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I have compared some colloquial ways in different languages of saying time and what surprised me, is that there are differences between English and German, even though they are from the same language family. So now I am not sure, whether it was English moving away (as in Romance Spanish it's the same as in English) or whether there were historical changes in German. Does the explanation maybe stay in the word halb and its grammatical features/meaning? As halb is translated as half of. So is it caused by grammar, or there was a historical shift?

Time English German Czech
1:15 quarter past one Viertel nach eins čtvrt na dvě
1:30 half past one halb zwei půl druhé
1:45 quarter to two Viertel vor zwei tři čtvrtě na dvě
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  • The example you wrote in Czech is precisely showing you that English is the exception (in that table). Also in English you are aided by 'past' and in Spanish by 'y', so I think there is completely another system.
    – c.p.
    Jan 26, 2023 at 13:18
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    Even different English speaking countries differ in expressing times for example, "half nine" is 9:30 in the UK, but this expression isn't used in the US. There's no reason to expect any consistency between different languages.
    – RDBury
    Jan 27, 2023 at 7:38
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    Also, there are regional differences within German speaking countries.
    – Hulk
    Jan 27, 2023 at 12:13

4 Answers 4

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It is true that German and English have a common ancestor, but to find it you have to go back far beyond the era of modern time-keeping. Therefore there is no reason to assume that German and English expressions for it are more similar than for example those between German and the neighbouring language French.

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Certainly the expressions

  • viertel nach eins
  • halb zwei
  • viertel vor zwei

are most frequently used in German to speak about time. However, there are alternative variants to say it, so it is neither caused by grammar, nor was there a general historical shift. Quite often you can hear

  • dreiviertel zwei for 13:45

Some people also say

  • viertel zwei for 13:15

This is not commonly understood in Germany, perhaps it is a regional thing. My Bavarian relatives use to say it that way.

This shows the logical structure:

viertel zwei means ein viertel der Stunde zwischen eins und zwei etc.

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    Also in and around Berlin we usually say viertel zwei and dreiviertel zwei, but I know that some people from western regions in Germany have difficulties understanding this way of specifying the time.
    – Bodo
    Jan 26, 2023 at 13:45
  • Note that the Czech way is similar to the German variant viertel zwei and dreiviertel zwei, with the difference that they seem to use the cardinal number (two) with "a quarter" or "three quarters" and the corresponding ordinal number (second) with"half", at least in the example in the screenshot.
    – Bodo
    Jan 26, 2023 at 13:58
  • I always assumed the "alternative variant" is due to how church bells indicate time (Viertelstundenschlag). Jan 26, 2023 at 14:05
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    I am downvoting for two reasons: The question is not answered, and it does not help in any way to introduce another complexity. And by the way, I have never encontered a situation where using these (drei)viertel variants successfully conveyed a meaning. Without exception it ended in an argument about which time was actually meant.
    – ccprog
    Jan 26, 2023 at 16:12
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    @ccprog "these (drei)viertel variants" are a regional thing. My (East-German) family uses these without any arguments or issues. I got used to the other variant only when I moved to Hamburg as a student. See atlas-alltagssprache.de/runde-7/f11e
    – user6495
    Jan 27, 2023 at 6:32
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Your assumptions are simplified. In German there are many variations of how time is used in spoken language.

10:15

In English you say: "a quarter past ten". In Germany, Austria and Switzerland there are four different versions in use how to say it:

enter image description here
source: Atlas der deutschen Alltagssprache

10:45

In English you say: "a quarter to eleven". There are also different versions in German, but I do not have so exact informations about the geographic distribution as for 10:15. This is what I know:

  • »viertel vor elf«
    This seems to be the most frequent used form in Germany and parts of Austria (West of Austria, where about 1/3 of all Austrians live).
  • »dreiviertel elf«
    This is the standard form in the east of Austria (where 2 of 3 Austrians live). You also find this form in the very south of Germany (close to Austria) but also far away, in the very north of Germany (where Niederdeutsch = Low German is spoken). Even in the middle of Germany there are smaller regions where this form is preferred.

During the Habsburg Monarchy these spelling was usual in the whole monarchy which covered not only the region of todays Austria, but also Check Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and even the Burgundian Netherlands:

  • 10:15 = ¼11
  • 10:30 = ½11
  • 10:45 = ¾11

And this still is how these times are used in Austria but also in other countries that where part of Habsburg Monarchy.

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    A lot of information, but I fail how to see how this addresses the question at all. Question is about diachronic development, your answer is about synchronic diversity. Jan 28, 2023 at 19:49
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Used also in Old English phrases, as in modern German, to mean "one half unit less than," for example þridda healf "two and a half," literally "half third."

[etymonline.com/word/half]

Note that semi-professional is formed similarly to half an hour, halbe Stunde, adv. halbstündlich etc. So "10:30" might appear like one half of the full 11th hour, or one half off the full hour, if you will, which is fairly arbitrary.


As far as the etymology of half is uncertain, chances are this has to do with one fused particle or another, which is a difficult problem across the board because the words are ultra short and were dependent on endings which have been erroded to such a degree that different forms were merged, rebracketed, lost etc.

Beware that despite Romance languages having left a notable imprint in West Germanic languages, as with hora vel sim. "hour" (Ger. Uhr "clock, o'clock") as well as passer "to pass", these appear to be very similar to some of the particles we see in the differential distribution of calling time such as Austrian German über "past" which has a cognate in Old Frisian ur (with various meanings), which is principally closer to the Old Frankish and early Dutch—more research is needed.

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