Germans, on the whole, say it how it is. Feel free to ask them any kind of question, but be prepared… they will serve it up to you, that answer, straight, raw and brutal.
German thinking is analytical and methodical, and the language reflects this, at the expense of sugar coating. Last week, we had a lively discussion on Duolingo, a free language learning site, about how best to introduce your significant other to a third party.
Generally – and this issue exists in English as well as in German – once you’re well into adulthood, referring to somebody you’re in a long-term relation ship with as your “boyfriend/girlfriend” has a rather juvenile ring to it. And if you’re not married, you can’t resort to the convenient husband/wife label.
Well, just like in English, it’s perfectly acceptable to refer to your other half as your “Partner”, or your “Lebensgefährte”. The latter, literally translated, means “life companion”. “Lebenspartner” is also a common term.
You’d think this was pretty much the end of the story, but German, in its relentless quest for precision, wasn’t quite satisfied with this. After all, modern relationship patterns take many forms, and it is quite common for people of all ages to periodically change their partners.
And so, German, with its great propensity to forge new words the length of the Great Wall of China in order to achieve accuracy, came up with this beauty of a compound noun: “Lebensabschnittsgefährte.”
Now, we already know that the first part of this means “life” and the last part “companion”. The interesting component is the bit wedged in between, namely “abschnitt”, which signifies “segment” or “stage”.
When I left Germany in 1991, this whopper of a word had not yet infiltrated common usage, and so I had to check with a friend whether, perhaps, it was chiefly used to refer to a past partner one had spent a significant chunk of one’s life with. I mean, “life stage partner” sounds so much less flippant and dismissive than “the ex”, doesn’t it?
But no. It is actually deployed to introduce one’s current consort: “Hi, this is Bobbins, my life stage companion”.
And you are meant to say this while your beloved is standing right next to you.
I must admit, I do, in theory, quite like the life-stage-partner concept. As we grow and develop, our outlook on life and our interests change, and, as I’m sure most of you would agree, we’d rather be with a person who encourages us in our current endeavours (and vice versa), rather than feeling perpetually stifled by having to accommodate someone who’s no longer on the same page as us. In reality, though, I’m not sure I’d actually be all that thrilled to be officially designated “temporary partner” status, regardless of how either one of us happened to perceive the relationship.
I’d love to have some input on this… is there an equivalent term for “life stage companion” in your language(s)?
Also, since I haven’t lived in Germany for quite some time, I’ve not really heard this word being flung about a real life context. If you happen to reside there, do you know people who use it and how does this tend to go down…?
You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com