Is there a word in German to refer to the mind? Gehirn is brain, but that’s the meat inside the head, not the mind. In Spanish it is mente. Is there a German equivalent?

I have consulted my dictionary app and it gives me Geist, Seele, Sinn, Verstand, Gedanke, Absicht, Ansicht, Gedanken, and Gemüt. These seem to be related to the concept of mind as I understand it in English, but not quite the same. (i must admit that at my level I don’t get many of the nuances of these words).


It is very usual that words of one language do not cover all meanings of a word in other language. You have to choose a word depending on your situation. And as Guy Deutscher wrote in one of his books

The Germans have no mind (because they do not have a word which covers the meaning of english "mind" to 100%):

  • Verstand (he's got the mind of a four-year-old! - er hat den Verstand eines Vierjährigen!)
  • Geist (a fine mind - ein großer Geist)
  • Seele (frame of mind - seelische Verfassung)
  • Denkweise (to the Victorian mind - nach viktorianischer Denkweise)

...und die Engländer haben keinen Geist

  • mind (der menschliche Geist - the human mind)
  • wit (er sprühte vor Geist - he was as witty as could be)
  • intellect (kleine Geister - people of limited intellect)
  • spirit (der Geist der Zeit - the spirit of the times)
  • brain (seinen Geist anstrengen - to use one's brain)

Source: Guy Deutscher's book "Du Jane, ich Goethe. Eine Geschichte der Sprache" or in "Im Spiegel der Sprache" ("The Unfolding of Language. The evolution of mankind's greatest invention" and "Through the Language Glass" respectively)

  • 8
    "Geist" is nearest to "spirit" in meaning, including the alternate meanings of "ghost" and "alcohol" :) – rackandboneman Dec 16 '15 at 12:14
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    @rackandboneman This is a quotation so I can not change it :) (I formatted the text as quotation now) – Eller Dec 16 '15 at 12:43
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    Well they have a geist... the zeitgeist! :D – Zaibis Dec 16 '15 at 16:10
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    "mind" can also mean "Kopf", or "Sinn". Actually "mind" refers to anything sort of cognitively related, we don't have such a "general" word for that – Adrian Dec 18 '15 at 23:33
  • "You're always on my mind"? Du bist immer in meinen Gedanken? – user unknown Jul 6 '16 at 14:50

mind ≈ Geist & Verstand

Have a look at the wiki articles for each Geist and mind. By definition both words mean the same.

And now check out Verstand, which means understanding (noun). Verstand is related to verstehen which means to understand.

By definition we have:

  • Geist = Mind
  • Verstand = understanding (noun)
  • verstehen = to understand

Even tough mind and Geist are closer by definition, look at this example and see how similar mind and Verstand are in practice:

  • Have you lost your mind!? = Hast du deinen Verstand verloren!?
  • Use your mind, stupid! = Benutz' deinen Verstand, Dummkopf!
  • Boy, you have a sharp mind. = Junge, du hast einen scharfen Verstand.
  • You can train your mind = Du kannst deinen Verstand trainieren.
  • He's got the mind of a four-year-old! = Er hat den Verstand eines Vierjährigen!
  • She has a clear mind = Sie hat einen klaren Verstand.
  • My mind tells me... = Mein Verstand sagt mir…

In German you may use Geist and Verstand other than you would expect in English. Just swap mind and understanding and go through the list. That way you see it from a German native perspective. As you read it seems unusual, but the sentences still make sense. Both ways work. German just developed into using the other.

What's on your mind?

Also, this is why you wouldn't translate: "What have you got on your mind?" to: "Was hast du auf deinem Verstand?" If you do the swap it would read "What have you got on your understanding?" Sounds bad right?

If you want to ask someone: "What's on your mind?", you don't say "Was hast du im Geist?" either. But you would say something very similar. You would say:

  • Was hast du im Sinn?
  • Was schwebt dir vor?

The meaning of each is almost identical to "What's on your mind?" only that mind/Geist is not addressed directly.

Look at the first sentence: "Was hast du im Sinn?". Sinn means sense both words have the same meaning. Sinn refers to the physiological senses AND to the reasonable sense (see:"Does this make sense?")'. But Sinn also refers to sinnieren which means contemplating / thinking about something. Isn't that very mind/Geist related? It is! So even if you don't address mind/Geist directly in the German sentence, you refer to something very close to it - if not the same.

Look at the second sentence: "Was schwebt dir vor?". It translates into "What is [floating | hovering] before you?" you don't mention mind/Geist but you actually address it. Nothing is hovering or floating before this person in a physical sense. So what you really ask is: "What is hovering/floating before your mind/Geist?". You might actually ask "Was schwebt dir vor, im Geiste?". This would work and not even sound bad or wrong. It's just unusual to say it like that in German. I can imagine that the saying "Was schwebt dir vor?" has an ancestor saying which points to Geist or similar. It may be that it was refactored for the sake of simplicity and usability.

Geist ≈ mind & spirit

If you refer to Geist regarding the intellect and psyche of a person it is mostly the same as mind by definition. But Geist also translates into spirit. And there you have another mix-up between the two languages. If you refer to Geist with mind then what is the German word for spirit`? In German you just use Geist for both. Check this out:

Das war der Geist der Epoche.

The preferred translation would be "It was the spirit of that epoch.". But if you refer to Geist as mind you have: "It was the mind of that epoch.". The first sentence works fine. The second sounds strange, but it is not far from earth. Now merge the two sentences and you have it in German: "Das war der Geist der Epoche." Geist has a broader meaning, it merges mind and spirit. It contains both. Its meaning is defined by the context it is placed in. From a German perspective you just put Geist in the sentence and leave it for the reader to decide if he wants to put the emphasis more on the spirit side or more on the mind side or take the meta mix of both. But in the end it's mostly context and common sense that define the meaning of Geist.

Here are some examples for when I would say Geist emphases on spirit rather than mind:

  • Das ist der Geist der Epoche.
  • Das passt zum heutigen Zeitgeist.
  • Sie hat einen sehr lebhaften Geist.

For the next example it wouldn't be clear, because the person could have a great mind or a great spirit. It's both very much in there. (I would say.)

  • Er ist eine geistreiche Person.

So, whenever you read or hear the word Geist keep in mind that it may refer to both mind and spirit and emphasize for yourself by context and of cause by your own like.

The shift between the words in translation

This is how I would visualize it:

        Verstand | Geist 
understanding | mind | spirit

The most striking equivalent is


So the Latin mens sana in corpore sano translates to gesunder Geist in einem gesunden Körper.

In the context What's on your mind I would translate it with "Was hast du im Sinn?"

  • It's worth noting that ïn "What's on your mind" Geist is not a reasonable translation. – Christian Dec 16 '15 at 15:55
  • @Christian It's worth noting that you wouldn't even translate mind in that case ;) – Em1 Dec 16 '15 at 16:00

The word I would use is is "im Sinn."

That doesn't literally mean "mind," more like "sense," but it has the sense of having a "cognizance" of something.

  • Aus den Augen... – Mark D Jul 26 '16 at 0:20

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