When Mark Twain entitled his satirical essay on learning German ‘The Awful German Language’, he presumably intended ‘awful’ in both senses. German, I have found, is both awfully difficult to learn and awe-inspiring. Twain, for his part, concludes that ‘a gifted person ought to learn English in thirty hours, French in thirty days and German in thirty years’. By this measure I am one-tenth of the way through my experience of learning German, and still a long way from that dreamed-of moment when I finally issue forth one precise mouthful of unblemished Deutsch.
English is a linguistic mongrel and we have become used to hearing it being garbled by non-native speakers. Not so for the Germans, for whom hearing their language lacerated seems to inflict an almost bodily pain. The German tongue is a minefield of potential mistakes for the English speaker, with three genders, four cases (with their respective adjective declinations) and verbs that saw themselves in two, not to mention reflexive verbs and compound nouns longer than a Welsh train station. Twain addresses all these qualities with his usual comic flair. He complains that the personal pronoun sie can, depending on context, mean you, she, her, it, they or them. And he quips that he would ‘rather decline two drinks than one German adjective’.
I arrived in Germany with a mere smattering of words and my first months were spent blushing as basic questions were met with spluttering apologies. Entschuldigung means ‘excuse me’ (literally ‘dis-guilt me’) and it is the first and most useful word you will learn. But when you live in a country where you cannot understand the language even the most basic things become insurmountable obstacles. I remember, in an embarrassing confusion of the words Kasse (checkout) Geldautomat (cashpoint) and Käse (cheese), asking strangers in my politest tone ‘wo ist der Käseautomat’ — ‘where is the automatic-cheese-dispenser?’ My brain function at this time was not aided by the fact that I felt inexplicably tired all the time. Even after jugs of coffee I could not find my get-up-and-go, and convinced myself that I was developing M.E. until a kindly German pointed out to me that I had been buying decaffeinated coffee (enkoffeiniert) without realising.
For most people, as for me, learning German involves going back to school: sitting behind desks looking at a blackboard, doodling on your notes and learning how to talk about your ‘hobbies’ and your favourite food and other things that seem immensely useless in the land outside the classroom. Better would be classes on die Umgangssprache (colloquial speech) or a course offering a range of useful phrases to overcome those awkward moments of cultural misunderstanding between Germans and Brits such as ‘please stand behind me, this is a queue’ or ‘it’s rude to stare’ or ‘that was meant as a joke’ or ‘sometimes perhaps it’s better not to say exactly what’s on your mind…’
Language textbooks are invariably awful with their bizarre stereotypes and crude cartoons and must therefore be supplemented with other resources. I have one book that calls itself ‘A Guide to Dirty German’, but even this is full of phrases that no German I know has ever heard of, like ein Schnitzelkind — ‘an outcast’, literally a kid who has to have meat tied around his neck so that a dog will play with him. This book also turned up ein echtes Gesichtsdresden — ‘a real Dresden-face’, i.e. so ugly that your face looks like Dresden after the Second World War.
There are also numerous internet resources for the avid German-learner, in particular leo.org which apart from being an indispensible online dictionary also provides endless entertainment as helpful users try to translate the untranslatable. ‘To drive someone round the bend’ here is jemanden auf die Palme bringen — to carry someone up a palm-tree. Or the German phrase erzähl mir keine Märchen — ‘don’t tell me fairy-tales’, rendered here as ‘don’t piss on my back and tell me it’s raining’.
Which brings us to the pitfalls of trying to be polite. In English, unlike other European languages, we obviously have no polite form when addressing strangers, elders, or your new boyfriend’s parents. So for the most part we are forgiven this indiscretion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t mortifying when you realise you just used du with someone’s grandma, which is the equivalent of greeting her for the first time with a high-five. Besides this, Germans hardly swear at all, and the swearwords they do have seem to have less impact to offend that the English equivalents. For example the most frequent swearword in German is ‘scheiße’ (shit), but it is common to hear small children using this word without reprimand, which makes it closer to our ‘damn’. The most common curses in English are sexually inclined, whereas in German they are mainly anal You can take your pick from the following: Arschloch (arse-hole), Arschgesicht (arse-face), Arschnase (arse-nose) and Arschgeige (arse-violin).
As a sufferer of mild dyslexia, I already have the problem of getting similar sounding words confused. These spoonerisms seem to take a particularly comical form in German. So many words sound the same to me that I have started crafting tongue-twisters made up of words I frequently get confused: die traurige Taube tranken Traubensaft, for instance, which is ‘the sad dove drank grape juice’. But more problematically, I have found I get taboo swearwords mixed up with more mundane phonetic doppelgängers. To my ear, Fotze (cunt) sounds like Pfütze (puddle) and I have warned small children without wellington boots not to ‘step in that cunt’. I have problems with wichsen (to masturbate) and wechseln (to change), which once lead to my requesting a checkout lady to ‘masturbate a 50-euro note for me’.
As Goethe says, ‘he who does not know another language does not know his own’, a thought which has sustained me through endless hours of tedious language classes and pages of infantilising, banal textbooks. I occupied myself with the way many of our words are built along similar metaphorical lines. For example the word Drucken which in German means to ‘print’ or ‘impress’, a printer is a Druckerei, but as in English, ideas are also ‘impressions’ (Eindrücke) and one can be literally ‘impressed’ by something (beeindruckt). In this sense the idea or the thing is metaphorically stamped into one’s mind. These words are so commonplace that we use them all the time without thinking of their dormant metaphors; as with learning any new language it is only in seeing the same words rendered in a strange tongue that one stops to wonder at the strangeness of the word in one’s own.
But some of their words for the same things are, frankly, better than ours. ‘Onomatopoeia’ in German is lautmalerisch which means literally ‘to paint with sound’. Or die Stimmung which comes from Stimme meaning ‘voice’ and means the atmosphere or mood of a place, literally the ‘voice of a place’, how it speaks to you.
German also has a myriad of words for which we have no translation. These are a cause of wonder to me in the way that they add new dimensions to quite normal things. Schmunzelnis somewhere between a secret smile and a knowing look. Rausch, which is the elated buzz you get off alcohol or other stimulants, is also related to the white noise that comes from an untuned radio. And ‘ein Feingeist’, which means, literally, ‘fine ghost’, is a word for a sophisticated and elegant gentleman. It’s also bound up with the many-faceted word ‘Geist’, meaning mind, spirit, ghost, intellect, phantom, psyche — a word that encapsulates the alchemy of persona, the Cartesian split between thinking and being, a way of imagining how our souls haunt our earthly bodies.
As my first concerted attempt to learn another European language I still can’t wrap my English mind around the gendering of nouns. Germans tell me that the sex of the word bears no relation to the word itself, and you just have to think of it as being part of the way the word is spelt. Yet it undoubtedly plays a role in our relationship with that word, it adds some kind of synaesthetic layer to the noun, it becomes cross-pollinated with our associations about gender. For instance, heaven (Himmel), angel (Engel), devil (Teufel) and god (Gott) are male. Sin (Sünde) is female, and so is snake (Schlange) but then so are love (Liebe) and knowledge (Erkenntnis). Evil (Übel) is neutral. A curve (Kurve) is female but an angle (Betrachtungswinkel) is male; liquid (Flüssigkeit) is female; solid (Stoff) is male and gas (Gas) is neutral. The gender does not explicitly alter the word, but these examples suggest that age old gender associations, either mythical or material, linger in the division of nouns.
This is how I comfort myself when faced with the angst-inducing complexities of German, thinking them less tear-inducing affectations than poetic vehicles that animate the language as I grow more familiar with it. I have come to think of declining adjectives as a form of poetic possession; a noun will lay claim to the words around it, will colour a sentence with its presence. Verbs that separate themselves pushing the prefix to the end turn the sentence into a mythical beast with the head of one animal and the tail of another: you cannot interrupt a German mid-sentence because you don’t know which hybrid creature you’re contending with until the end of the sentence. Then there are the reflexive verbs. Though not exclusive to German, these have no equivalent in English and are awkward for an English speaker. I have come to appreciate them for the way they affect the nature of subjectivity. They turn the self into a medium through which actions must pass. In English we merely ‘remember’ things, but in German it’s sich erinnern, so you ‘remember yourself’ things, making remembering an act in which every memory passes through the lens of the subject. Similarly, Germans do not passively ‘fall’ in love, it isn’t some cliff they stumble over haplessly. In German it is ‘sich verlieben’ which is hard to render in English because we are so accustomed to spontaneously ‘falling’ off romantic precipices. In German you ‘love yourself someone’: love is a deliberate state that you put yourself in, a conscious ecstasy.
When someone tells me that they find German ugly or harsh to listen to, I ask them if they have ever tried speaking it. German words feel good in your mouth; the sharp sounds they require fill your mouth in a way that is much more dignified than trying to wrap English teeth around French with its rolling r’s and pouting vowels. I have heard classical singers testify that German is the best language to sing in, because the shape of the words leaves space for breath and therefore song, because they are easy to sing through. At the end of his essay, in a sudden shift from satire to sincerity, Twain concedes that ‘there are German songs which can make a stranger to the language cry. That shows that the sound of the words is correct – it interprets the meanings with truth and with exactness; and so the ear is informed, and through the ear, the heart.’