Confused About German Numbers? Try Expressing German Time!

Ok, so for most foreigners the way Germans express numbers is… tricky… to say the least. Even though we write from left to right, we express two-digit numbers from right to left, and if you’re new to the country you find yourself checking the cashier’s display to make sure you understood correctly.

But numbers are not the only thing that’s different about German culture. Expressing time takes the concept of “conundrum” to a whole new level.

German culture has a very strict relationship with time. Germans appreciate punctuality, everything is planned and programmed, and time is fixed. Germans rarely multitask, they do one thing at a time. Lack of punctuality can cost you a job or a business deal (even though younger generations tend to be more fluid about time).

So understanding German time is clearly of utmost importance. The only problem is, people express time differently from one region to the next, and often in very confusing ways.

The Kiel-Liechtenstein Linie is an imaginary line separating the western from the eastern German-speaking areas, and it is hugely important for understanding time specifications in German.

Let’s have a look at the following examples:


To the west of the Kiel-Liechtenstein demarcation, people usually express this as “viertel nach acht” (a quarter past eight), whereas to the east people might say “viertel neun” (one out of four quarters to nine). In parts of Austria, they might even say “viertel über acht” (literally, a quarter over eight).


This will usually be expressed as “halb neun” (half an hour to nine) across all regions.


West: “viertel vor neun” (a quarter to nine)

East and Austria: “dreiviertel neun” (three out of four quarters to nine).

What is even more mind-boggling for the foreigner desperately trying to translate this in her head, are things like “sieben nach halb neun“.

Have you guessed correctly? “Sieben nach halb neun” is basically seven minutes past half past eight, so 8:37. What about “zwei nach dreiviertel elf“? Right, that should mean two minutes after a quarter to eleven, in other words 10:47. Funf vor halb acht” is 7:25, and so on.

All clear? 🙂 (Gee, I do hope I got them right…)

My recommendation: when in doubt, paraphrase and express time “digitally”, as in “ten forty-seven “, or “eight thirty“, or “seven twenty-five“. Always do this when setting an appointment.

Best of luck,



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