Milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia and eons. Time is a constant conversation topic and of importance to everyone. It’s useful to know how time is referred to in other languages for all sorts of reasons, even if it’s just to know what the time is, or when a train or a plane is going to depart.

It’s Time to Learn How German Speakers Refer to Time

Here are some ways that German speakers refer to time

#1 12 hours or 24 hours?

Like most places in Europe, Germans, Austrians and people in other countries where German is the predominant language, use the 24-hour clock when referring to the time of the day. This can take some getting used to for native English language speakers because even though the 24-hour clock is universal, most people tend to use the 12-hour clock in everyday speech. So if you are waiting for the time of the next bus when in Frankfurt, don’t be surprised if it is 14.15, not 2.30 p.m.

#2 Asking the time

There are several ways to ask the time in German, just like there is in most languages. The only real difference between these phrases is the level of politeness involved. For example, asking someone o the street “Wie viel Uhr ist es?” or “Wie spät ist es?” is just a little more abrupt than asking “Können Sie mir sagen wie spät es ist?” or “Haben Sie die Uhrzeit?”

#3 Understanding the time

Of course, there isn’t much use asking the time if you don’t know what the reply is. Fortunately, the German way of saying the time is pretty much the same as it is said in English although often enough if you ask someone in the street, the answer may be more idiomatic or you may even hear a regional response.

The keywords to remember are the word Uhr for hour (in place of the English “o clock”), minuten for minutes, nach for after the hour and vor for before the hour. String these together as long as you can count in German from 1 to 30 and you should pick up most of the replies. Here are some examples.

  • Zwanzig Minuten vor elf Uhr becomes “twenty minutes to eleven”;
  • Fünfzehn Minuten nach vierzehn Uhr is the time of that bus above – fifteen minutes past 14 hours or 2.15 p.m.

German speakers may leave off the word Minuten and Uhr, just like English speakers leave off the words “minutes” and “o clock”. They also use the words viertel (quarter), halb (half) and dreiviertel (three quarters) in a similar way when talking about the time as in English. Here are some examples.

  • Es ist zehn vor eins means “It is ten to one”. In this case, the context will determine whether it is one in the morning or one in the afternoon.
  • Es ist siebzehn nach acht um Abend means “It is seventeen minutes past eight in the evening”.
  • Der Bus fährt um Viertel vor drei ab means “the bus is leaving at a quarter to three”.

Hab viel Spaß! (Have a good time!)