9

The title basically says it all.

  • Is one more "sympathetic" or "insulting" than the other?
  • Is there a way of telling which is the correct form (heimatlos rather than heimatfrei, rostfrei rather than rostlos)?

(Note: my command of German is very rudimentary, so please forgive me if this question is "silly".)

14

Very basically, words ending in "-los" mean that something that should be there is missing , which is negative (at least in case the absent thing is something you would normally like to have...).

Words ending in "-frei" have a notion of something being absent, this is not necessarily a negative fact, but normally either neutral or even positive:

wertlos - "Wert" (Value) is missing, the thing is not worth anything

wertfrei - "Wert" (value) is absent, which means "unbiased", so there is no valuing bias or prejudice in a statement

arbeitslos - "unemployed" the possibility to work and make a living is missing

arbeitsfrei - "not obliged to work, free" the obligation to work on an "arbeitsfrei" day is absent

zwecklos - of no purpose - futile

zweckfrei - without following purpose - like childplay (no negative notion) or basic research without specific targets.

The notion is also used in marketing: Even if something that is kostenlos doesn't cost anything, it might also considered not to be worth anything. So marketing would rather say kostenfrei. The same applies for terms like fettfrei, laktosefrei or frei von Schadstoffen, which are generally preferred to the -los suffix by marketing because of their rather more positive notion.

The above applies to words that occur with both suffixes. There are, however, quite a number of words that would only occur with one of them. For this class of words, I would rather not say "positive" or "negative" - Here both -los and -frei suffixes would simply denote "not there".

Examples:

  • grenzenlos - limitless
  • schadlos - free of (mainly financial) damage, but
  • schadensfrei - without any (mainly physical) damage
  • endlos - without end
  • Thank you -- that's very clear and helpful. I'll wait a couple of days for "competing answers" before accepting. – Brent.Longborough Jul 4 '17 at 22:31
  • 2
    Good answer, though -los words aren't always negative in meaning but negating the original meaning. For example schadlos means without any harm, which is positive. Same with vorurteilslos, konfliktlos etc. And then there are words that are just stating a fact, without a judgement e.g. endlos, randlos, grenzenlos, zeitlos. – Janka Jul 4 '17 at 22:46
  • @Janka Most of your examples don't have a -frei counterpart. Hard to point out a difference, then. – tofro Jul 5 '17 at 3:18
  • @user135711: Die hier behandelten Wörter, die mit -los oder -frei enden, sind Adjektive. Aber »loswerden« ist ein Verb (ein anderes Verb wäre »freikaufen«), und diese Verben sind trennbare Verben. – Hubert Schölnast Jul 5 '17 at 7:01
  • @user135711: Kommentare sind nicht der richtige Ort um Fragen zu stellen. Bitte verfasse eine eigene Frage: german.stackexchange.com/questions/ask – Hubert Schölnast Jul 5 '17 at 7:10
4

I think the harsh truth is that you have to learn each of them as a separate lexicon entry.

The roots of -los and -frei share the same mental image, so it's difficult to use that to distinguish them from each other:

  • -los comes from the same root as loose (*lausaz)
  • -frei comes from the same root as free (*frijaz)

In both cases, something is separated from something else, metaphorically speaking. Semantically, it makes the same sense to say that something is rostlos (~loose from rust/rust-less) than to say it is rostfrei (~free from rust/rust-free). My guess is that 90% of the reason why rostfrei is the one used (even though rostlos isn't wrong and would be well understood to mean the same thing!) is that it is much easier to distinguish from the similar sounding rastlos (restless). That and the marketing factor tofro mentioned. "Freedom" is always a good association with your product, isn't it.

In some cases, both variations might be used frequently for the same meaning. For example, sinnlos and sinnfrei are pretty much synonyms. In others, both have a distinct meaning and mixing them up would sound very weird to the native speaker. Or one of them won't be used at all. Why is there no endfrei, for example? I can't give you a reason. You have to memorize it like this.

  • "much easier to distinguish from the similar sounding rastlos (restless)" - I keep seeing trostlos (bleak, desolate) whenever I read rostlos. – O. R. Mapper Jul 6 '17 at 7:25
3

As @annatar sais -los is not always negative and can even be positive, like kostenlos (probably most adverts do still stick to this more common word), mühelos (hassle-free). If no such word is dominantly used, adverts do tend to use words like zuckerfrei (), glutenfrei, tierversuchsfrei, …

However, it does seem like if something does have a negative (needy or somewhat disrespecting) connotation, it’s always -los (and not -frei).

  • signifying need: arbeitslos (unemployed), obdachlos (homeless), mittellos (fundless)
  • signifying disrespect: sittenlos (immoral), wertlos (worthless), ahnungslos (clueless)

sinnlos is also harsher than sinnfrei, though the latter is colloquially also used for pointlessness (besides for non-evaluation).

For neologism (possibly) originating from English, it seems -less is mostly translated to -los (also -free fairly commonly translated to -frei):

  • schnurlos (wireless), papierlos (paperless), verbindungslos (connectionless)
  • verkehrsfrei (vehicle-free), emissionsfrei (emission-free), torsionsfrei (torsion-free)
1

X-los means lacking a good thing. That's "bad."

Y-frei means free of a bad thing. That's "good."

Examples:

Arbeitslos. Literally "work-less," not having work, in the sense of being unemployed. (Bad.)

Arbeitsfrei. Literally "work-free," not having work, in the sense of being retired or having leisure. (OK, maybe even good.)

Einwandfrei. Literally "objection-free" or "clean." (Good).

You select the use by the context. For instance, "Heimat" is something most people want, so it makes sense that being "heimatlos" (homeless) is a bad thing. On the other hand, almost no one (except for maybe "flower children" of the 1960s) would argue that running away from home without finding another one is a good thing, and that one wants to be "heimatfrei."

The terms employ "reverse" psychology. An example of this is "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

  • See Jankas comment at tofros answer, about schadlos etc. I like to add parteilos. – user unknown Nov 19 '17 at 2:22

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