Although my interest arises from Uexküll's work in semiotics/ethology, I need to learn the linguistic distinction between/etymology of the words Umgebung and Umwelt. Can anyone clarify? Online searches have been unhelpful.


as my goal is to have my OP answered, I have added the following back here, on the suggestion of the users who deleted it:

@userunknown - You seem (above) to nail the point (if GoogleTranslate isn't too far off the mark). Thanks. (your text in italics)

"The fact that prison guards deal with many criminals does not make their umgebung a criminal one."

Are you saying that, while the professional world of the prison guard concerns prisoners, and thus criminality, a prison guard's world is composed of more than just their professional employment, so that prisoner and prison guard have different umgebung's, which while they overlap still are not the same?

"one speaks almost exclusively of pollution of the umwelt when referring to the contamination of fertile soils."

You seem here to reinforce the conception of umwelt as "a complex of interwoven and interacting systems".

"In the umgebung of Munich .. rents are rising - it would hardly be possible to say "umwelt" here, even though the phenomenon clearly signals an interaction."

Is this because one can speak of the umgebung of Munich, there being other umgebung's, for instance those of each of its inhabitants? But I don't understand why umwelt would be innappropriate. A city is "a complex of intervoven and interacting systems" and a "true" environment, often with its own microclimate.

(p.s sadly this is too long for a comment, and for an addendum to my OP so, as it is the basis of an answer here it is as such)

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    Can you be more specific? Any decent dictionary should tell you that they are not synonyms.
    – Carsten S
    Apr 30, 2018 at 12:06
  • I'm afraid I have no access to other than online dictionaries and don't speak or read German. Could you give the definitions of each that you have? Re being more specific, I replied to tofro below that " The online dictionaries do have the two terms as synonyms, but they appear to have separate etymologies (or are they both neologisms?). It's the linguistic difference the etymologies describe that I'm after."
    – talvi
    Apr 30, 2018 at 14:10
  • I'm going through a paper Uexküllian Umwelt as science and as ideology: the light and the dark side of a concept by Marco Stella and Karel Kleisner, which seems to suggest the terms are neologisms.
    – talvi
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:57
  • @talvi: You can split comments, while it isn't encouraged, and write 2 or 3 of them. About prison guards, there are two statements to make: a) It is astonishing far from reality to assume, that prison guards don't interact with prisoners. b) "Mozart wuchs in einer musikalischen Umgebung auf." You wouldn't say that, if there wasn't some kind of interaction with the musical aspects of this environment. 2. If you're talking about nature, in the more narrow sense of plants and animals, in the wider of air, water, climate, soil and mountains, oceans, rivers and seas, you mostly prefer "Umwelt". Dec 15, 2018 at 22:41
  • For instance if you throw away a coffee bin in the middle of a city, on to the roas, it woulnd't be very appropriate to call it "Umweltverschmutzung", but "Verschmutzung der Umgebung." If you do it in the forest or at the seaside, it is Umweltverschmutzung. It is not the complexity of the systems but the aspect of artificial and dead (streets, houses) or living/natural environment (grassland, fields, forests, seas, deserts). 3) The Umwelt of munich is maybe the Englischer Gartten, the Flaucher, the Isar, the air flowing through Munich. Close towns are artificial and therefore not Umwelt. … Dec 15, 2018 at 22:54

4 Answers 4


While today most people might tell you these two terms are close, even synonymous, Uexküll's work sees Umwelt and Umgebung as distinctively different things with respect to any creature.

Umgebung doesn't interact with a creature and the creature doesn't interact with it - It's simply the "box that contains it".

Umwelt, as opposed to that, is both influenced and distinctively perceived by a creature, on the other hand, it also forms and influences the creature. Uexküll seems to be the first to use the term "Umwelt" in that sense as an overarching system that both forms beings and is formed by them.

Outside of that definition space, the Umgebung definition goes from "surrounding" (main definition) to "environment".

Umwelt on the other hand, exclusively translates to the English "environment", - in the sense of complex intervoven and interacting systems - So basically, everything around us.

  • Thanks tofro, that's interesting. The online dictionaries do have the two terms as synonyms, but they appear to have separate etymologies (or are they both neologisms?). It's the linguistic difference the etymologies describe that I'm after.
    – talvi
    Apr 30, 2018 at 14:07
  • They might translate it to the same English term environment - That doesn't mean they're synonyms in German. But they are close - outside of Uexküll's definition space.
    – tofro
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:41
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    So iyo the German definitions are something like: Umwelt (n) complex intervoven and interacting systems. Umgebung (n) that which surrounds something (you can probably tell I am not a lexicographer)
    – talvi
    Apr 30, 2018 at 19:05
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    Das kann man so sicherlich nicht sagen. "Der Junge wuchs in einer kriminellen Umgebung auf" - da soll weder Junge mit der Umgebung, noch diese mit dem Jungen interagieren? "In der Umgebung von Hannover wachsen Trüffel." Mal angenommen dem wäre so - da mag dann Hannover selbst keine Rolle beim Gedeih der Pilze spielen. "In der Umgebung von Fichten gedeihen Trüffel, die eine Symbiose mit dem Wurzelwerk dieser Bäume eingehen (falls es stimmt wäre es Zufall), besonders gut. Apr 30, 2018 at 22:12
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    @userunknown Man kann auch von Kriminalität umgeben sein, ohne mit ihr notwendigerweise eine Wechselwirkung einzugehen. Auch Gefängniswärter leben "in einer kriminellen Umgebung". Umgebung heißt einfach nur "drumrum".
    – tofro
    Apr 30, 2018 at 22:49

"Umwelt" nowadays generally is used in the meaning of environment, especially with a view to ecology. "Umgebung" is primarily the area surrounding me. E.g. Ich liebe meine Stadt nicht so sehr, doch die Umgebung ist wirklich schön. - e.g. the landscape surrounding it.

  • The point in question is that both is environment in English.
    – tofro
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:40
  • @ tofro: "environment" is just a word not a defintiion. What I want is definitions of the words. This isd where online bilingual dictionaries are useless.
    – talvi
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:52
  • @ Friedrich Marx: so is your understanding that a. the words are not neologisms and b. that umwelt is the general environment whereas umgebung is the local environment? I gues that 'welt' means world but what does 'um' mean? Etc.
    – talvi
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:54
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    I wouldn't call either of them a neologism. They are new composites that have come up already hundred years ago and have settled. "Um-" is a standard German prefix used in a lot of composites that means "around"
    – tofro
    Apr 30, 2018 at 21:57

The words "Umwelt" and "Umgebung" are no synonyms although it is difficult to find a sharp dividing line. Perhaps the best translations of "Umgebung" are "neigbhbourhood", "vicinity", "surroundings". "Umwelt" is mainly used in an ecological context ("environment"). Here are some examples where you must not replace these words by each other.



Sehenswürdigkeiten in der Umgebung von ...

In Merkels Umgebung ...


“Umwelten means the inner world...the world as we see it. Umgebung means the outer world...the world that exists outside of our ability to comprehend. The bear resides in a wood…its Umwelten. An ameba lives in the pond, its Umwelten. The bear lacks the ability to see the amoeba. The amoeba lacks the ability to see the bear. In their Umwelten neither can recognize the other’s existence. Neither can see the Umgebung …the outer world. So, to my point: The fact that we lack the ability to see something doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

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