Josna Rege

254. (On not knowing) German

In 2010s, India, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on April 8, 2014 at 10:02 pm

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This is the first time I have visited a country whose language I don’t know at all, and I feel quite ashamed, all the more so because everyone is so polite and helpful. I make pitiful attempts to string one or two words together, but so far my repertoire doesn’t extend much beyond danke schön (thank you very much). I am practicing saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak any German” (Es tut mir leid, aber ich spreche kein Deutsch), but so far I haven’t had the courage to actually utter the words. At the post office yesterday, my German friend drilled me in how to ask for postcard stamps—Bitte, die briefmarken fur postcarten—which I duly repeated when I got to the front of the queue, but when the counter clerk replied, “fünfundsiebzig cent“ (75 cents), I was completely thrown for a loop.

It’s all the more frustrating, somehow, that German and English are so closely related, because as I listen to conversations I keep feeling that I’m on the brink of understanding, when in fact I can’t take in anything but the odd familiar word or phrase. And yet there are so many ideas for which the world, English language speakers included, is indebted to Germans, words coined by writers, philosophers, political theorists, and philologists from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Immanuel Kant, to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to Max Müller. As a college student beginning to study Sanskrit, I found that anyone undertaking a serious study of the language was expected to study German as well, since many of the leading Sanskrit scholars had been German. (I found this annoying, but that didn’t change anything.) My father-in-law tells me that when he was in high school the same was true if one intended to study the sciences.

There are a number of German words (many of them compound words for which the language is famous) that do not have exact equivalents in English, so they have been imported wholesale. You can find a list of them, along with their definitions, here. The list includes, among others, angst, bildungsroman, doppelgänger, leitmotif, poltergeist, wanderlust, weltanschauung, and zeitgeist.

It’s all the more embarrassing not to know German when so many Germans (more than half, or 56 percent) know English, both spoken and written. Some years ago, I taught a summer course on the twentieth-century novel in English in which a German student was enrolled. My American students were staggered to find that she had read so many of the leading American and British novelists—and in the original, not in translation. But not one of the Americans could even name a single German writer, past or present. (Germans shouldn’t take this personally; when I asked my students if they could name a writer from neighboring Canada, they couldn’t come up with a single one either.) In 2011 The Guardian (UK), asked readers for their favorite books either from or about Germany. Here’s a list of the works and writers they sent in: see how many of them you recognize.

My father-in-law always says that if one takes the trouble to learn just forty important words and phrases in the language of a country to which one intends to travel—including “Please speak more slowly” and “Where is the toilet?”—one will not be able only get by, but will also earn the respect and goodwill of the native speakers. Next time I come to Germany (and I hope that there will be a next time) I intend to take his advice. Here’s a short video showing different ways to say hello and goodbye. Until tomorrow:

Alles Gute!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. I felt the same way when I went to Norway in 1981. I did know a little, but I would go to pieces when I was successful to the point that they told me how much? Finally I was told to learn the money and count it out, not just shove a handful on the counter.

    • I completely identify with your predicament. What I try to do is make a rough calculation of the total, and then to have the money counted out and at the ready in advance. It’s easy to do this in Germany since they have the sales tax already figured into the price tag. I’m in Northern Germany and so very close to the Scandinavian countries. One can drive to Denmark from here, and people do. But this s not a trip for traveling. I’m enjoying small things close at hand, like this morning’s bicycle ride to the Saturday street market.

  2. Thanks! I liked your post about language, too. I knew “G” had to be about German, and your “F” post, Fun With English ( inspired me to write the part about the German words that have been imported into English.

  3. LOL I would be thrown by “fünfundsiebzig cent“ too! Great post.

  4. I find German fascinating but I haven’t found time to learn it yet. A friend of mine has recently moved to Germany as a student and she wants to learn German so that she gets the jokes 🙂
    Also, many of the fairy tales that we know of were originally written in German. The most popular being the Grimm’s brothers. There is also a TV series called Grimm, which deals with these fairy tale characters in a modern day situation and all terminology developed for the series have been taken from German. German surprisingly has wonderfully descriptive words perfect for fairy tales.

    • Thank you for your very interesting comment. Where is that TV series running? I’d love to catch it. I’m in Bremen at the moment, and their pride and joy is that one of the Grimms fairytales, “The Bremen Town Musicians,” is set here. There’s a statue in the old City Centre depicting a scene from the fairytale, and it’s obligatory for every tourist to have his or her photo taken there.

  5. My main area of study at school was languages, and German was one of them. For some reason I can’t begin to divine, I found German more difficult even than Russian. In fact, of the languages I studied then, and since, perhaps only Latin (and, possibly, Arabic) gave me more trouble.

    • I so admire people who take it upon themselves to learn several languages, and envy those who have the ability to pick them up easily. I have learnt a smattering of a number of languages, since we moved around a lot in my childhood, but, sadly, am only fluent in English.

  6. Fascinating post Josna…I .Iearned German as a child, but you forget when unless you go on using it… but I remember lists of verbs like Ich habe, du hast etc…which wouldn’t get me far !!!!

    • Thank you, Valerie. If I recall, as a girl you lived in Germany for a time, didn’t you? I imagine it would come back to you if you had to use it. It’s so important–especially for the British–to learn other European languages, since most of the Europeans learn a number of them besides their own.

  7. My parents, both scientists, knew German pretty well and would sprinkle German phrases into conversation. My mother was an exchange student there in 1935–can you imagine?? But I have never learned the language either, and have the same regret as you. Thanks for keeping up with the blogging and sharing your travels–I feel more connected to you this month even though you are much further away!

    • Wow–Germany in 1935 must have been an extremely interesting place, with the shadow of Naziism already casting a pall over everything—at least in retrospect. Did your mother talk to you about that experience? It’s so embarrassing, especially at my age, to be so hopelessly inarticulate in everyday exchanges with people, but everyone is very kind.

      • My mom was 16 and clueless. It’s only in retrospect that she realizes what a fraught situation she was in in 1935 Germany. What she remembers is how dirty the Americans got, because they didn’t know how to wash without daily showers! They stank.

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