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).


6 Answers 6


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)

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    "Geist" is nearest to "spirit" in meaning, including the alternate meanings of "ghost" and "alcohol" :) Commented Dec 16, 2015 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
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 12:43
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    Well they have a geist... the zeitgeist! :D
    – Zaibis
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 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
    – adjan
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 23:33
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    "You're always on my mind"? Du bist immer in meinen Gedanken? Commented Jul 6, 2016 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.

But we also have 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 replace mind with understanding and read the English sentences from the list again. That way you see it from a German native perspective. It may seem unusual, but the sentences still make sense. Both ways work. German just developed into using the other.

However, you don't always use Verstand for mind in practice, e.g.:

What have you got on your mind?

doesn't translate to Was hast du auf deinem Verstand?. But this is somewhat easy to recognize, because if you do the swap again, it would read What have you got on your understanding, which doesn't sound good.

A direct translation to What's on your mind? could be something like this:

  • Was hast du im Sinn?
  • Was schwebt dir vor (im Geiste)?

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. In German you use Geist for both mind and spirit. For example:

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.

The word 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 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
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 15:55
  • @Christian It's worth noting that you wouldn't even translate mind in that case ;)
    – Em1
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 16:00

The answers given are ok, but I have the feeling there's still a word which hasn't been mentioned: Bewusstsein, literally "conciousness", as in the concious and unconcious mind (or the Bewusstsein und the Unterbewusstsein or the "Unbewusste*.) Note that you could also speak of the unbewusste Geist or suchlike, and the philosphical context makes clear that we are talking about states of mind (Geisteszustände), so Geist would be the correct translation for mind in this case, but the context will allow to translate "mind" to Bewusstsein in those cases.

The usage of the term mind in "mindfulness" also comes to mind. While it is usually translated to "Achtsamkeit" in German, the mind, i.e. the Bewußtsein is at the core of the concept.

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    Bei "keep in mind" heißt mind übrigens Gedächtnis. Das wurde auch vergessen.
    – äüö
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 12:44

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
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 0:20

Many people will dislike what I want to say, but for me it's a fact: there is no German word that renders the precise meaning of the English Word "mind " or the Spanish "mente "in its basic sense. Yes, the dictionaries give us "Geist", but you must admit that a word whose most common meaning is ghost cannot be a perfect equivalent of "mind". For me it has always been a paradox that people like Kant and many other "Denker" have had to resort to the G word. Of course I don't want to imply that the German language is somehow inferior to others because of this (das ist selbstverständlich!)

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    Das Problem ist doch nicht die präzise Bedeutung des Wortes, sondern seine Mehrdeutigkeit - das glatte Gegenteil von Präzision, also. Nicht, dass der engl. Sprache deshalb etwas fehlte, aber m.E. lässt sich jeder englische Satz, in dem "mind" vorkommt, sofern man den Kontext kennt, präzise übersetzen, außer vielleicht jenen, in denen mit der Mehrdeutigkeit gespielt wird. Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 21:39

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