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According to my knowledge, "Stern" means "star" and "warten" means "to wait". Therefore, "Sternwarten" would translate literally to something close to "the thing that waits for stars", which seems a bit distant from the actual meaning. Is there a reason for this?

Please keep in mind that I am a begginer in german.

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  • Similar in Dutch 'sterrenwacht'. Wacht can mean 'to wait' but it's also related to guarding or keeping watch. A guard (person who guards) is a 'wachter' for example. The German wart, Dutch wacht and English watch are probably all related.
    – Ivo
    Apr 20, 2023 at 7:08
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    "Warte" is not really derived from "warten" (IMHO). There are similar phrases like "Leitwarte", "Platzwart". Maybe it's more "erwarten" (expecting) than "warten" (waiting), but maybe it's just the idea of "waiting for something to happen" ;-) Isn't that the same when you "observe" things?
    – U. Windl
    Apr 20, 2023 at 9:39
  • Yes, "warten" means "wait", but also "Wärter" can mean something like "guard", for example "Gefängniswärter" = "prison guard". From this point of view, "warte" makes a lot more sense.
    – MaxD
    Apr 22, 2023 at 19:26

3 Answers 3

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The singular is Sternwarte; Sternwarten is the plural and it's mostly a coincidence that warten is a verb in its own right. Warte has several meanings, but perhaps the most relevant is "position from which one can observe". Warte and the verb warten are related, but very distantly so it's not surprising that they have different meanings now. Both are cognates with English "ward". There are a lot of composite words in German, and this can be very helpful for learning vocabulary. But there are also "false composites", words that look like composites but whose meaning has drifted in a different direction from the component words. Consider the word "keyboard" in English; it was originally a composite of "key" and "board". But it's a long way from the things used to open locks to the thing that you type on in front of your computer.

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    "Keyboard" still is a composite of "key" and "board", isn't it? Etymological information that I could find such as this lead me to believe that "key" first assumed the meaning it still has in "keyboard", namely that of an element that can be manipulated to produce an effect of some sort (originally, on musical instruments, later on also on other devices). And based on that, the composite "keyboard was formed, whose components still express exactly what a "keyboard" is - a "board" with "keys that can be manipulated" on it. Apr 20, 2023 at 21:27
  • @O. R. Mapper - A keyboard still has "keys" in the sense of the buttons representing letters. But a key can mean many different things, including something to open locks, or something to play a note on a piano. 75 years ago a "keyboard" would have been some kind of musical instrument and nothing else; you typed on a typewriter. The point is that words can have several meanings and that meanings can change over time. So you can often be misled trying to derive the meaning of a composite from its components. German uses composites more than other languages, but you still have to be careful.
    – RDBury
    Apr 21, 2023 at 3:12
  • "75 years ago a "keyboard" would have been some kind of musical instrument and nothing else" - I disagree. For example, this 1868 patent (that was written 155 years ago) already intuitively uses the term "key-board" to describe the part of an early type-writing machine where you press buttons. And it's not the only 19th century reference I can find. Yes, the patent text likens it to a piano keyboard, but it's the applicable context that has changed, not the meaning itself. It still is a "board" with "keys that can be manipulated" to achieve ... Apr 21, 2023 at 5:43
  • ... some effect. I don't doubt your statement that "you can often be misled trying to derive the meaning of a composite from its components", but my point is that "keyboard" is an ill-chosen example for this phenomenon: You can very well derive the meaning of the composite "keyboard" from its components, because "keyboard" and the components "keyboard" was formed from have retained their original meanings to this day. Apr 21, 2023 at 5:43
  • @O.R.Mapper But the same applies to “Sternwarten”. Both “Stern” and “Warten” exist in German today; but you need to know which meaning of “Warten” is the correct one. The same applies to “keyboard” where there are different (though related) meanings of “key” and you need to know the right meaning to understand “keyboard”. Apr 21, 2023 at 8:41
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Warte does not refer the Verb warten (i. e., to wait), but it is a noun synonymous to Sichtpunkt, Wachpunkt, Beobachtungspunkt, Observatorium (i. e., observatory, observation ward).

Therefore, Sternwarte is literally a "star observatory".

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  • The verb "warten" has a second meaning, to groom, to tend, to maintain.
    – Karl
    Apr 22, 2023 at 21:04
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Although @rdbury's answer is essentially correct, it is worth pointing out that the association to the verb could be closer than the standard etymology suggests, and that the etymology is (almost always) difficult.

  • Sternwarte "Observatorium" appears 18th century according to Pfeifer (DWDS: Stern).

  • Earlier Middle High German had stërne-warter, stërn-warte ammended with glosses sternseher (seebalso feminine -in), sternewarter, i.e. astronomer (Lexer, BMZ).

  • Old High German precursors are not found (AWB, koeblergerhard), though that's not a reliable verdict.

This implies absent proof to the opposite that the modern noun looks to be a backformation from the agent noun, and the noun was probably understood as agentive to a verb warten—which is begging the question.

It is not warten in the modern sense, so much is clear a-priori, although the waiter waits (viz. server observes) is barely meaningful.

As Pfeifer summarizes, vb. warten and n. die Warte are thought to be probably related to adj. wahr and a noun stem that is attested in Old High German wara, Middle High German war(e) "Wahrnehmung, Beobachtung, Aufmerksamkeit, Obhut" (DWDS: wahren; cf. BMZ s.v. war) corresponding to Old High German warta "das Ausschauen, Posten, Wache, Obacht".

However, Pfeifer is slightly contradictory. Wirt is included in the comparison (DWDS: wahren). On the other hand, the dedicated lemma expresses doubts about the comparison, separating wahr, gewahr from Warte, warten (DWDS: Wirt). This would leave the latter without etymology.

So we probably should consider it uncertain.


That is is not an easy going topic since we have material evidence of stone old observatories, which served cultic functions. The comparative evidence shows that Stern can be derived from a reconstructed root, which is approximately as old. That part, presumably the Bezugswort, is almost more important.

The usual comparison involves Latin stella, Greek astra, Hittite hašter-, Middle Irish ser and more than anyone could count. Pfeifer for one is uncertain about the exact derivation of the apparent suffix "ie. -no-(unter Einfluß entsprechender Bildungsweisen von Mond und Sonne?, s. d.)" (DWDS: stern). Old High German has sterro beside sterno, stern, continued into Middle High German (BMZ: stërn, stërne, stërre). Sonne is believed to be fossilized in the oblique casus (DWDS, en.WT), eg. Sonnenschein "sunshine", cp. Latin rectus sol.

This is to imply that compounds with Stern' should be of some importance to this development.


An exciting option ...

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    There is also another meaning of the word "warten" as a verb (when used with a direct object), which is "to maintain"/"to service".
    – CherryDT
    Apr 21, 2023 at 11:48

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