What's the difference between Samstag, Sonnabend and Sonntag?

The German language is not as unified as one might think

Cheerful family taking selfie
Sonntag ist Familientag. Morsa Images-Taxi@getty-images

Samstag versus Sonnabend

They both mean Saturday and can be used interchangeably. So why does Saturday get two names in German? First of all, which version to use depends on where you live in the German speaking world. Western and southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland use the older term “Samstag”, whereas eastern and northern Germany tend to use "Sonnabend". The former GDR (in German: DDR) recognized "Sonnabend" as the official version.



Historically the term "Sonnabend", which means "The evening before Sunday", can be traced back surprisingly to an English missionary! It was none other than St. Bonifatius, who was determined during the 700’s to convert the Germanic tribes in the Frankish empire. One of his items on his to-do list was to replace the word "Samstag" or "Sambaztac" as it was known then, which was of Hebraic origin (Shabbat), to the Old English term “Sunnanaefen.” This term made sense since it signified the evening and later on the day before Sunday and thus was easily integrated into old high German. The term “Sunnanaefen” evolved into the middle high German “Sun[nen]abent” and then finally into the version we speak today.

As for St. Bonifatius, despite his successful mission among the Germanic people, was killed by a group of inhabitants in Frisia (Friesland), which is known nowadays as the Netherlands (=Niederlande) and north western Germany today.

It is interesting to note that the Dutch kept the original version for Saturday only (=zaterdag).

 

The Cultural Meaning of Samstag

The Saturday evening was always the day where they would show the main blockbusters on TV. I remember studying the TV magazine -I admit, I am a bit older- and really feeling the "Vorfreude" (=joy of anticipation) when I saw a hollywood movie being shown on Saturday.

On Saturdays they would also show the big entertainment shows like "Wetten Dass...?" which you might have heard of. It's host Thomas Gottschalk (his name literally means: God's Joker) most likely still lives in the US nowadays. I loved that show when I was younger and less thinking about what was going on there. But later I realised that it was actually pretty horrible. But it "entertained" millions of people and so far everyone following into Gottschalk's footsteps has failed to continue his success. It was "big news" when they finally put that dinosaur to sleep

 

Sonnabend versus Sonntag 

Now that you know that Sonnabend is actually the evening before Sonntag (=Sunday) you might be able to easily distinguish these two German weekdays. The Sunday though is a very special day in Germany. In my youth it was the day that the family would spend together and in case you were religious you'd go to church in the morning to start off the day. It was also the day all the stores on the countryside are closed. Which lead to a little culture shock when I came to Poland in 1999 and saw many stores open on Sunday. I had always thought that the Sunday was some kind of Christian holiday but as the Poles where even stricter Christians than the Germans, I couldn't quite grasp this.

 

So don't be surprised when you come to Germany. Even in the bigger cities, the main stores are closed. The only way to get what you urgently desire is to go to a Tankstelle (=gas station) or a Späti (=late shop). Expect the prices to be up to 100% higher than usual.

 

Edited on the 23rd of June 2015 by: Michael Schmitz