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I am not a native speaker of German and I’ve been learning the language for some months.

Recently, I read some texts about cars and I noticed the word Geschwindigkeit, which means speed in English. I noticed also that this word is used in the speedometer of the cars.

I wonder why the translation for speed is Geschwindigkeit (from the adjective geschwind + ig + keit) and not another German word that is closer or more related like Schnelligkeit (from the adjective schnell + ig + keit).

Is there a specific reason why Geschwindigkeit is used instead of Schnelligkeit to indicate the speed of a vehicle? Is Schnelligkeit uncommon or wrong to say speed?

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From their etymology both adjectives geschwind, and schnell used to have a common meaning of being strong, and agile in Old High German, presumably coming from usage for describing a man fighting.

Over time both words are still used for speed, and we do have both derived nouns Geschwindigkeit, and Schnelligkeit, where the agility aspect is a bit better preserved in Schnelligkeit. For speed as a physical unit and for all the derivates from this meaning we only use Geschwindigkeit in modern German.

The English speed is much closer to physics because it shares its etymology with Old High German spuot (speed, progress). This meaning only has a remnant in the modern German verb sich sputen.

It may come from a different cultural approach where speed in the English language was preserved for something moving fast where in German speaking regions an additional connotation was also put on strength.

  • Thank you very much for your explanation. That's what I wanted to understand. – Alberto Solano Jan 3 '16 at 10:57
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I am not a native speaker, but studied in Germany and still fairly fluent.

It is like in English, with slight differences in word meanings and what is the "correct" term. Schnelligkeit means more speediness, where Geschwindigkeit refers to velocity, sort of a quality versus a quantity thing. We would never talk about rapidness of a car but rather its acceleration.

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To answer your question:

The German translation of the english word »speed« is »Geschwindigkeit«, because »Geschwindigkeit« is the German word for what is called »speed« in English.


But I guess you wanted to know why this word exists in German.

Try another point of view: Why does there exist such a word like »speed« in English?

I'm a German native speaker, and for me it's a miracle why there is such a word like »speed« in English for something that has such a natural name like »Geschwindigkeit« in German.

The more natural english word would be »fastness« because it derives the same way from the adjective »fast« as the German »Geschwindigkeit« derives from the adjective »geschwind«.


Adding the suffix -keit (as well as -heit and some other suffixes) to an adjective is a very common way to create a noun from an adjective, comparable to the english suffix -ness:

  • heiter -> Heiterkeit / happy - happiness
  • einsam -> Einsamkeit / lonely -> loneliness
  • höflich -> Höflichkeit / polite -> politeness
  • -
  • geschwind -> Geschwindigkeit / fast -> speed ???

The adjective »geschwind« is a synonym for »schnell«. For the etymology of both words and the etymology of »speed« look at Takkats answer.

  • But of course there are many other cases where the quality is not named directly after the measure: height not tallness, weight not heaviness, distance not remoteness, wealth not richness, temperature not hotness. In all those cases both words exist, but their connotations are subtly different. – Michael Kay Dec 12 '17 at 23:04
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I guess that there is no particular reason. Theoretically it would make sense to say "Schnelligkeit" instead of "Geschwindigkeit" to describe the speed of a vehicle. But it just is not used like that. From my understanding, "Geschwind" is just the "older" less "modern" adjective so I think the word "Geschwindigkeit" has naturalized and it stayed that way - it's just a convention. Using "Schnelligkeit" would not be wrong, but it would sound weird.

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    Well, Schnelligkeit would particularly sound like you wanted to express fastness, as a contrast to Langsamkeit, i.e. slowness. Geschwindigkeit is rather perceived as a "neutral" way to express any speed, fast or slow (even though it cannot be explained ethymologically, given that geschwind on its own means rather fast or quick again). – O. R. Mapper Dec 30 '15 at 20:22

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