German

Here are two clichés that, I think, derive from people who do not speak a word of German: one is, “German words are long” and the other is, “German is stilted and serious” as a language.  To my mind, both of those clichés are far off the mark.  And the fact that the first is wrong is what makes the second so incredibly wrong. I ask myself sometimes, did Mark Twain actually speak German?

German words that look long to the non-speaker are usually composed of a series of words.  In fact, a large number of German nouns are compound nouns, meaning that they are a few words, nouns, adjectives, or parts of verbs, strung together to form one idea. Sometimes a completely novel concept.  As an example, the word for television, der Fernseher, is composed of two words, distance (die Ferne) and to see (sehen).  If you speak the language, when you see this “long” word, you automatically understand it as the sum of its components, the new concept.  My own longish and frightening last name, Niedenthal, just means “low valley”. In fact, most of those last names that end in thal (das Tal) are descriptions of valleys. Thus, Blumen = “flowers” and Rosen = “roses” andWeisen = “fields”, and so forth. 

A typical compound noun in German merely runs together words to form a complete and concrete description.  Do you want to buy bread made of sunflower seeds?  The same three words (“sunflower” “seeds” and “bread”) comprise the German word Sonnenblumenkernbrot. That is not a long word, it is three words (actually four if you separate “sun” and “flower”), and German speakers, even non-natives, understand that and do not fall over in a dead faint.  Or even stumble in the pronunciation.

In this way the German language is the opposite of rigid: you can run words together in novel ways to suit your perceptions or thoughts, without hindering comprehension.  And that makes German (at least to me) sound terribly creative and often hilariously funny.

The fact that this makes German fun and funny and not serious came to me last night when a tall German friend who was driving us back to our place in Geneva had to adjust the position of the driver’s seat in his car.  He asked me if he could push the seat back (I was sitting behind him) because he needed more room than his Zwergenfrau had needed before him.  His “dwarf wife!”  He could call his wife that to indicate that her legs are shorter than his.  Plus, his prosody (emotional tone of language) was rollercoaster-y and ironic. We all snickered.

My husband can make our boys hysterical (and not at all ready for bed) by making up names both for them and for what he is about to do to them.  The German language is fantastic for making up cute endearment names for little children.  First, is the most obvious, which is that the endings chen andlein can be added to the end of any word to make it cute, as when a mouse becomes a little mouse inMäuschen. Markus' mother called him her Mäusezähnschen (little mouse’s tooth). You can go further to make up stuff with the idea of a little mouse when, as Markus does, you compliment a young soccer player by asking, Bist Du meine kleine Fussballspielmaus? (“Are you my little-soccer-player-mouse?”).

The use of little animals and animal body parts to be sweet and funny in a totally vivid and imaginative way is as endless as the number of the possible combinations of words in the German language.  For instance, Markus might call a child his little-pig’s-ear (Schweinsöhrchen which is also, incidentally, the name for a type of pastry). Or when he is suggesting that the boys go to bed he might refer to them as his Schlafenskröte (“sleep toads”).  It may well be that no one has ever heard the expression Schlafenskröte in their lives.  But that is the whole point.  Without even thinking, in an expression of affection, Markus can use his language to make anything sweet or funny.  Today is our Alex’s birthday and Markus wrote in an email that he was sending him Dickesgeburtstagsbussis (big-birthday-kisses).

All of this combining of concrete nouns does not of course always result in the elicitation of sweet feelings.  Most all emotions can be elicited by this detailed description.  Still, the potential to create new words does give the impression of either silly or ironic creativity a lot of the time. The emotional prosody (most people do not speak in the rapid fire delivery of Hitler) enhances this perception, and it is only sometimes serious, just as often funny, sarcastic, or intentionally dramatic.  

If you don’t believe me, go watch the absolutely hilarious ad for Berlitz language courses on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKgRP5IgvCY).  What is funny to me is not what happens at the end, but how the Coast Guard captain describes the equipment to the new recruit. I love how he draws out Überlebensradar (survival radar, I guess) with consequence, and claps the guy on the back.

I speak German pretty fluently, far from perfectly.  And the number of months I have lived in that country only add up to a little over a year.  So, my post here can be read with caution, even doubt. Still, I think that the reality lies a long ways away from the clichés.

Paula NiedenthalComment