As I was learning German here in Germany, many Germans would say (when talking in English):

Uneducated people would do this.

referring to a somehow lower class of the population who can’t speak properly or do not have a refined manner. For my ears, uneducated really means just someone who hasn’t graduate from higher education and that doesn’t necessarily define the character or politeness of a person.

As this term makes me feel uncomfortable, I asked a German friend to tell me what uneducated is in German and he told me: ungebildet.

I’ve been a few years in Germany now, and I understand broadly what they mean, but I still struggle to understand who are the “ungebildet” people as many of the people that I hear saying that are not necessarily in the higher class of the society, but rather normal people. I see Germans using that term fairly often, and even though for me it is a bit offensive to use such a classification that often, they do seem to take it as a very normal fact of life.

I see that it is slightly better then asozial, but I can’t see who exactly would be asozial, ungebildet, and ausgebildet. So when Germans use ungebildet, what do they actually mean? Does it refer to someone’s social abilities or is it more about a bad behavior?

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    Please do keep 2 things in mind. 1. The class system in Germany is by far not that present in society as in many other countries. 2. In a society where all (even higher education) is basically free and available for anyone, uneducated will naturally have a different co-notation than in a country where you need to pay for education. It either means you do not want or are not able to pick it up. 3. I don't think the question is about language.
    – tofro
    Jul 11, 2016 at 8:32
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    @tofro: Of course the question is about language. A possible answer may not be purely lie in the domain of language, but as our use of language is influenced by reality, that’s to be expected.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 11, 2016 at 8:52
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    Very, very bluntly speaking: Too lazy or too stupid. Too poor is not a valid reason for being uneducated, as in many other societies.
    – tofro
    Jul 11, 2016 at 9:02
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    @CarstenS - Ich weiss nicht, ob du viele andere Bildungssysteme (auch außerhalb unserer europäischen Insel der Glückseligen) kennst. Es ist sicher nicht ideal, aber immer noch sehr viel besser als das, was man anderswo findet.
    – tofro
    Jul 11, 2016 at 13:18
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    Wow, eine derart falsche Aussage wie tofros Kommentar bekommt 10 upvotes! Da haben die neoliberalen Spindoktoren offenbar volle Arbeit geleistet! Dabei wird seit Monaten berichtet, dass die deutsche Gesellschaft wie keine andere westliche undurchlässig für sozialen Aufstieg ist! Dazu kommt, dass der Begriff womöglich, ich würde sogar sagen wahrscheinlich, sich viel früher eingebürgert hat. NGram zeigt den Höhepunkt bei 1775: books.google.com/ngrams/… Jul 12, 2016 at 8:59

9 Answers 9


Ungebildet does not mean the same as uneducated.

In german, the terms has a (slight) negative connotation. It means that the person has a below-then-average general knowledge.

It can also refer to manners. If you have bad manners, sometimes the word ungebildet is used to describe that ("Was für ein ungebildeter Pöbel!"). For example, if you fail to hold the door for a lady, you might be thought of as "ungebildet", since anyone who was "gebildet" would also have been taught the proper manners and surely hold the door.

In this form, ungebildet does not only apply to formal education received through the education system (schools etc.), but also to the education one has received at home (from parents etc.).

If you want to refer to education, a "ungelernte Arbeitskraft" is someone who performs a job without having gotten some kind of education for it (e.g. Janitor) and "ungebildet" would sound weird to most people in that context.

But it is virtually never used as aeglasin posted. No matter his own education/degree, someone would never refer to someone else that holds a lesser academic title as "ungebildet". or if he did so, he would be thought of as very arrogant.

  • So roughly speaking, the term ungebildet in the day-to-day life does relate well to the Wikipedia link that Carsten S posted in the comment under my question, meaning, it's a social development of the person. In that way, ungebildet is by far less offensive than what would they call Asozialer or assi, right? Or are they somehow related? Jul 11, 2016 at 15:34
  • Perhaps "unrefined" would be a good translation? It has a slight negative connotation indicating worse manners, worse education, worse parenting... but you wouldn't use it to mean someone less-educated than you unless you were very pretentious, and while you could refer to someone who hasn't gone e.g. to culinary school as an "unrefined cook" you would probably instead go with a more positive connotation as a "self-taught cook" or so.
    – CR Drost
    Jul 11, 2016 at 16:50
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    Asozial would mean that you are actively anti-social. That is much, much stronger then "ungebildet". Someone who is "ungebildet" just doesn#t know better and therefore sometimes exhibits poor manners - someone who is "asozial" is someone who violates social norms on purpose.
    – Polygnome
    Jul 11, 2016 at 18:25
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    You wouldn't say "ungebildeter Arbeiter" in German, but "ungelernter Arbeiter". "Ungebildet" is an insult, "ungelernt" is neutral!
    – Iris
    Jul 12, 2016 at 7:56
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    You are right. I have reworded that paragraph a bit.
    – Polygnome
    Jul 12, 2016 at 11:46

"Ungebildet" means "uneducated", but is not restricted to formal education (indeed, "gebildet" can even be used in opposition to formal education, if you think that formal education goes wrong). When referring to formal education, you'd often say "ausgebildet" instead.

The term "gebildet" refers to everything you learned during your life, starting with what your parents taught you, over what you learned in school, what you learned in your job, and what you learned on your own.

So "ungebildet" doesn't mean you don't have a formal education, but it means you lack the knowledge a human should have, according to the one using that word. Indeed you can have a formal education and be "ungebildet" (indeed, someone having an university degree, but lacking general knowledge may be called "ungebildet"), or you can have no formal education at all, but be very "gebildet" (if you're essentially self-taught).

Also note that for most people, "Bildung" refers mostly to knowledge in arts and humanities; so if you know lots of physics, but have no clue who Shakespeare is, you'll probably be considered "ungebildet", but if you have extensive literature knowledge, but have no clue who Maxwell is, you've got a good chance to be considered "gebildet" by the majority of people.

  • When referring to formal education, you'd often say "ausgebildet" instead can I think the unausgebildet exact opposite of the ausgebildet. I mean I do not want to insult the person but would like to emphasize that he/she has no formal education. Jul 12, 2016 at 13:55

Literally, ungebildet means uneducated. However it carries a negative connotation that's similar to that of the English commoner.

It is sometimes used like uneducated, but usually one avoids it by using different words like höheres/tieferes Bildungsniveau, which also isn't perfectly neutral, but still better than ungebildet.

The negative connotation is even stronger when ungebildet isn't used to describe someone's level of education. In the context of politics or manners, it can pretty much always be considered to be a light insult.

When used in politics to label voters as ungebildet it often backfires, because this will usually be branded as an attack on the working class.

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    By the way, no native English speakers use the word "commoner" except when talking about the distant past.
    – fdb
    Jul 11, 2016 at 19:40
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    @fdb True, but still every native speaker will understand the negative connotation that's attached to it. Can you think of a more common word with the same connotation?
    – Peter
    Jul 11, 2016 at 20:59

A person is being described as ungebildet, when they have lower than average classical or general education.

The Term "meme" describes bits of knowledge that are being bassed on from generation to generation, and that are considered as being generally known and generally understood.

So you might picture somebody who is "ungebildet" as someone who knows fewer memes than the average person in the same (geographical) group.

It does not imply that the person so described would be stupid, though, but neither does it imply the opposite.

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    I would not consider someone who is very specialised in a field ("Fachidiot"), but does not know anything about "general knowledge", to be "ungebildet", at least not in a derogatory way.
    – Gerhard
    Jul 11, 2016 at 12:24

Reminds me of the Chinese phrase which literally means "not taught(by parents)". It's remarked whenever something thoughtless or barbaric is done. Small details like leaving your bed in a mess or letting the tap run while brushing your teeth. Or letting the slippers drag while walking. Or heating anything and everything in the microwave. It means uneducated, but not in the sense of formal education. More like decorum and social sensitivity taught in the family. There, decorum and propriety! haha traditional strengths of the civilised, which I suppose both the Chinese and Germanic cultures share.

  • Are you sure you do not actually mean "schlecht erzogen", "gedankenlos", "rücksichslos"? I think "ungebildet" is anyway related primarily to formal education and habits of culture consumption. May 15, 2017 at 16:45

A better translation than "uneducated" is "ignorant."

It does not refer to academic standing per se, although it could refer to things that most people learn in school.

It is the quality of "not knowing what most other people know." This could refer to bad speech or grammar, and also to bad manners, which most people would avoid.

  • Well, I would actually avoid translating to ignorant as it would sound way more offensive then uneducated. As I mentioned, the way Germans would use it has a slight remark of disdain, but it's not even close to what would be in english to call someone ignorant. Jul 14, 2016 at 13:03

I think a good translation for that would be: "unmannered" meaning having no manners

  • I'm sorry but that is plain wrong
    – cgnieder
    May 14, 2017 at 15:33
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    I find it not so bad a suggestion. At least certain areas of using ungebildet would be covered. May 15, 2017 at 16:38

As a native German speaker: The formal definition of "ungebildet" means "uneducated" or "without training". Depending on context it can also have the negative connotation of "lower class" or "someone without manners". The origin is most likely from about 100 years ago. At this time education was not compulsory (at least not in the amount today). Rich families would have private teachers for their children including manners. Middle class might send their children to public schools. Lower class parents were also allowed to send them to school but their children more likely went to work to earn money instead of going to school because their family would need the money. Child labor was not forbidden at this time. Most likely they technically were "minimally educated" but in colloqual use it most likely became "uneducated".

A modern variant on the internet would be "HonK" (Hauptschüler ohne nennenswerte Kenntnisse) (Hauptschüler = (former) pupil of a secondary school for pupils with not high grades and with lower learning requirements; "ohne nennenswerte Kenntnisse" = without noteworthy skills).

  • That seems oversimplified and Honk and ungebildet have a different connotation.
    – Stephie
    Jul 11, 2016 at 21:41

Literally you are right, "ungebildet" just means a person who did not receive any or only very few education (natural education like from indigenous tribes are generally not considered as education in this context). An example for the literal interpretation could be, sorry if anyone feels offended by this, an Person from a very poor African country where there are no schools or anything of the likes.

But "ungebildet" is, like many words, often more than its literal meaning. If someone speaks of someone else as "ungebildet" that is mostly verrry strongly related to how he/she perceives his/her own intellect and graduation in comparison to the person in question. For example a person with a PhD might say about a student from a B or O level school that he/she is "ungebildet" and simply means by that less educated than him.

Sometimes "ungebildet" also just means a lack in knowledge about a certain topic. So even a PhD person can be "ungebildet" depending on the context :)

In general you always need to take a look at the context in which the term is used. Sometimes it is really just a gentle from of saying "this person is stupid!" while on other occasions, especially in political discussions, it is closer to the literal meaning that a person did not received the same amount of education as he would get as a graduate with lower secondary education degree in germany would have.

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    What is "B or O level" in German?
    – Iris
    Jul 11, 2016 at 9:35
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    I'm not with you that "ungebildet" is seen as relative from your own educational background (or if so, it would be kind of an arrogant use of the word). In my usage, it's absolute and means "has not exploited the offerings of the educational system to his/her own potential" - See the society background of it in my comment to the question.
    – tofro
    Jul 11, 2016 at 10:02
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    This answer is largely wrong. Ungebildet doesn't actually refer to any kind of formal education, but also refers to manners etc.
    – Polygnome
    Jul 11, 2016 at 12:15

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