2 options for the German word for “to live”
We have already talked about the German word(s) for to stay when travelling and staying with some friends or at a hotel. But what word do you use to express that you stay longer at a certain place? Sometimes it’s even all about a certain lifestyle (“Every now and then, I love going on a weekend trip with my yacht.”) or you want to tell your German friends simply where you live. (“In Munich, not in Berlin.”). The German word for to live are actually 2 words:
leben and wohnen.
Mostly used alternatively
When you have to options, leben or wohnen, how do you know which one to pick?
Well, mostly wohnen and leben are synonyms.
“I live with my parents.”
Ich wohne bei meinen Eltern.
Ich lebe bei meinen Eltern.
“I live by myself.”
Ich wohne alleine.
Ich lebe alleine.
When expressing that you live at a certain place or in a certain way or in a certain city, you can use either wohnen or leben as they are interchangeable.
The tiny differences
Apartment or Lifestyle?
As you may have hoped, there is a slight difference.
Wohnen has more to do with a certain address:
Ich wohne in der Sendliger Straße 12345 in München. (I live on 12345 Sendlinger Straße/Street in Munich.)
I will say this if I am at a government department where they need my address or when I am giving my address to my friend. “Yea, come over, my address is Sendlinger Straße 12345.” This is where I am located.
Leben translates to the way you live your life.
Ich lebe im Westend in München. (I live in Westend in Munich. Westend is an almost hipster suburb.)
I will say “Ich lebe im Westend in München”, when I want to stress the lifestyle that comes with living in a specific suburb or area. When I want to make a statement. “No, I don’t live in suburbia. I live right in the middle of the city, in a not yet gentrified suburb you may not have heard of it, but it is this super hipster suburb -not yet, but it will be soon- and I am very proud that I have moved there -knowing it will become hipster as hell- before everyone else has even started to think of it as the place to be.”
Wohnen again when talking about your house or apartment
Ich wohne bescheiden. – My apartment/house is simple and modest.
With this sentence you describe your apartment. You tell people what it looks like. You are saying, “I don’t have much furniture around. And if there is any, then it is the cheap and wobbly Ikea funiture. No fancy and expensive Van Gogh painting is displayed prominently over my expensive Bauhaus couch.”
Leben when talking about the way you live your life
Ich lebe bescheiden. – I live modestly / I live in a small way.
Here we are talking again about a certain lifestyle. You are telling people that you are living in a very modest way. “I don’t like to own many or expensive things in general. I don’t need to book into an expensive 5 star hotel on the Maldives for my holidays. Instead, a family run little barrack in Schwarzwald will do as well.” You might even own a Van Gogh painting but this is all you have. You only own the painting because all your thoughts are all about this painting. This is all you will ever need in live.
Animal or Human being?
Also, wohnen and leben are not interchangeable when talking about your hamster that is living in a hamster cage on your balcony. If you talk about animals, leben is the way to go:
Mein Hamster lebt auf dem Balkon. (My hamster lives on the balcony.)
Here is what you should memorise about leben and wohnen
- mostly, leben and wohnen can be used alternatively
- use wohnen when you want to accentuate where you live
- use leben when you want to accentuate how you live
Have you ever struggled with those two? What do you do to memorise the use? Let us know in the comments.