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I found a song on youtube last week. immer lacht. In the video the young women is smiling not laughing and it's been a couple of decades since I was in Germany. So, I mistakenly thought that lachen meant "to smile", not "to laugh".

But this got me wondering if lachen and lächeln being spelled so similar and also sounding so similar results in any overlap in meaning for Germans that doesn't arise with the English words "to smile" and "to laugh".

Are there any English/German bilinguals that could answer this?

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The words lachen ("to laugh") and lächeln ("to smile") are close etymological relatives. This is the reason of them being so close in spelling and pronounciation. lächeln is derived from lachen, it is a diminutive form of lachen.

While in German the noun diminutive is formed by adding the ending -lein and potentially transforming the core vowel to an Umlaut, the way of forming the verbal diminuitive by transforming the core vowel into an Umlaut and changing the verb's ending to -eln, is a common pattern, expressing small, difficile, or insignificant action (for instance in blinzeln, kitzeln, witzeln, fiedeln, rätseln...) and some of such verbs also have the "non-minimised" version productive - like schnitzen/schnitzeln, hacken/häckseln.1

German is not alone in conceptualising "to smile" as a small form of "to laugh", as a look at etymonline shows: Romance, Celtic, and Slavic languages tend to use a diminutive of the word for "to laugh" to mean "to smile" (such as Latin RIDERE "to laugh;" SUBRIDERE "to smile"), perhaps literally "small laugh" or "low laugh."2

So, besides the fact that there might be a sort of small laughing which is close to a big smiling, there is no overlap in the meaning of the two words in German which would not also exist in English.

But into the German language a closer conceptual proximity of "to laugh" and "to smile" is inscribed than into the English language. I guess the words are so close that most native speakers are intuitively aware of their close etymological relationship.


1 Thanks to tofro for clarifying this in a comment.

2 Credits to Carsten S for this information.

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    Lächeln looks a lot like the diminutive of lachen, i.e. a smiling = small laughter. Makes sense :)
    – Ingmar
    Dec 10 '20 at 6:16
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    @Ingmar I thought so, too. Added a discussion of this into my answer. Dec 10 '20 at 11:07
  • @jonathan.scholbach thanks for your answer. I preferred the song when I mistook it for smile. It seemed more serene and melancholic to be smiling 'putting a brave face on', whereas laughing seemed more forced and in denial.
    – Tobe
    Dec 11 '20 at 8:30
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    this verbal diminuitive expressing small, difficile, or insignificant action is relatively common ("blinzeln", "kitzeln", "witzeln",...) and some of such verbs also have the "non-minimised" version productive - like "schnitzen"/"schnitzeln", "hacken"/"häckseln"
    – tofro
    Dec 14 '20 at 7:51
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    @CarstenS Vielen Dank, interessant! Habs in die Antwort eingefügt. Dec 14 '20 at 8:13
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In addition to @jonathan scholbach's great answer I'd just like to add something about the use of "lacht" in this song. Lyrics: https://www.songtexte.com/songtext/stereoact-feat-kerstin-ott/die-immer-lacht-2b1fe476.html

The song lyrics plays with a pair of opposites that has been well-known in literature since ancient times, "lachen" und "weinen". So that might be an additional reason why "lachen" is used here. What the text basically says is that the person is "laughing" all the time when in company, but she's unhappy and "crying" when she's alone. In this context, it doesn't matter much if "lachen" or "lächeln" is meant, it's just about her trying to appear happy and bubbly to others.

The video visualized this slightly differently from what the song text says. If you look at it from a language standpoint, "die immer lacht" clearly means "who always laughs", not "who always smiles".

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