Paying in German — bezahlen vs. zahlen

Anyone who has visited or lived in the German speaking world will be familiar with this scenario. You popped into a restaurant for something to eat and drink. The food was quite good and the service was, well… it was what it was. You’ve had your food and now you’d like to pay. You’ve tried to make eye contact. The waiter / waitress (der Kellner / die Kellnerin) is bustling about taking care of other guests or just simply out of sight. And then it happens you catch their attention and you’re quick to seize the moment and make the international sign for the bill (die Rechnung / die Zeche). You get the nod and you’re sure that you’ll be out in a jiffy, but instead of just going and getting the bill the waiter comes over and asks: “Was darf’s sein?” At that moment your brain hits a fork in the road. Do you say: “Ich möchte bitte zahlen.” or “Ich möchte bitte bezahlen.” What is the difference between the two or is there even one?

To say there is no difference between the two, would make one of the words simply superfluous and mean that it really should have just died out, so there must be a difference, be it ever so slight.

Let’s look at the meaning of bezahlen and zahlen.

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  1. 🙂 and if do happen to say “zählen” and you do have a witty waitor, the right answer would be “Your tip… cause that won’t take so long.”

    Seriously… I have had arguments with students about how there MUST be a difference and I just coudln’t really get a hold of it… I work in a bar too and I think that the upper middle class tends to say “zahlen” … prefixes are for precarity… but it might also be on account of the fact that the upper middle class in the area where I work comes from southern Germany so maybe it is a regional thing….

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