Basic German: Large Numbers

Not surprisingly, German numbers have a few of their own oddities that keep native English speakers on their toes. Here are some of the most common spelling and pronunciation changes related to numbers that you need to be familiar with:

  • When you use the number eins to describe one thing in a sentence, it changes spelling because, in these situations, eins is working as an adjective, and it’s the equivalent of using a or an. In German, adjectives go through all kinds of spelling changes in a sentence. Consider this example:

    Er hat einen großen Hund. (êr hât ayn-en grohs-en hoont.) (He has a large dog.)

  • In spoken German, people commonly pronounce the digit 2 as zwo (tsvoh) instead of zwei (tsvay). Doing so helps avoid the confusion — acoustically speaking — with drei (dray) (three). To double-check that you heard zwei and not drei in credit card numbers, prices, telephone numbers, room numbers, and so on, simply ask, or repeat the number(s) using zwo. Say, for example, Ich wiederhole vier-zwo-acht. (iH vee-der-hoh-le feer-tsvoh-âHt.) (I’ll repeat four-two-eight.)

  • Especially in spoken German, you can use einhundert (ayn hoon-dert) (one hundred) in place of hundert (hoon-dert) (hundred). This change makes the number clearer to the listener.

  • When referring to currency, you change the numerical value of the bill to a noun to talk about the bill itself. Imagine you’re cashing €400 in traveler’s checks and you want three €100 bills and five €20 bills.

    You say Ich möchte drei Hunderter und fünf Zwanziger. (iH merH-te dray hoon-dert-er oont fuenf tsvân-tsiH-er.) (I’d like three hundreds [euro bills] and five twenties.) The numbers Hunderter and Zwanziger are nouns, and you form them like this: Take the number, for example hundert, and add -er to the end of the number: hundert + -er = Hunderter.<Cultural Wisdom>

  • Germans often “spell” their phone numbers in pairs of numbers. If, for example, your number is 23 86 50, you say dreiundzwanzig sechsundachtzig fünfzig (dray-oont-tsvân-tsiH zêks-oont-âH-tsiH fuenf-tsiH).

    If you read the numbers one by one, you may say the number 2, or zwei (tsvay), pronounced as zwo (tsvoh), making 23 86 50 sound like zwo drei acht sechs fünf null (tsvoh dray âHt zeks fuenf nool). Numbers in groups of three, such as area codes, are usually read one by one. For example, the area code for München is 089, so you would say null acht neun (nool âHt noyn).

For numbers higher than 999, look at the following list. Notice that the decimal point in German numbers represents the comma in English:

  • 1.000: tausend (tou-zent) or ein tausend (ayn tou-zent) (1,000)

  • 1.000.000: Million (mee-lee-ohn) or eine Milllion (ayn-e mee-lee-ohn) (1,000,000)

  • 1.650.000: eine Million sechshundertfünzigtausend (ayn-e mee-lee-ohn zêks hoon-dert fuenf-tsiH tou-zent) (1,650,000)

  • 2.000.000: zwei Millionen (tsvay mee-lee-ohn-en) (2,000,000)

  • 1.000.000.000: eine Milliarde (ayn-e mee-lee-ahr-de) (1,000,000,000; one billion)

  • 2.000.000.000: zwei Milliarden (tsvay mee-lee-ahr-den) (2,000,000,000; two billion)

  • 1.000.000.000.000: eine Billion (ayn-e bil-ee-ohn) (1,000,000,000,000; one trillion)

In English, you use a comma to indicate thousands and a period to show decimals. German (and many other languages) does the reverse: It uses a period (Punkt) (poonkt) to indicate thousands and the comma (Komma) (ko-mâ) to work as a decimal point. Consider these examples:

1 Zoll (ayn tsol) (one inch) = 2,54 Zentimeter (tsvay ko-mâ foonf feer tsen-ti-mey-ter) (two comma five four centimeters)
1 Zentimeter (ayn tsen-ti-mey-ter) (one centimeter) = 0,39 Zoll (noohl ko-mâ dray noyn tsol) (zero comma three nine inches)
Mount Everest ist 8.848 Meter hoch. (mount everest [as in English] ist âHt-tou-zent âHt hoon-dert âHt-oont-feer-tsiH mey-ter hohH.) (Mount Everest is eight thousand eight hundred forty-eight meters high.)

And this is how you say one of these numbers: 20,75 = zwanzig Komma sieben fünf (tsvân-tsiH ko-mâ zee-ben fuenf). The English equivalent has a decimal point in place of the comma in German, so you’d say the number as twenty point seven five.

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