I have another Jugendsprache question. I was communicating with a few German friends of mine and they were using the word "Alter" in a way I haven't seen before:

Alter, was geht?!

Which I understand to mean: [yo!] What's going on?!

or something like that.

My question is: How did Alter become used in such a way?

  • 8
    The schoolyard, mysterious and creative. Random words are knighted and join the order of Slang. Some last a season, some last forever but predicting the outcome's an impossible thang.
    – Emanuel
    Jan 18, 2014 at 23:15
  • @Emanuel That's pretty deep, mate. Speaking of that, I follow your blog pretty closely and would love to see more slang explanations. :)
    – Dustin
    Jan 18, 2014 at 23:16

5 Answers 5


Which I understand to mean: [yo!] What's going on?!

Yes, that's probably a good translation.

I would say it comes from the idiom "Alter Schwede" (that means: old Swede) and was shortened by the youth. The idiom Alter Schwede appeared after the Thirty Years' War. The Germans engaged that time experienced soldiers. Apparently, the Germans equated experienced with old.


  • 1
    I would confirm that. Even though the usage of "Alter Schwede" and "Alter" differs sometimes. But it was some years ago, when "Alter Schwede" became very popular to use and over some time it was shortened and "Alter" remained and was then more often used.
    – Graffl
    Jan 19, 2014 at 2:51
  • I disagree with that, and write an own answer to say why.
    – Ingo
    Jan 19, 2014 at 8:57
  • When i was young, we used to say "Alter Schwede!" to express surprisement/astonishment (e.g. "Alter Schwede! Ist das Euer Auto?" - For most of us, 'Alter' sometimes is used in the same way nowadays when among people of ~same age. So 100% confirm for me! Jan 19, 2014 at 9:50
  • Must be some regional thing. While I know the meaning (from literature, perhaps?) I never said or heard it. Wikipedia seems to confirm that: "Alter Schwede" ist ein Ausdruck aus der Umgangssprache, ein sogenannter „Schnack“ aus dem Niederdeutschen.
    – Ingo
    Jan 19, 2014 at 13:15
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    Hm, I always understood "Alter Schwede!" as an interjection, but "Alter" as a personal address ("My friend") - at least in the context given by the OP. So I would rather translate with "What's up, [man|mate|pal]?" Jan 19, 2014 at 17:50

I think it is an elipsis of one of the very compositions of "alt" + Noun, like in "alter Freund", where "alt" is used in the sense "proven, tried". This is why I think that "Alter Schwede" (see @darios answer) is but one example, and not necessarily the sole root of "Alter".

Unlike in "alter Mann", where "alter" refers to the age, in "alter Freund" it rather refers to the enduring friendship. For example, if you would get friend with an 72 old, you would not call him "alter Freund" the next day. But you could call a young man of 25 "alter Freund" if you have been friends for several years.

So, that function of "alt" in "alter Freund" is a bit of an amplifier, like "proven, tried friend", sometimes with a humorous note:

A: "Eine Politesse wollte mir gestern einen Strafzettel verpassen, aber ich konnte sie noch überreden, es bleiben zu lassen."

B: "Alter Charmeuer!"

This also works in the negative:

A: "Ich war dermaßen besoffen, daß ich ins Bidet gekotzt habe."

B: "Du bist wirklich eine alte Sau!"

Note also that the formerly very popular western heroes of Karl May's novelles had names like "Old Shatterhand", "Old Surehand" etc. Here May transfers this usage of "alt" to his imaginary english speaking world.

Last but not least it must be noted that substantivation of adjectives is common, and so you may find the term "Alter" in speech that pre-dates current youth slang. Though, "Alter" and "Alte" referred to ones husband and wife like in:

Bist du beim Bier, so bleib dabei: Deine Alte schimpft um zehn genauso wie um zwei.

Needless to emphasize, it is very disrespectful to say:

Bringst du deine Alte mit?

  • This quite misses the topic imho as the question was about the "Alter, [...]" which i am pretty sure is what dario explained. Some old people i know seem to use it the way you said (i think i got this from a movie since i don't hang around with old people that much), but i guess they do not use such expressions as "was geht?" in this context. So your answer is nice-to-know (and i think correct) off-topic information, but not the answer to the question. Jan 19, 2014 at 9:55
  • @christian.s I feel very old now :) Anyway, I tried to answer the question "How did Alter become used in such a way?" to the best of my knowledge - it is probably a mix of ellipsis, substantivation of the adjective and using the already formerly known word "Alter" in a new context. I really see no evidence that it specifically derives from "Alter Schwede".
    – Ingo
    Jan 19, 2014 at 12:21
  • sorry, this was not meant offensive in any way - and i did not say you are wrong (everything you said is correct), but i think it just doesn't apply here.. anyway, this is just my opinion Jan 19, 2014 at 12:24
  • @christian.s... maybe you don't agree with his theory but you cannot say that it misses the topic. The post basically says : It is an ellipsis of "alter something" in sense of "tried something". And this is definitely answering to the question.
    – Emanuel
    Jan 19, 2014 at 20:51

I would like to add that there's another similar (but not exactly equivalent) use of the word "Alter" which is often heard on schoolyards:

"Kommst Du heute abend mit ins Kino?" "Nein, mein Alter hat es mir verboten."

Here, "Alter" is a derogative expression for ones Father. Similarly, "die Alte" would be ones mother.

  • Though your answer may be factually correct, I'm not sure it actually addresses the question being asked. Perhaps you could tie that in with what you have so far.
    – Kevin
    Jan 19, 2014 at 7:58
  • Actually, I did try to make clear that this isn't exactly the meaning from the question. But it is something that could be used in a similar context on a schoolyard.
    – PMF
    Jan 19, 2014 at 8:26
  • Agreed. Though maybe then it should be a comment rather than an answer. Some people might downvote an answer that doesn't answer the question.
    – Kevin
    Jan 19, 2014 at 15:27

I guess, it's a reversal of the derogatory Alter for adults, espcially parents. It started as a derogatory adress to some peer comparing him to the own parents or adults in general. Consequently, it reversed its meaning as it became common and then a peer term.


It was and still is quite common in colloquial German to use the adjective "alt" with "Freund, Kumpel, Knabe, ..." to express a long lasting (hence "old") friendship.

  • Mein alter Kumpel Johannes hat mich gestern besucht.
  • Der Klaus ist ein alter Freund unserer Familie.
  • "Hallo, alter Knabe, wie gehts?"

In not so modern teenage slang starting in the Eighties the corresponding noun often was omitted, and the adjective was used as a noun leading to a simple

"Hey Alter [...], was gibt's neues?"

Only in recent years this gained increasing popularity amongst young and very young people, likely induced by it's widespread use in "Kiezdeutsch". There "Alter" is used excessively.

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