Tag Archives: English

Language Matters: Gender Benders On The Rampage

If there’s one thing that really vexes native English speakers when embarking on learning a second language, then it’s the curious feature of grammatical gender. The concept that nouns can be feminine, masculine or neuter is most baffling to them. English is one of the few Indo-European languages which do not have gendered nouns. Or, rather, it no longer has them.

Since English is the haughty offspring of an ancient variant of German, it once boasted three genders, just like its parent. But sometime after the Norman conquest, the genders bit the dust. German and French genders were clearly no love match and battled it out until total annihilation.

In my observation, the biggest hurdle for native English speakers is not the existence of grammatical gender per se, but all the mental energy they waste in their futile attempts to find logic in it. So, once and for all: THERE. IS. NO. LOGIC. It’s just like the weather. Or taxes. Or what happens to pairs of socks in the laundry.

It would probably be a bit harsh to imply that native English speakers are the only numpties in this regard. I have witnessed several curious reactions when speakers of a gendered language are confronted, for the first time, with another language whose genders don’t match theirs. I remember one instance, in a Portuguese class a few years ago, when my Spanish classmate, a builder in his early fifties about to start a job in Brazil, was dumbfounded by the discovery that a Portuguese ballpoint pen (caneta) was FEMININE, when, to his mind, pens (bolígrafo in Spanish) were MASCULINE.

“Look, Pablo,” I said, “if it ain’t got a dick or a cunt, how do you know what sex something is?!” (Note to aghast US readers: In Spain, such evocative vocab does not usually cause affront*)

But even this seemingly convincing line of argument has to be approached with extreme caution: In German, for instance, while man (Mann) and woman (Frau) are respectively masculine and feminine, the German word Weib, which is an outdated (and in modern usage a vulgar) term for “woman” closely related to the English “wife” is, in fact, neuter and NOT feminine.

The German word for “girl”, Mädchen, is also neuter, although there is at least some logic to that one, as it’s the diminutive of the (also outdated) feminine noun Maid (maiden), and all diminutives are neuter in German.

And, returning to our colourful vocab once more, it gets even more paradoxical: In Spanish, for example, the aforementioned naughty words for male and female genitalia are feminine and masculine, respectively, not the other way around, as you might expect.

In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking.

Taking the genders of nouns in one’s native language to be universal brings some interesting problems. A Spanish friend of mine told me once that he had encountered some toilets in a German restaurant labelled not with the internationally recognised stick man and woman, but instead with a sun and a moon. In German, the sun (die Sonne) is feminine, while the moon (der Mond) is masculine. In Spanish (and all other Romance languages, I believe) it happens to be the other way around. I leave it to you to imagine the rest of the anecdote…

As a native German speaker, the concept of gendered nouns gives me no trouble, but I am nevertheless experiencing a maddening – and unexpected! – predicament.

I speak Spanish fairly well by now and know the genders of most nouns. I cannot, however, for the life of me, get my adjectives and pronouns to consistently agree with my nouns. This is not so much of an issue when the adjective either immediately precedes or follows the noun: una chica gorda, un buen hombre, etc. easy peasy.

But if the adjective or pronoun appear in a different part of the sentence at some distance from noun they refer to, or in another sentence altogether, I find that my brain will often revert to the GERMAN gender rather than the Spanish one, because that’s how genders were first installed on my hard drive.

On some primal level, a table will always be masculine to me rather than feminine as in Romance languages , and, hence, it takes an immense amount of concentration to maintain gender agreement in my Spanish/Portuguese/French sentences. When I’m tired or my attention slips for just a few seconds, my brain will go straight to its native-language default setting – how could it be any other way? Since I’m pedantic to the extreme conscientious in my linguistic exploits, I find this insanely frustrating.

Messing up difficult grammatical constructions and features, such as the subjunctive, is one thing, but coming to terms with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to get something as basic as adjective-noun gender agreement down to a pat, is, quite frankly, a crippling blow. Just how am I going to get over it?!


Ah yes… something like this sure dulls the pain 🙂

[*For those interested in colloquial language, you may enjoy reading about how the most worstest of bad words in the English language is part of everyday parlance in Spain: Language Matters: C-Words of Difference]


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com


English Phrases That Should NEVER Be Translated Into German

Colourful expressions make a language come alive. I’m always surprised by how many of them exist, in almost identical wording, in several European languages. For example, it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth in English, German and in Spanish, and although the mouth changes into teeth in the latter case, the concept is the same. This doesn’t apply to all sayings, of course, and there are some that are not merely rendered nonsensical in translation, but which are guaranteed to result in a serious case of red-face-syndrome.

Here’s a just few that popped into my feeble mind last week. I’m hoping to collect some more. Input welcome 🙂

Suck EggsTeaching your granny to suck eggs
I love this expression, and I can’t even think of what the German equivalent would be. But one thing is certain: if you tried translating this, it’ll have your German conversation partner either raise an eyebrow, or rolling around on the floor in stitches.

The reason being that “eggs”, which is “Eier” in German, is a slang term for testicles. (Incidentally, the same applies to the Spanish “huevos”).

OK, German grannies probably do know how to suck both eggs and balls, but their grandchildren would much rather cling on to their image of them as a saintly and innocent creatures who only get close to a set of eggs when whipping up a mighty good strudel.

I’m going to hit the sack
It’s been a long day, you’re totally knackered, and you’ll be calling it a night as soon as you’ve made it to the bottom of your 1-litre beer glass. But DON’T say it by using that phrase, if you can at all help it.

There’s… uhm… a hairy issue with the word “sack” that you should be aware of.  Sack means sack in both English and German, sure, but on planet slang, it also means scrotum. The German expression “Ich hau’ ihm eine in den Sack” (I’m going to kick him in the nuts) is just too painfully close…


What did I say...?!

What did I say…?!

To run off with your tail between your legs
What’s the problem with this one, you might wonder. Dogs do this when they’ve suffered defeat, even German ones, so it should be a pretty self-explanatory expression with little potential for confusion.

I totally see your reasoning. The problem is that the word “tail”, which is “Schwanz” in German, doubles as a slang word for dick/cock. So, although your conversation partner will understand what you meant to say, it may be best to refrain from any linguistic experiments containing the words tail, eggs and sack when you’re meeting your German in-laws for the first time.

You’re welcome!
Relax. This one won’t be causing any embarrassment. But I’m still going to mention it, because it’s a really common phrase, and if you’re translating this literally into German (or into any other language, I should imagine), it will have people scratching their heads.

By any means, feel free to say “willkommen” when German visitors arrive on your doorstep and you’re planning to usher them in for a steaming cuppa and a slice of fruit cake. But as a response to someone who’s thanking you for doing them a favour, it won’t do. A German will need to hear “gern geschehen” or “bitte/bitte sehr/bitte schön”, NOT “du bist willkommen” – it makes no sense to them at all.

This explains why Germans will often respond with the word “please” (translated from “bitte”) to an English speaker thanking them, which is just as puzzling to the latter as “you’re welcome” to a German. Spanish and Portuguese speakers frequently counter with “for nothing”, a literal translation of “de nada”, which can come across as slightly rude, because of its association with the sarcastic English phrase “Thanks for nothing!”. What they mean to say, of course, is that “it was no trouble at all”.

Now we’ve got that one out of the way, let’s move on to something slightly more entertaining. And, potentially, excruciating.

I’m so hot, baby. I’m stone-cold. I’m… warm.
Welcome to a veritable hot-bed of temperature-related faux pas. Trust me, you’ll want to avoid these clangers. Here is how:

In German, when you’re sweltering in the summer heat, you say, “Mir ist heiß”, which translates as “It is (‘is’ as in ‘feels’) hot to me”. It’s a dative construction.

A sweaty-browed English speaker, however, tends to veer towards the more literal, nominative construction, and comes out with this: “Ich bin heiß”. And it does indeed mean that he’s hot. But in the… erm… randy, gagging-for-it sense of the word.

In English, “to be hot” is, of course, a double entendre, but the meaning is usually clear from the context. In German, by contrast, you have one way (the nominative) of conveying your horniness and another (the dative) for prompting your hosts to turn on the aircon. Try not to get them mixed up.

If you’re feeling warm or cold, follow the same sentence pattern, i.e. “Mir ist warm/kalt”, NOT “Ich bin warm/kalt”. Otherwise…

“Ich bin kalt” is Mafia speak for being dead (dead bodies are cold), and if you have proclaimed, “ich bin warm”, you’ve effectively outed yourself. Yes, as in “I’m gay”.

So, are there any phrases and expressions in the languages you know that are amusingly corrupted if subjected to literal translations? Please share them 🙂

[In case you missed it, you might enjoy How To Be A “Hater” With German Good Phrases.]

My Take On Gibraltar…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by islands, archipelagos and peninsulas. Having been born in mid-continent, a thousand miles from the sea, to parents who were disinclined to travel any farther than the nearest cigarette dispenser, lonely outcrops of lands encircled by thrashing seas seemed just as mysterious and (un)real to me as the junglescapes of the Planet of the Apes.

Strange things happen on islands that nobody can explain, while, at the same time, they explain everything. Who erected those giant stone statues on the Easter Islands? And had Darwin not stopped by the Galapagos and set his beady eyes on a bunch of finches, he’d probably never have come up with the concept of evolution.

When humans settle on islands, things become even more interesting. Their identities are rapidly re-shaped by island life. I’ve perpetually been left confounded, for example, by the firmly held belief of the British, that they are, in fact, not European.

According to Brit gospel, those Europeans inhabiting “The Continent” are a species afflicted either by a lamentable sense of humour deficiency, or by highly questionable timekeeping skills. And sometimes, both. Said Continentals, who try to compensate for their languages’ inherent lack of precision by means of florid gesticulations, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the British island breed, whose forefathers sprouted from spores that fell from the moral backbone of the heavens onto these mist-shrouded isles.

Applying the island rationale, when you ask a Brit whether Sardinians or Majorcans weren’t European either, or whether Japanese people ought to be considered exclusively Japanese and not Asian as well, you will earn yourself but a blank stare. With a dash of benevolent contempt, if you’re lucky.

Britons are, quite simply, more unique than anyone else. Incidentally, British citizens of Indian or Chinese heritage can both be British and Asian, but those pallid specimens descended from, let’s say, Norman conquerors and Danish seafarers, may be English and British, but definitely NOT European. Such is the mind-warping power of islands.

I’ve an interminable list of insular destinations I desperately want to visit, including Tristan da Cunha, Svalbard, Kamchatka, the Maldives, the Falklands, the Faroe Islands, Christmas Island… I could go on… but seeing that most of these are way beyond my paltry travel budget, I have to take what I can when the opportunity presents itself.

So, a few weeks ago, when the Andalucía trip came about, I was delighted – delighted, I tell you! – to discover on Google Maps that Algeciras, the town where Maria and I were going to be staying, was slap bang right next to Gibraltar.

And a "rock" it is. It even has its own weather! And what weather... what more proof do you need that Gibraltar is, in fact, British!?

Taken from the car as we were crossing the border. “The Rock” even has its own weather! And just look at that grumbling cloud casting doom and gloom over British territory while the rest of Spain is bathed in resplendent sunshine… what more proof does anyone need that Gibraltar is, in fact, part of the UK!?

Gibraltar, a lump of limestone fused onto the southern tip of Spain, a mere 2.3 square miles with 30,000 people squashed onto it. Gibraltar has been under British administration since 1704, which pisses off the Spanish no end. In the last referendum, held in 2002, 98% of Gibraltarians were adamant that they wanted to remain part of the UK rather than cede to geographic realities. The diplomatic skirmishes between the two nations feature prominently in the news here in Spain, and in the UK as well, of course.

View of the town half-way up the rock on our way to visit the monkeys

View of the town half-way up the rock on our way to visit the famous resident monkeys

"May I help you...?

“May I help you…?

"Got some nuts?"

“Got some nuts?”

You can even take one home!

You can even take one home!

I never realised that Gibraltar had caves... St Michael's cave, 300m above sea level, is like a giant cathedrals inside The Rock.

I never realised that Gibraltar’s innards were, in fact, a warren of caves. There’s 150 of them, apparently. St Michael’s cave, 300m above sea level, is like Mother Nature’s giant cathedral.

I half expected the Elven King to step down from that...

I half expected the Elven King to step down from that…

Overhead shot

Overhead shot. Best not cough. Those things could pierce your head…

We passed by some change-of-the-guards malarkey. Lots of stiff marching and intelligible shouting, as usual.

Back in town, we passed by some changing-of-the-guards malarkey. Stiff marching, peering out sternly from underneath slightly-too-big hats, and lots of unintelligible shouting. British tax money well spent.

Gibraltar House

Gibraltar lighthouse. That's Africa in the background.

Gibraltar lighthouse, with the African coast in the background.

So, is Gibraltar more like the UK or more like Spain?

Predictably, it’s neither fish nor fowl. It sports, of course, plenty of “authentic” pubs on every street, with the requisite British food items on the menu, from toad-in-the hole and beef wellington to chicken tikka massala. Listening to people’s accents, there were plenty of ‘real’ Brits milling through the streets and rummaging behind shops’ counters, but there was also a weird kind of indigenous English being flung about.

There are enough British High Street shops to have made me feel, for a fleeing moment, like I was back in the UK, and I got a bit homesick. I stepped into an M&S, and I may have had a minor orgasm somewhere between the chocolate Easter eggs and the hot cross buns. I also spotted a WH Smith and several UK clothing chains, such as Monsoon. But, to my abject disappointment, there was no Boots! I even asked about it in the Tourist Information office. Shaking of heads all round. But there were, I was told, “plenty other chemists”. I’m sorry, but a British town without a Boots is just inconceivable.

I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed by our trip, and I would certainly not label Gibraltar as “fake” or “boring”. It is what it is: Its own microcosm, a confluence of several worlds and a colourful history that has given rise to a way of life that is, well, quintessentially insular.

Gibraltar glows in hazy sunset. Viewed from Algeciras beach.

Gibraltar glows in a hazy sunset. Viewed from Algeciras beach.

What Does Your Language Suck At?

Last month, Linda of expateyeonlatvia wrote an impassioned piece about a number of vexatious statements put forth by her students, which had made her blood boil. One of her hapless tutees opined, for instance, that “English wasn’t a rich language”. [Click here if you want to see the post].

I commented on Linda’s post that a Spanish friend of mine had once said something very similar. The general consensus in expateye’s comments section was that if you didn’t speak a language very well, then, of course, you wouldn’t be able to express yourself eloquently. A vocab of a paltry 3,000 words may be enough to communicate your basic wants and needs and let you spout a few fusty opinions about the latest Matt Damon flick, but, well, it doesn’t compare to what a fairly well-educated native speaker can expound on with their 60,000 words. And then there is a wealth of expressions, colloquialisms and cultural references, which even an advanced learner, who’s never lived in the country of their target language, hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of mastering, no matter how many episodes of How I Met Your Mother he submits himself to.

All good and well… but then… after ruminating over this for several weeks, I’ve now come to a seemingly contrary conclusion: The “you just don’t know enough” rebuff is far too simplistic. In fact, I concede that you may not be able to express all of your sentiments in another language, no matter how proficient you are. And herein lies the crux of the gripe voiced by these pesky students, prompting them to vent infuriating pronouncements at their long suffering teachers about the woeful inadequacy of whatever language they happen to be grappling with.

Let me give you an example. Spanish (and this is also true for other romance languages) makes a huge great big deal of diminutives, and the opposite, namely augmentatives, are equally as important. Spanish diminutives are achieved by adding -ito, -cito or -illo suffixes to a noun, and the augmentative is formed by tacking on -azo, -ato or -orro, for instance. To illustrate: “Beso” means kiss, besito is a little kiss, and besazo a great big smacker.

English doesn’t really do diminutives (nor augmentatives). Instead, you’d have to opt for an entirely different word, employ an adjective like “little”, or turn “dog” into “doggy”. And that’s just not a good style. Ahem… 😉

German, on the other hand, does have proper diminutives, constructed by furnishing its nouns with -chen and -lein endings. However, these should be used very sparingly. They have the (intended) effect of infantilising the language, and overuse will make you sound like you’re talking to Forrest Gump.

Spanish, though, slots diminutives and augmentatives into sentences left, right and centre. And they don’t just work with nouns, you can even tag them onto adjectives, which is outright impossible in English or German.

Therefore, it is entirely understandable that a native Spanish speaker will feel somewhat bereft to find that a whole linguistic dimension of how he expresses himself on a day-to-day basis, how imbues his statements with humour, warmth, ridicule and exaggeration, amongst other nuances, is pretty much a no-go zone in English and German.

I suppose that each and every language has seams of glittering richness as well as areas that are a bit more on the threadbare side. English, for one, sports an inordinate amount of synonyms, which, more often than not, differ ever so slightly in their connotations. English also lets you have great fun with homonyms (words that sound the same, but differ in spelling and/or meaning), which introduces an entire universe of humour inconceivable in Spanish or German.

While both English and Spanish lend themselves fairly well to creating portmanteaus, in German, you can really go to town when it comes to fabricating entirely new words by merging any number of nouns into fancy compounds. You can make them stretch all the way to Mars and back, if you’re so inclined.

Compound noun mania does not only afflict German speakers with a sense of linguistic hilarity. A machine designed for producing a certain type of liquorice sweet is called a Lakritzschneckenaufrollmaschine (four nouns fused, not at all uncommon), and a (now defunct) law dealing with the supervision of beef labelling is termed Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (seven nouns joined in holy matrimony!).

Lakritzschnecken (= liquorice snails)

Lakritzschnecken (= liquorice snails)

Returning to my original point, the upshot is this: Every language learner will, at some stage, make a frustrated attempt at using their target language in the very same way as their native language. If it can’t be done, then of course they end up feeling like they are being censored, and that the language is, therefore, “deficient”.

Chances are, when learners hit a language’s inherent limits, and then rail on about how “unexpressive” it is, they will not yet have discovered its richness.

Learning to express oneself in a new language, which features alien cultural and linguistic concepts as well as uncharted facets of expression that do not exist in one’s native tongue, requires a high degree of competency. You actually have to be able to “think” in the new language, rather than just translate from one to the other. It’s like going fishing in a new lake: By the time you realise that your familiar fish don’t live there, you’re still a very long way from discovering the oysters at the bottom, never mind getting at their pearls.

Language. Levels. Layers. Depth. Perspective. New Horizons. [Pic taken last week at Algeciras seafront]

Language. Levels. Layers. Depth. Perspective. New Horizons.
[Pic taken last week at Algeciras seafront]

Now, I’m very curious to hear from those of you who are competent in more than one language… which features do you really enjoy in one of your languages that are tricky to convey in another? Any thoughts, whether from a learner’s or a teacher’s perspective, are very welcome 🙂

[For a short post on German compound noun craziness, click here.]

Language Matters: Assorted Pronunciation Gripes

For the adult learner, foreign languages aren’t exactly easy to get one’s tongue around. They have sounds that just don’t exist in their native language. I, for one, will forever struggle to produce the trilled Spanish “rr”. I can just about fake a single “r”, but the double one, forget it. Although, some kind Spaniards once complemented me on my “r”s. But they might have said “arse”, I can’t be sure.

Anyway, I have every sympathy for Spanish speakers who cannot produce a German “ü” or “ö”, never mind the many diphthongs that litter the English language, or Brits who can’t quite muster the phlegm-hacking Spanish “j”.

What constantly puzzles me, though, is people’s apparent inability to reproduce the same sounds in a foreign language, which readily exist in their native tongue.

Last week, there was an amusing little discussion happening on Bev’s blog (see this post & comments), about why Germans insist on pronouncing “cat” and “hat” as “cet” and “het”, respectively. There’s also no audible difference when most of them they say “man” vs. “men”. Although it was a long time ago, I do vaguely recall that my (German) English teachers spoke like that. Why on earth, why?!? It’s totally baffling.

English speakers (probably as an act of revenge) will keep pronouncing the German “z” like an English “z”, staring off words like Zeitgeist with a long soft ssss sound, which is equally annoying. English is replete with German “z” sounds (sounds just like the “t’s” in what’s  and that’s), so this problem should not arise in the first place.

OK, let’s pick on Spanish speakers for a bit 😉

I understand why it is difficult for them to produce complex vowel sounds, but it seems that, for no other reason than sheer laziness, they just lop final consonants off English (and also German) words, or take perverse pleasure in maiming them in some other way. So, “thing” atrophies into “thin”, even though they can pronounce the syllable “-ing” just fine, e.g. as in the Spanish slang word “minga”, which means “dick”. “New York” becomes “New Yor”, “Hong Kong” becomes “Honkon”, “bank”  becomes “ban”, etc, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Whenever the (German central bank) “Bundesbank” is mentioned on the news (i.e. every day sixty times), for instance, giving the final “k” the chop effectively turns it into the “Bundesbahn”, which is Germany’s National Rail company. Also a big institution, granted, but this is where the similarity ends.

Now, the Spanish word for bank is “banco”, which is virtually identical to the English and German equivalent, save for the vowel at the end, but why the “k” has to die together with the “o” is beyond my comprehension. Surely, if you can say “banco”, you can say “bank”????

Another thing that really grates on me is when words terminating in “m”, are suddenly pronounced as if they ended with an “n”.

OK, to be fair, not every Spanish speaker does this, there’s about a 50/50 split. Up for this type of consonant buggery are, for example, all Latin words ending in -um. (These are part of Spanish vocabulary just as they are part of English and German). So, curriculum and referendum turn into “curriculun” and “referendun“. I’ve even seen them spelt like that by Spanish people.

In the same vein, the .com domain in website addresses morphs into .con. Now, hearing a company advertising itself as “www.usedcars.con” wouldn’t particularly entice me to buy from them, I must say.

Well then, let’s hear it from everybody else – do you have a mental list of particular pronunciation pet peeves for which, in your opinion, there’s just no valid excuse?

While you’re all ruminating over that, I’ll be trying to kick my “r”s into shape… sigh.

How I (Almost) Found A Job Instead Of My Teacher

As those who read my Sunday post will know, I had my first 1-2-1 Portuguese lesson with my new teacher Teresa on Monday night. And it all started off in the worst possible way.

I don’t know her part of town very well, so I asked the bus driver to alert me when I needed to get off. It’s about a 15-minute ride. I reminded him once half-way. It was not busy on the bus. I was sitting in the first row behind him to the far right, so I was somewhere in his peripheral vision. And he forgot about me. He seemed embarrassed, but did not apologise.

So, I stomped off the bus in a huff and trudged back about three stops, only to discover that I’d taken the wrong map with me which didn’t cover that part of town. Ahrgh! There were plenty of people about, though, and by asking for directions, I found the right street without much trouble. Because I’d left home very early, so I was still good for time and not overly stressed at that point.

…until I realised that I’d left my diary with Teresa’s address and phone number at home. I remembered the house number, but it was a block of flats the size of the Forbidden City and with about as many entrances as an African termite mound. The thought that I was languishing right outside her apartment, and that she was waiting for me somewhere upstairs was vexatious, to say the least. It was one of those rare moments when I wished I had Wassapp…

TermiteCastleThere was a language school directly opposite, and it appeared to be open. All flustered and with my glasses steamed up, I stumbled in, and explained my pathetic situation to the woman at reception, asking if I could use her computer to access my email.

Not only was she happy to help me out, but she also offered me a job teaching English.

What cruel irony, I thought, that in a country with an unemployment rate of over 25% (and 56% youth unemployment!) somebody like me, by the sole virtue of being a foreigner (with the “right” skin and hair colour, I presume) can just walk into a school at random, all frazzled and really NOT at her best, and be offered a job they’re not even qualified for. I should mention that, at this point, she’d not heard a word of English out of me. When I told her I was German, her eyes grew even wider, as “there were no German teachers in Toledo” and she was overrun with enquiries.

Anyway, by this time, I’d actually managed to get hold of my teacher – phew! – so I took the school’s card (just in case) and dashed back across the road.

The lesson itself was great. Insanely painful, yes, but great. I’ve written before about how much I detest language classes. To say that I’m a reluctant speaker is putting it mildly. Every fibre and neuron in my body seizes up, my mush brain goes blank, I get into a strop with myself, and then I switch off and let the others get on with it. In a 1-2-1 setting, though, chickening out doesn’t really work, you’ve just got to push through it.

As anticipated, I was struggling with accent issues, as Teresa’s from Lisbon and so far I’d been studying Brazilian Portuguese. I was relieved I understood a fair amount of what she was saying, and that I was able to respond. Well, sort of.

I found that thanks to playing that silly Duolingo, I actually had some vocab to toss into my incoherent bleatings. Also, seeing as Portugal is so close, literally just down the river from me, it would be a crying shame if, after putting in all this effort, I couldn’t couldn’t communicate with my immediate neighbours. I’m more likely to make frequent trips to Portugal than Brazil. They’ve got good cakes there, I’ve been told 😉

So, the upshot is that I’m very excited about my fresh start with Portuguese. I’m thrilled about actually having spoken some Portuguese (entire sentences, even!) to a native speaker, and I’ll be back there next Monday.

Language Matters: The Delicate Issue Of Accents

A recent discussion on Danny Breslin’s blog got me thinking about how people respond to the sounds of different languages, accents and dialects. For example, there seems to be a general consensus that French and Italian are very pleasant to listen to, while Chinese and German are considered a bit…erm… challenging on the ear.

imran-khanThen there’s also the issue of non-native speaker accents. I remember – it must have been 20 years ago – seeing pictures of Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan, and thinking he was pretty hot. But listening to him being interviewed on the BBC one day made my celebrity crush evaporate in an instant. THAT accent just makes my hormones die, I cannot help it. English spoken with a strong German accent also makes me cringe – I guess it’s just too close to home 😉

It’s not uncommon for regional accents to elicit this kind of response. In the UK, ‘Brummie’ spoken by people in and around Birmingham seems to be the most despised. I understand that accents across the West Midlands vary, and that it’s not all Brummie, but, to the ears of people not originating from or living in that area, the subtle nuances are lost. To me, it’s all just various shades of unpleasant.

About a decade ago, I set up meeting with a guy I’d encountered on a dating site. I knew he was from Wolverhampton (a town just north-west of Birmingham), so I should have been prepared. Well, actually hearing him speak on the phone for the first time sent my lustometer readings spiralling into the coal pit.

(On this note, I’d like to point out that I’m not so shallow that I can’t overcome my dislike of certain accents if I actually connect with someone. It just didn’t happen on that occasion.)

The German equivalent of Brummie is the Saxon accent. It is the unanimously most reviled, nobody can listen to that and maintain an easy smile on their face, except, of course, for the perpetrators themselves. (Oh cruel irony of ironies, the German word for the Saxon accent is “Sächsisch”, which is pronounced “sexish” – and it’s so definitely NOT!!!). I have no idea how what the Saxons do those poor vowels can possibly be legal, but, unfortunately,  crawling through their windows at night and severing their vocal chords isn’t.

This joke is based on the fact that the German word for "cats" is pronounced like the verb "to barf" by the Saxons.

A jibe based on the fact that the German word for “cats” is pronounced like the verb “to barf” by the Saxons.

Well, I’d love to hear if there are any languages/dialects/accents that make your small intestine wrap itself round your pancreas. And what’s the most loathed regional accent in your country?

Language Matters: Why it’s not geil to call us Fräulein

I like to muse about language almost as much as I like to eat cake. I love how it’s not a static system, how it’s in constant flux, how the meanings of words change over time, with all the potential perils that this may pose.

Just a few weeks ago, I read an English novel written in the 1930’s, and it was liberally peppered throughout with the word “gay”, used in its original sense. Nowadays, the term can no longer be employed to mean “cheerful and carefree”, at least not without causing confusion. Today’s youth jargon has given it yet another meaning:  “This is so gay” signifies that something is decidedly “naff” or “uncool”.

Talking of which, about three decades or so ago, German kids requisitioned the word “geil” to mean “cool”.  Originally, “geil” meant “horny” or “randy”, and so having it suddenly flying around the playground was not well received by the elders. Which only made it even more attractive, of course. Nowadays, people about ten years younger than me will freely exclaim, “das ist total geil!”, at least in informal situations, when something rocks their boat.

And while “geil” is not a word that is widely recognised by non-German speakers, the following one surely is: “Fräulein”.

Sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it? But don’t you dare use it.

Let me explain. It is, of course, the direct equivalent of the English word “Miss”. Fräulein, however, started to fall out of usage in the 1970’s. This is also happening to “Miss”, which is gradually being replaced by “Ms”, but that trend started much later.

The reason for Fräulein’s demise is fairly obvious. It is the diminutive of “Frau”, which means woman, and so a Fräulein, literally, is a female who isn’t a woman yet. In the olden days, the term was used to refer to unmarried women, and since almost every female was married off by the age of twenty, it didn’t cause much consternation.

From about the sixties onwards, social conventions started to change, and it irked grown (but unmarried) women to be referred to as “little women”. As a result, the way of addressing adult females changed; Fräulein was purged from official documents, duly replaced with the word “Frau”.


I love Kim Hartman….

But it seems that the rest of the world didn’t get the memo. This is partly understandable – the only time the non-German speaking world is ever confronted with the language is while watching a WW2 film, and these are positively rife with flaxen-haired Fräuleins dressed in nurse uniforms operating telephone exchanges and dancing the Zwiefacher with homesick one-legged soldier boys.

The trouble starts when tourists arrive in Germany, thinking that the way to chat up a sprightly German lass is by showing off all the German words in their vocabulary (minus, perhaps, a couple that even Prince Harry by now knows to be on the dodgy side) . And what better way to get the charm ball rolling than to brandish a linguistic dinosaur at the object of his attentions by calling her a “pretty Fräulein.

Except, he doesn’t. More often than not, he will commit the even greater faux pas of pronouncing it something like “frowline”, which, to German ears, is an even littler little woman. So, now our hapless suitor has totally maxed out the patronisation factor. Will he ever come back from that? Unlikely. He’ll be talking to the hand, and making even better friends with his own that night, if he’s still bent on getting off.

So, is it ever OK to call someone a Fräulein? Yes, sure, it is. If you happen to have invented the time machine. If you’re an actor in a period drama. Or if you’re talking to a six year old. In fact, it’s absolutely fine to inflict it on children. But watch it with teenagers. The age of consent in Germany is 14, and a girl may well consider herself a woman at that age, so it’s probably best not to risk putting your foot in it.

How about your languages? Any amusing/contentious examples of words that have completely changed their meanings during your lifetime, or have fallen out of usage?


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com