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I was just watching a crime show with a scene where the perpetrator shouted:

Ich habe ihn nicht ermordet!

I understand ermorden means to murder, but is there any difference between that, töten and umbringen? In the dictionaries, they all seem to mean to kill, but would there perhaps be a subtle legal difference between them? For example, would the use of ermorden mean it would have to be proved in court that you were the killer, where töten and umbringen are more in general? I've mainly come across umbringen in descriptions about war-time deaths. Does it then also have it's own separate connotation?

Would those above terms also be applicable then when talking about killing animals (e.g. for meat)? For the record, I'm vegetarian.

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Note that ermorden has a narrower range of meaning than murder, somewhat similar to (Canadian) first degree murder. Legal details can be found in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_(German_law). –  Ansgar Esztermann Apr 19 at 19:01

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The most important facts have already been mentioned in the answer of Patric Hartmann. However, I'd like to add some further information.

Töten is sort of generic term and is defined as to take someone's life (in German: jemandem das Leben nehmen). This word on its own does not contain any further hints on how the killing has been executed. And töten also includes death caused by, for example, natural disaster.

Großes Tokio-Erdbeben könnte 23.000 Menschen töten. Quelle

This is not possible with ermorden and umbringen, because both words include the connotation of doing the act of murdering intentionally.
The first word, ermorden, does also–in my humble opinion–slightly carry the idea of doing that in an cruel or malicious way (regardless that murdering someone is always a terrible criminal act). I mean, ermorden often comes with brutal or grausam and is also a common word when talking about Taliban or such, murdered presidents and rape.

Diese US-Präsidenten wurden ermordet. Quelle

The latter one, umbringen, is also quite generic. This word is most commonly used for suicide, which is rarely described with töten or ermorden. And according to corpora, this word is also the only one commonly used for killing each other. Other than that, it's quite neutral in its meaning and does not carry any further connotations.

Ihre Tochter wollte sich umbringen! Quelle

Apart, umbringen is very common in figurative expressions like "Du bringst mich noch um.", which just means that someone drives you crazy.


I used the corpus Wortschatz-Portal to ensure that my claims about collocations are based on facts. ;)

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Thank you. Can one also use those terms for animals or must one use "erschlagen" or "schlachten"? –  user5105 Apr 17 at 10:21
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@user5105 Erschlagen sounds wrong to me in any case. (It's to beat sb to death, so you actually tell precisely how someone was killed.) Schlachten is the process of killing an animal in order to gain meat or any other commodity. In that context ermorden sounds wrong, umbringen and töten (as generic terms) can be used. If you're talking about rituals, I guess any of this words can be applied, while ermorden is likely solely be used for derogatory remarks. Talking about criminal acts of killing an animal can be described with any of these words. –  Em1 Apr 17 at 11:01

ermorden = murder
It means to kill somebody by intention out of base motives (e.g. greed, jealousy, etc.).

töten = kill (in general)
It is the general term for any kind of killing. Töten can be intentional or unintentional, it can refer to people as to animals. It is, unlike English, rarely used for abstract things like programs yet almost solely for the killing of animate beings.

umbringen = kill
Also umbringen is a rather general term yet already implies an intention and a certain level of violence. It is yet hard to put it in a category, but if I have to, I'd say it's very close to töten.

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For the victim, it doesn't make a big difference.

Yet for the perpetrator it does make a difference. When the court finds that he murdered the victim, then he will go to jail for many years. OTOH, when it was an accident, he may even go free.

A hat B ermordert.

implies

A hat B getötet (oder umgebracht).

But the converse is not true. For example, you drive in a city, and suddenly someone jumps on the street, gets caught by the car and hits the street with his head, so that he dies. In that case, we could say:

Der Zusammenprall mit dem Fahrzeug hat den Fußgänger getötet.

There is no question of ermorden in this case. And also umbringen presupposes some intention of doing so at least if it is used in the active form (according to my gut feeling):

A hat B umgebracht.

(at least weakly) implies

A wollte B töten.

But consider:

Als B auf die Straße trat, wurde er von einem Auto erfaßt. Das hat ihn umgebracht.

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