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There are so many different ways to express human movement, and often I am confused in which cases one can be used, because sometimes they are interchangeable, and sometimes not.

My main problem is between gehen, laufen, rennen, wandern and spazieren. But I wouldnt be surprised if there are more.

Sometimes I have heard how someone use gehen and laufen interchangable, like "Ich gehe zum Bäcker" or "Ich laufe zu Bäcker", but other times I see them differently. For instance "ich renne zu dir" seems to also be replacable with "laufen" but not with "gehen". Seems to me like there are many contexts where this words get a different meaning, and in some cases they are synonyms and some are not

Maybe someone could give me some context when those can be used and when not? Are there rules that dictate when those 5 main words can be used?

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I would say there is not a large difference to the English language. There are so many ways to express human movement because we do not always move in the same way. Therefore, there must be verbs which differentiate in how fast or slow the movement is or how our body posture looks like.

1. gehen

This is the usual way of human movement. It can mean "go", "go out" or even "leave".

Examples:

Ich gehe nach Hause. – I am going home.

Weißt du, wohin sie geht? – Do you know where she is going?

Bald muss ich gehen. – Soon I have to leave.

Die Jäger gingen zur Jagd. – The hunters went out for a shoot.

2. laufen

This is a faster movement, meaning "run" or "walk fast".

Examples:

Ich musste heute Morgen laufen, um den Bus noch zu erwischen. – I had to run to catch the bus this morning.

Er lief so schnell, dass ich kaum mit ihm Schritt halten konnte. – He walked so fast I found it hard to keep up with him.

In some regions, e. g. Braunschweig and Hannover, "laufen" is used as a synonym for "gehen" in a casual context [1], especially if you have to go on foot. This is also listed in the Duden (1c). Example:

Weil mein Auto kaputt ist, muss ich morgen zu Fuß zur Arbeit laufen. – Since my car is broken, I have to walk to work tomorrow.

3. rennen

This is similar to "laufen", but it generally emphasizes the high speed even more. You can translate it with "race", "run" or "sprint". However, the verb is used more for everyday running. For sporty running you use "laufen" though.

Examples:

Sie rannte, so schnell sie konnte. – She sprinted as fast as she could.

Ich rannte den Bahnsteig entlang, um den Zug zu erreichen. – I sprinted along the platform to catch the train.

Er kann sehr schnell rennen. – He can run very fast.

4. wandern

This actually means "hike", "walk" or "wander". Hence, it means "walk without a particular destination" or "go leisurely". It can also symbolize migration.

Examples:

Ich wandere gern im Harz. – I love hiking through the Harz.

Er wanderte den Kamm des Hügels entlang. – He walked along the crest of the hill.

Sie wanderte am Strand entlang. — She wandered along the beach.

Wenn ich nicht schlafen kann, wandere ich im Haus herum. – When I cannot sleep, I roam the house.

5. spazieren

This is what you usually do in a park, for example – "stroll", "stroll around" or "walk".

Examples:

Der Junge spaziert mit seinem Hund durch den Park. – The boy is strolling through the park with his dog.

Wir spazierten/gingen spazieren, obwohl es regnete. – We went for a walk although it was raining.

Nach dem Frühstück gingen wir am Strand spazieren. – After breakfast we took a walk on the beach.


This is just a rough overview. I will not go into details or refer to special expressions here, because this would definitely go beyond the scope. It certainly makes sense to take a look at the Duden or another dictionary.


[1] Please note Hubert Schölnast's comment bellow.

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    »Laufen« is never a synonym for »gehen« in Austria (and maybe other southern parts of German sprachraum). If you say in Austria »Weil mein Auto kaputt ist, muss ich morgen zu Fuß zur Arbeit laufen« people will understand that you have to run to work (i.e. like jogging), because »laufen« always is running in the south. In Austria »laufen« is a synonym of »rennen«. – Hubert Schölnast Jun 8 '18 at 7:29
  • Okay, then there are local differences. In Hochdeutsch one would use "laufen" instead of "zu Fuß gehen" in a casual context. In a more formal environment one would stick to "gehen". – tavkomann Jun 8 '18 at 11:21
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    The language spoken in Austria is also Hochdeutsch There are three variations of the standard of German language, because German is a pluricentric language. Compare german.stackexchange.com/questions/11096/… – Hubert Schölnast Jun 8 '18 at 13:16
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    @HubertSchölnast I am also located in the south of Germany (not Austria), and for me laufen is a perfect synonym for gehen. "Kann man auf den Berg hoch fahren? - Nein, nur hoch laufen". No one in my region would expect some kind of trailrunning. I would be surprised if it is different in Austria in that context. – scienceponder Jun 9 '18 at 9:46
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    laufen vs gehen: Der Atlas der deutschen Alltagssprache hat im aktuellen Fragebogen ein paar Fragen dazu. Es scheint also zumindest die Vermutung zu geben, dass das regional unterschiedlich ist. Wer mag, kann hier an der Befragung teilnehmen: atlas-alltagssprache.de/runde-11-fragebogen – Sumyrda Jun 9 '18 at 10:43
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The most fascinating thing about this question is that it relies on the definition of standards: physical absolutes like time applied to the aggregates of language use by actual people. Those people differ on many scales and over very broad data ranges. Both in their perception, their culture and their use of language. Not everyone can agree on transforming seemingly objective data like colours into natural language. Everyone assumes to share the same world and the same biological makeup and therefore sensory input to just put into words just as objectively as a dictionary seems to suggest. Well, almost "everyone", since Platon was not the first and Hubert Schölnast and I will not be the last to disagree on that point.

"The rules" agreed upon for this question are indeed laid out in dictionaries like the Duden. But those rules are an idealised attempt to bring order into chaos.

The attempted order in this case is in part a clear ascend of speed for human locaomotion, from slowest to fastest:
_ gehen _ < _ laufen _ < _ rennen
(synonyms in Hochdeutsch not considered, equaly "wandern" and "spazieren" for their more specialised meaning)

But in this case Hubert commented quite rightly:

The language spoken in Austria is also Hochdeutsch. There are three variations of the standard of German language, because German is a pluricentric language.
»Laufen« is never a synonym for »gehen« in Austria (and maybe other southern parts of German sprachraum). If you say in Austria »Weil mein Auto kaputt ist, muss ich morgen zu Fuß zur Arbeit laufen« people will understand that you have to run to work (i.e. like jogging), because »laufen« always is running in the south. In Austria »laufen« is a synonym of »rennen«.

I might add to that in the German East "rennen" is also sometimes used synonymously with "gehen" (Leipzig, Erfurt, Dresden, Berlin as examples).

Why might that be?

People feel, live and express time differently. And that can be statistically aggregated on the very local level as well. There are countless regional variants. The Swiss are almost derogatorily characterised as being slow. And apparently Vienna is much slower than Berlin.

So if you produce speech it might be advisable to use the standard definition for what you want to express. That is intended and will to some extent reduce misunderstandings.

But if you hear "gehen, laufen, rennen" and feel that the speaker might use that in a slightly unfitting way, don't be surprised when the intended meaning is just what you would have used and just expressed.

From your example:

For instance "ich renne zu dir" seems to also be replacable with "laufen" but not with "gehen"

it follows that in the East "ich renne zu dir" is commonly enough understood as synonymous to "ich gehe zu dir" (but it is my impression that "gehe") is almost a bit unusual, or foreign there/in their ears).

When people use gehen and laufen as synonyms they have to resort to rennen (or sprinten?) to express the faster pace. They mostly express their effort or the burden on them. In reality, the achieved speeds are often of negligible difference.

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