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Today I came across this comic about the meaning of "literally". The point of the comic is that "literally" cannot be used to intensify a narration. I was wondering if the same applies to the German translations "regelrecht" and "buchstäblich".

While Duden lists them as synonyms, Wiktionary distinguishes between them and gives "ohne übertragene Lesweise" as the meaning for "buchstäblich" (translation "literally") and words like "wirklich, wahrlich, geradezu" for "regelrecht" (translation "downright").

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As an aside, wirklich and wahrlich are not good synonyms for regelrecht. The semantic area covered by wirklich is far greater and wahrlich is old-fashioned language that no-one uses nowadays except for ironic effect. Better synonyms are geradezu, nachgerade, richtiggehend. –  Eugene Seidel Apr 9 '12 at 15:33

6 Answers 6

First of all, the synonyms listed on DUDEN are just words with similar meaning. They are not necessarily interchangeable without changing connotation. Every word–like in English–has its own special meaning.

Buchstäblich is derived from Buchstabe (letter) and is a possible translation for literally. Another similar translation is wortwörtlich, or wortgetreu. All these words mean that something is exactly as the word (or letter) says. It essentially means: closest match to the originally meaning.

Regelrecht is more about according to the rules (Regel = rule - recht = right/well). So in colloquial speech you use regelrecht to say, that something is alright. So it tends more to be like it's true (and that's the second meaning of the word).
So, actually, the use of regelrecht is more about to strengthen your statement rather than saying that is is literal.

I wouldn't list regelrecht as a translation for literally, but in some cases it could be the appropriate translation, though.

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To say that something is alright and follows the rules, I'd use „regelgerecht“, not „regelrecht“. „Regelrecht“ feels to me, as a native speaker, to be used for modifying an adverb or adjective. –  Christopher Creutzig Apr 9 '12 at 18:35
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How useful is using words according to outdated definitions? That may have been the meaning at some point (“meaning” being what people use it for and understand it as), but unless you are targeting the language of that time, using the word in this way just feels odd. –  Christopher Creutzig Apr 9 '12 at 19:03
    
let us continue this discussion in chat –  Em1 Apr 10 '12 at 8:02

I didn't know there is a prescriptivist comic on the net, LOL @ the gayroller.

Anyway, the same prescriptivist critique that the comic levels at misuse of literally can of course be leveled at German speakers misusing buchstäblich in exactly the same way. (Just now I have the TV on in the background and there came this line: Errol Flynn legte sich ihr buchstäblich zu Füßen, when they mean Errol Flynn courted her ardently.) Likewise, the (orthodox, approved) semantic area covered by literally is pretty much congruent with the area covered by buchstäblich.

Of course, hoping to reverse the trend via prescriptivist critiques is about as likely to succeed as King Canute attempting to stop the tide. Their real function is to act as markers for a self-identified elite (a few people also care out of a genuine love for the language [note how I am demarcating a super-elite within an elite here, LOL]). Eventually the unwashed masses win and then anyone clinging to the old ways is a fag and 'tarded (see: Idiocracy).

Anyway, no, regelrecht and buchstäblich do not have the same meaning. Downright is a good translation for regelrecht. The Answers that claim that regelrecht means according to the rules are wrong, the people who say that confuse regelrecht with regelgerecht, which does mean that.

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Dann ist der DUDEN auch falsch ;p und WIKI –  Em1 Apr 9 '12 at 6:57
    
So ist es. Ein Blick auf die Wolken bei Duden genügt. Jedes der häufig gemeinsam mit regelrecht verwendeten Substantive und Verben entspricht seiner Bedeutung als Synonym von richtiggehend, nachgerade, geradezu, keines einer Bedeutung als Synonym von regelgerecht. –  Eugene Seidel Apr 9 '12 at 15:01

buchstäblich

"Buchstäblich" is "verbatim". "Buchstäblich" means letter by letter, word by word.


regelrecht

"Regelrecht" is "according to the rules".

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I'd regard “downright” as a valid translation of (one of the common meanings of) „regelrecht“. „Was der da macht ist regelrecht kriminell!“ –  Christopher Creutzig Apr 9 '12 at 18:33
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Das ist keine einleuchtende Erklärung, denn die Bedeutung eines Wortes erschließt sich gerade nicht aus der Kombination der Buchstaben. Zu regelrecht: "Der Zoopfleger wurde vom Elephanten regelrecht an die Wand geschmiert, als dieser einen Schritt zurücktrat". Welche Regeln kamen hier zur Anwendung? Die Regeln der Physik? –  user unknown Apr 9 '12 at 23:53

Es gibt eine Schnittmenge der Bedeutungen, d. h., gelegentlich kann man sowohl buchstäblich als auch regelrecht sagen. Für buchstäblich gibt es aber weniger Anwendungsfälle; man muss mit dem Wort strenger sein.

  • In der Eiszeit wurden Felsen durch die Kraft des Eises regelrecht zermahlen.
  • In der Eiszeit wurden Felsen durch die Kraft des Eises buchstäblich zermahlen.
  • Im Polizeiverhör wurde der Beschuldigte regelrecht zermürbt.

Buchstäblich zermürbt hat nicht einmal die spanische Inquisition.

  • Beim Sturz von der Anrichte hat es den Truthahn regelrecht zerlegt.
  • Der Hausherr hat daraufhin lediglich den Rehrücken regelgerecht zerlegt (i. S. v. kunstgerecht).
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A research at Linguee.com yielded evidence, at least I think so, that buchstäblich can be used to intensify a statement in German.

The 3rd and forth examples given there stand out as prove... noone was really crushed nor have there been thousands of split votes... at least I doubt it.

However, most of the "buchstäblichs" there are translated as "literally" which, based on your theory, is probably wrong/ not adequate.

Same goes for "regelrecht"... the very first example shows it. Basic research cannot explode (unless it is done improperly). All the examples feel right to me as a native German. Thus I would say: the answer is no. Both words are feasible choices to intensify stuff and their connotation goes beyond a mere "in the actual sense of that word"

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buchstäblich

[...] Wiktionary distinguishes between them and gives "ohne übertragene Lesweise" as the meaning for "buchstäblich" (translation "literally")

Fits pretty well.
ohne übertragene Lesweise - not in the figurative sense

Lots of words are often used figuratively, so are idoms. If you add buchstäblich, you mean it in the very literally sence.

Da musste er buchstäblich die Luft anhalten

die Luft anhalten can be meant in a figurative sense, but by adding buchstäblich it's definately the literal sense. It is not uncommon to leave out a clearifying buchstäblich to impart an ambiguous sense.


regelrecht

[...] and words like "wirklich, wahrlich, geradezu" for "regelrecht" (translation "downright").

regelrecht (when not used in the sense of proper / according to norms) usually introduces some kind of special expression, mostly giving a very vivid, demonstrative notion of what actually happend.

Der Gockel wurde von dem Fahrzeug regelrecht zerlegt.

Instead one might just say or write

Der Gockel wurde von dem Fahrzeug getötet / überfahren.

However, the first version uses the verb zerlegen, giving a very vivid image of what exactly happend to the Gockel.

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