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I have always seen das Lied used to refer to a "song" in my beginner German texts. However, whenever I use one of the online translators, they always use "der Song". Is there any difference in usage, and which is most commonly used by contemporary German natives?

Same question on der Liedtext vs. just plain der Text when it comes to song lyrics?

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5 Answers 5

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I would take issue with the claim in the other responses that Lied and Song are "interchangeable" and that there is "no difference in usage". It is submitted that there is an apparent difference in usage.

First of all, the Christmas charol Maria durch ein Dornwald ging and Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen are most certainly Lieder, not Songs, and a native speaker (regardless of age) would consider the term Song inappropriate. (Regarding the latter example, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lied.)

Second, even as far as modern compositions go, I'm fairly confident that corpus research would show that there is a clear tendency to use Lied rather than Song when referring to somewhat traditional material (such as traditional-style Schlagermusik). The picture for Song is probably more ambiguous. Many speakers' go-to term for compositions performed by a contemporary pop or R&B singer would likely be Song; my gut feeling is that some speakers also seem more inclined to use Song for English-language compositions. And, of course, as with other anglicisms, the age of the speaker also plays some role.

However, as a general matter, I would say that Lied (unlike Song) seems to be universally acceptable in all of the above contexts. For instance, a search for "Sarah Connor" AND lied* in the archive of the Süddeutsche Zeitung (last 10 years) yields 50 results (Beyonce AND lied*: 172), "Sarah Connor" AND song* yields 76 (Beyonce AND song*: 350). (I'm aware that this methodology leaves room for improvement ...)

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  • At least für Schlager I definitely disagree. See "Ich finde H. Fischers Schlagersongs wirklich schrecklich." While traditional songs might be more prone to be called Lieder instead of songs, at least I wouldn't raise an eyebrow of I found Schubert's song on a playlist titled "Die besten Weihnachtssongs 2019" Jul 7, 2019 at 8:48
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    @infinitezero If you search for "Franz Schubert" in the vicinity (max 5 words) of Lied* and Song* respectively using COSMAS II, W-öffentlich (recent occurrences, 2009-), you get 943 hits for "Lied" vs. 8 for "Song". I checked every one of those eight. Half of them are English record titles, in the other cases - with one single exception - Song doesn't refer to Schubert. This strongly supports my statement.
    – johnl
    Jul 7, 2019 at 11:08
  • As for Helene Fischer, I'm not sure why you would consider that an example of "traditional-style Schlager music" ... Anyway, I also stand by my hypothesis regarding the relative frequencies. Using the above-described method, we get the following Lied/Song ratios for different singers: Udo Jürgens 688:270, Peter Alexander 76:14, (Helene Fischer 159:131), Beyoncé 71:186, Ed Sheeran 58:124, Madonna 172:252, Rihanna 107:168.
    – johnl
    Jul 7, 2019 at 11:24
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The German word Song is some kind of false friend, because it isn't a literal translation of the english word song. In English a song is, what we call a Lied: a musical composition intended to be sung by the human voice.

In modern German language a Song is a modern (20th / 21st century) song (yeah I know ^^), that is based on american pop-music. Or as the Duden says a Song is a

Lied (der Unterhaltungsmusik o. Ä.)

as today most played Unterhaltungsmusik is american/english music or based on it. So a Song is some kind of a genre like a Schlager, a Chanson or a Volkslied. Although there are some grey areas when referring to a certain song. And in everyday language some people will call every song a Song. Just because it's the most dominant term and well, the Americans do it as well (false friends work both ways).


But ... when did it start?

I found this encyclopedia entry from 1987

Nach 1945 wurde der Begriff Song zunächst auf das traditionelle Liedgut englischer, irischer und nordamerikanischer Herkunft angewandt. Mit dieser Bezeichnung und diesen Liedern wollte man den in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus korrumpierten deutschen Volksliedern ausweichen. [...] Gelegentlich findet sie sich bei Gruppen, die [...] auch aktuelle Lieder produzieren oder durch diesen anspruchsvolleren Terminus ihre Produktion aufwerten möchten.

Translation in a nutshell: After the war Germans didn't want to call english songs Lieder, because of the national socialist term Volkslieder. Later on it became marketing.

And today: Hey ... we love hip english words! And in America everything is a song, so why not?

Conclusion

Jeder Song ist ein Lied, aber nicht jedes Lied ist ein Song.

Every Song is a Lied, but not every Lied is a Song.

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Das Lied ist the German word for song. However, with growing English influence, more and more (younger) people adopted der Song. There is no difference in usage, they are both 1:1 synonyms.

Lyrics (engl.), Songtext, Liedtext or just Text are all used interchangeably. However, when just saying text, it has to be clear from context what you are talking about, e.g.

Mir gefällt dieser Song am besten. Der Text spricht mir aus dem Herzen.

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"Das Lied" is the correct German word for a song. But there is a recent (or not so recent) trend to use English words, and you can assume the most would understand what you say when you use "der Song".

About usage, I personally wouldn't use "song", but I guess be groups where it would be more common to use "song". Some people seem to think that using English words makes them "cool", another word that is commonly used in Germany.

PS:
This goes so far that "Handy" is the most common word for cellular phone, and I think quite a few people would be surprised to discover that in English it doesn't mean the same.

Another example is "Public Viewing", in German it isn't used for visiting a dead body.

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  • And body bad isn't a corpse bag in German either.
    – Janka
    Jul 7, 2019 at 13:35
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The excellent DWDS writes:

Song m. ‘Lied mit aktuellem politischem oder folkloristischem Inhalt’, Übernahme (Ende 18. Jh.) von engl. song ‘Lied, Gesang’ (s. ↗Sang). Seit Brecht und Weill Bezeichnung für einen balladenhaften, satirischen, sozialkritischen Sprechgesang, der der Moritat und dem Bänkelsang nahesteht und in das moderne Drama eingeschoben wird. In neuester Zeit (seit der Mitte des 20. Jhs.) auch ‘Lied der populären Unterhaltungsmusik’.

Note that it has been used in German since "the end of the 18th century". It is not new.

In the same way that German has adopted the English word "song", English has adopted the German word "Lied" and its German plural "Lieder" to designate German vocal music of the classical tradition, especially that of Schubert and Schumann.

https://www.dwds.de/wb/Song

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