastic about something, enthusiastic passion lacking knowledge is a good way to get yourself, or others, hurt.
This can be about something as small as getting into running but not knowing proper form and stretches, resulting in cramps or a pulled muscle. It can also be about something bigger, such as a desire to help but instead creating or perpetuating harm.
If you liked these German proverbs and want to add more colloquialisms to your vocabulary, check out these German idioms and sayings! You can also learn more fun facts about German and the similarities and differences between German and English.
If you’re in more of a learning mood, you can browse these apps and podcasts that can help you become a better German speaker. There are even some great translator apps! If you’re looking for something beyond apps and podcasts, we also have a comprehensive list that includes books and courses.