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I am reading a book in which the author uses both the word buchstäblich and the word wortwörtlich alternatively. Looking them up, both mean literally.
Is there any significant difference in their meaning? By common sense, I would say the former means “according to the letter”, whereas the latter means “according to the word”. But are they used as such?

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There is a difference in usage.

Buchstäblich (literally) is exclusively used in a figurative meaning.

Er wurde buchstäblich in Stücke gerissen.

Wortwörtlich (verbatim) is used to put emphasis on the precision of the wording.

Seine Aussage wurde wortwörtlich wiedergegeben.

  • No. It might be wrong to use them both for the same, but I do, and I have heard other people do so, too. Er wurde wortwörtlich in Stücke gerissen. – Jan May 8 '15 at 11:30
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    @Jan Yes, it is wrong, although it might be a common mistake. But we should make clear here what the proper usage of these two words would be. – Matthias May 8 '15 at 11:46
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    @Jan: but we can agree that Seine Aussage wurde buchstäblich wiedergegeben definitely is wrong, can't we? To my ears using wortwörtlich figuratively is not good style either. – Takkat May 8 '15 at 11:46
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    @Takkat Thinking it through, not really. I could even imagine somebody wanting to portray a different meaning through the uses of buchstäblich versus wortwörtlich in your example … Stoibers Antworten werden hier buchstäblich wiedergegeben — you can guess which two letters will be most common ;) – Jan May 8 '15 at 11:49
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    @Jan: quotes with links to reliable sources or it did not happen. – Takkat May 8 '15 at 11:59
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There's no difference in respect to their common meaning. I addressed that in another answer of mine to a similar question (buchstäblich versus regelrecht):

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 original meaning.

So, both words mean the same thing. Buchstäblich just refers to the letters of a word, wortwörtlich to the word as a whole. Just like you already figured.

That said, there's a second meaning for wortwörtlich, as Takkat correctly points out in his answer. If you use the actual words of something said—a quote that is—then this is called wortwörtlich (translation: word-for-word).

The latter one is addressed by Duden with 1a (the given example is: "eine wortwörtliche Übereinstimmung beider Texte"), while the overlap with buchstäblich is addressed with 1b (example is: "er hat sie wortwörtlich aufs Kreuz gelegt")

  • What about the figurative usage of buchstäblich? – Takkat May 8 '15 at 10:44
  • @Takkat There's only a figurative usage of "buchstäblich", so what is your question? – Em1 May 8 '15 at 10:48
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    While it is true that both Duden and Wiktionary list the two as synonyms, this should (IMHO) be treated as a (maybe common) error. As wen can see from Grimm, at least in its origin wortwörtlich didn't have the figurative meaning of "buchstäblich". In fact, it was avtively used to underline the verbatim use, as we see from the last example given there: "wenn er (Eulenspiegel) ... als schneidergesell die ärmel wortwörtlich an den rock werfen wollte". – Matthias May 8 '15 at 11:36
  • @Matthias I'm afraid I can't see your point there. In this very example of Eulenspiegel, it is interchangeable with "buchstäblich", or in other words: it is the figurative meaning. – Em1 May 9 '15 at 6:50
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    @Em1 Here's the story that the quote refers to. Eulenspiegel took a command verbatim instead of figuratively. That's what the quote wants to point out, and this wouldn't work by using buchstäblich instead of wortwörtlich. --- As to your edit: IMHO Duden is outright wrong with 1b), or they intentionally "legalized" a common mistake, as they sometimes do. – Matthias May 9 '15 at 9:11

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