If I translate

Peter was afraid

with Google Translate, I obtain:

Peter hatte angst

Why does it use hatte instead of war?

  • 7
    I'm afraid (pun intended, this would be "Ich fürchte, ..." in German) you missed the fact that google used Angst (noun) and not angst (does not exist). Aug 1, 2015 at 11:32

4 Answers 4


Look at it like this:

Afraid is a funny adjective like hungry or thirsty in German. We’ll use hungry as our example here.

For the most part, people won’t say “I am hungry” in German. They will say “Ich habe Hunger” (literally: “I have hunger”). Hunger, in this case, isn’t something you can be, but rather something you have!

Now, in your example, “Peter hatte Angst” actually means “Peter had fear”. It only means “Peter was afraid” when you adjust for grammar.

TL;DR: Because words like die Angst, der Hunger, and der Durst are all actually nouns! They are all things that, in German, you can have, not something you can be.

  • 3
    this doesn't really help, since you can translate »I am hungry« into »Ich bin hungrig« which is closer to the english original because it uses the same grammar. But this is not possible with »afraid« since there is no German adjective with this meaning. (But there are hungrig and durstig) Aug 1, 2015 at 7:10
  • 2
    @HubertSchölnast Well, you could try "Peter war ängstlich." Aug 1, 2015 at 11:02
  • 3
    @Sumyrda: You could try it, but it is wrong. »Ängstlich sein« is something, that you are always, without any reason. But »Angst haben« means, that you are afraid of something concrete, and it is a feeling that goes away when the reason goes away, while a person that is ängstlich is it all the time, even in a very safe and secure environment. Aug 1, 2015 at 11:26
  • 5
    A better choice than ängstlich would be verängstigt.
    – Carsten S
    Aug 1, 2015 at 12:22
  • 2
    @David "Angst und Bange" is an established saying though.
    – deceze
    Aug 2, 2015 at 6:02

You have overlooked a very important piece of information that Google's translator has given to you. This does NOT come out of Google's translator:

wrong: Peter hatte angst.

This is the real output, and it is correct:

correct: Peter hatte Angst.

As you can see, »Angst« is written with an uppercase first letter, which means (when not being the first word of a sentence), that it is a noun, not an adjective.

The word by word-translation of »Peter hatte Angst.« is:

Peter had fear.

The english adjective »afraid« has no German counterpart with exactly the same meaning. But you can translate »to be afraid« into »Angst haben«, but later means literally »have fear«.

An other author compared in his answer »afraid« with »hungry« and »thirsty«. But there are German adjectives that means exactly the same as the english »hungry« and »thirsty«, which are »hungrig« and »durstig«:

engl: Peter was hungry and thirsty.
germ: Peter war hungrig und durstig.

But there is also the possibility to translate it into a sentence that is similar to »Peter hatte Angst.«:

engl: Peter was hungry and thirsty.
germ: Peter hatte Hunger and Durst.

But don't forget to write »Hunger« (engl: the hunger) and »Durst« (the thirst) with an uppercase first letter, because they are nouns. »Angst, Hunger« and »Durst« are nouns, the are the names of feelings you can have. They are not adjectives that describe what you are.


As has already been pointed out, Angst here is a noun, which you may already know, because it has made its way into the English language via Freud. Since Peter is not fear, it would not make sense to say that he “war Angst”. In German however, if you have a feeling of “Angst” you say “ich habe Angst”.

Incidentally, there is also an adjective angst in German, and so

Peter war angst.

is correct German. There are some caveats, though. First, Peter here is is the dative case, not in the nominative case, so it would not be

*Er war angst.


Ihm war angst.

Second, the adjective angst is obsolescent and mostly survives in the expression angst und bange. So from a German learner's perspective it is probably best to forget about the adjective for now, I only mentioned it for the sake of completeness.

  • 2
    You should note that "Peter war angst/mir war angst" coming from a foreigner with an accent will be perceived as wrong, not as the fancy Dative version and people will "correct" it. It's unfair but that's how it is.
    – Emanuel
    Aug 1, 2015 at 21:08
  • @Emanuel, yes I am aware that my answer is not very useful to pxc3110, but after the comment that angst does not exist I felt that I should note that it actually does. I certainly do not use it either.
    – Carsten S
    Aug 1, 2015 at 22:51

Because "Peter hatte Angst" means "Peter was scared".

There is a version of that sentence with an adjective, but it means something different. "Peter war ängstlich" means "Peter was easily scared".

As for why German expresses this and a few other emotions via 'having' vs. 'being', there is no particular reason. They are consistent with each other, but there is no grand plan or conspiracy behind German verb forms generally (other than to confuse foreign learners).

  • No. »Peter hatte Angst« does NOT correspond with »Peter was scared« It corresponds with »Peter had fear« (which is not good english, but it is the same construction as in the German sentence). »Angst« and »fear« are nouns, they are names of feelings that Peter can have. But »afraid« and »scared« are adjectives that express what Peter is. In German there is no adjective that has the meaning of the english word »afraid«, so you can't build a German sentence with the same meaning that uses an adjective. You have to use the noun instead, and then you also must use a different verb. Aug 1, 2015 at 7:16
  • Hunger and Durst are not emotions so which other emotions go with "haben" exactly? Freude, Trauer, Wut don't.
    – Emanuel
    Aug 1, 2015 at 21:10
  • @HubertSchölnast... it's purely a question of how you define "corresponds". You interpret it in a lexical sense, Kilian goes for semantics. Neither one is more right than the other.
    – Emanuel
    Aug 1, 2015 at 21:11
  • @HubertSchölnast: "Peter hatte Angst" und "Peter was scared" haben genau die gleiche Bedeutung. Das die Grammatik in zwei Sprachen unterschiedlich ist macht dabei überhaupt keinen Unterschied.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 2, 2015 at 9:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.