Tag Archives: Learning German

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instance, while man (Mann) and woman (Frau) are respectively masculine and feminine, the German word Weib, which is an outdated (and in modern usage a vulgar) term for “woman” closely related to the English “wife” is, in fact, neuter and NOT feminine.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“girl”, Mädchen, is also neuter, although there is at least some logic to that one, as it’s the diminutive of the (also outdated) feminine noun Maid (maiden), and all diminutives are neuter in German.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?!

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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

 

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Germans Like It Explicit!

Everyone knows that Germans have a set of rules for everything. And if there’s no official rule consecrated by some recognised authority, then you will usually find detailed “suggestions” not only on HOW to do something, but also WHY.

I spotted this little gem on the notice board in the block of flats where my mother lives, right next to the Hausordnung (house rules):

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Someone’s got a Phd in Laundry Room Physics… 

Translation:

Please note:

The drying of laundry in the basement leads to high air humidity.

This, in turn, causes already semi-dry items of clothing to re-absorb moisture as well as any newly pegged-out washing to dry more slowly.

For this reason we would like ask you, during times of high humidity (i.e. when a lot of washing has been hung out to dry), to open the windows in the drying room for a short duration of time in order to allow the air to circulate.

Please do not forget to close the window again afterwards.

If only the Kyoto Agreement had been drafted by my mother’s landlords, it would never have failed…

Here’s another example of instructive cajoling, fresh from my village green, aimed at the pooch-owning general public:

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Translation: Dog owners – BE CONSIDERATE! Just in case…for now or for later. Pull bag. [Some hooligan has slapped a parody FC Bayern München sticker right across the pictorial guidance, but at least it matches the dispenser’s colour scheme]

What gets me is the utterly redundant “just in case… for now or for later”. I mean, not even German German shepherd dogs plant their malodorous pine cones like clockwork every day at the same hour in the same spot. So, if you’re walking your four-legged poop machine and you ain’t got a poop bag and you see a poop bag dispenser, you’d know what to do, right?

I suspect that the company was so proud of its word play, that it just had to get it out there. Let me explain: The word “Fall” in the idiomatic expression Im Falle eines Falles (= just in case, or, literally “in the case of a case”) has another meaning: fall/drop. So, in case something happens to…erm… drop from your dog unexpectedly… ah haha… ha.

As you can tell, I didn’t have to go very far to find both of these examples. They are everywhere. But WHY?! Do Germans really think that their fellow human beings are not smart enough to work these things out for themselves? Or do they just enjoy being patronising?

I think the issue is two-fold. First of all, Germans are, on the whole, a bunch of pragmatic realists. As such, they accept that about a tenth of the populace consists of morons. What Germans do not accept, however, is that those 10% are let off the hook on account of being dimwitted. Therefore, they resort to stating the bleedin’ obvious. On every noticeboard, on every street corner.

The other reason is linked to their compulsive drawing up of rules for everything. Rules have to be pretty watertight, not only for the benefit of the cretins, but also for the 10% situated at the opposite end of the spectrum, namely the very special breed of German Smart Arse (“Klugscheisser”). If a German Smart Arse flouts a rule, their first recourse is to poke their sausage finger at an omission or ambiguity in the rules.

This gives rise to the need for detailled written instructions for even the most common-sense behaviours meant to ease communal living. It’s the German way of creating social pressure for a special sub-species of the German Smart Arse, aka the Lazy Arse Klugscheisser, by obliterating their first line of defence, which usually goes something like this: “Wo steht das?!” (Where does it say that?!).

[For some more Germanalysis, see this post: The German National Character Explained in Three Culturally Loaded Phrases ]

 

 

 

 

Nothing Separates A German From Their Sausage

Vegetarians of the world please avert your eyes. What follows is pure carnage. Of the most delicious kind. Let’s do the food porn first, and leave the educational bit (I am using that term very loosely) till later, shall we?

Currywurst is a legendary German invention... this one was devoured on a hike through Munich by the river Isar

Currywurst is a legendary German invention… these two were devoured my mum and moi on last week’s hike.

My brother and my mum beneath a sign in Munich advertising the most famous of Bavarian sausages: The Münchner Weißwurst.

My brother and my mum beneath a sign in Munich advertising probably the most famous of Bavarian sausages: The Münchner Weißwurst.

What is a Weißwurst, I hear you ask…

It's this! Actually, I don't really like them...

Here’s a pile of them. The while ones, obviously. Actually, I must confess that don’t really like them all that much… SACRILEGE!

And of course, you can get them canned

And of course, like any kitchen cupboard staple, you can get them canned. For emergencies.

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A small selection of a local supermarket’s sausage offering

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Those bits in there are finely sliced tongue, in case you're wondering

The chunky bits are finely sliced pieces of tongue, in case you’re wondering…

A seven-pound pack - now that would make for a nice afternoon snack

The seven-pound pack makes for a tasty afternoon snack

Now imagine this potential nightmare scenario: You’re at home, it’s late, you desperately fancy a meaty midnight morsel BUT YOU’VE RUN OUT OF SAUSAGE! If you happen to be living in a semi-rural area like my folks, 24-hour supermarkets or convenience stores are far and few between. What is a desperate sausage-dependent German to do?!?

Well, there is hope: My tiny little village of 700 inhabitants, which only has one restaurant and no shops at all, sports one of these:

YES! There is a God!

YES! There is a God!

The day is saved!!!

Just look at that shapely line-up…the day/night is saved!!!

By now, you’ll have gotten the point. Germans have a very special relationship with their sausages. Not only are burly bangers ubiquitous in local fast food outlets, butcher’s shops, supermarkets and vending machines, but they have also wormed their way into the common vernacular in the form of countless expressions. Here is a selection:

Picture the scene: There’s a terminal struggle going on. Everything’s at stake. It’s a matter of life and death. This is when, for a German, “es geht um die Wurst” (it’s about the sausage). And that tells you all you need to know about how we feel when it comes to our precious meat products.

I’m quite partial to the (British) phrase “I don’t give a rat’s arse!”. The German equivalent is “das ist mir Wurst!” (It’s sausage to me!). This appears to contradict the aforementioned “es geht um die Wurst”, but it’s really just proof that the sausage is all things to all people. (To all German people, at least.)

Some sad individuals love nothing more than to be offended by anything and everything. These bothersome thin-skinned types are liable to earn themselves the title of “beleidigte Leberwurst” (insulted/offended liver sausage). And while they stomp off in one of their huffs, they might well call the hapless culprit who (probably inadvertently) caused their latest grievance a “Hanswurst” (a buffoon).

When Germans get philosophical about the finiteness of things, they like to point out that “alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei” (Everything has an end, only the sausage has two).

 

[For those interested in German food-related expressions, you will enjoy this post: How To Be A Hater With German Food Phrases]

 

 

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.]

How To Be A “Hater” With German Food Phrases

Being totally food obsessed, I’ve long been meaning to concoct a post on German phrases connected to food and drink. As I started compiling them, it struck me that they had one thing in common: they are all depreciative.

I’m not sure what that says about German food culture… but let’s not fixate on that. Instead, let me serve you up a fabulous selection of wholesome German staples, replete with sausages, beer, sauerkraut, mustard and cheese, and show you how to deploy them to put any Teutonic blogger – or commenter! – in their place.

Das ist mir Wurst!
Probably the best translation for this phrase is “it’s all sausage to me!”. What it means is that you just don’t care, that you don’t give a rat’s arse about whatever. Very handy on the interwebs, that one…

Quite recently, this phrase made a quick little dash through the European media. When Austrian performer Tom Neuwirth, who won the Eurovision Song Contest a couple of months ago in the guise of his gender-bending alter-ego Conchita Wurst, was asked about his eclectic choice of stage name, he explained that it was based on the German “Wurst” expression, because, whether boy or girl, it was all the same to him.

OK… he may have been just a smidgen disingenuous (and quite witty) here, because we all know what pops into everyone’s head at the mere mention of the word “sausage”, right?! And on top of that, “Conchita”, which Neuwirth claims he borrowed from a Cuban friend, while being a fairly common first name in the Hispanic world, has a saucy double meaning: “Pussy”.

ConchitaWurst

Meet Ms “Pussy Sausage”. [Photo courtesy of my blogging buddy Debbie, from travelwithintent.com, who accidentally gatecrashed the Austrian artist’s photo shoot in Amsterdam a few months back.]

Das ist nicht mein Bier
“This is not my beer” brings to mind the English expression “It’s not my cup of tea”. However, the meaning is not the same. If a German says that something is not his beer, he’s telling you that, whatever it is, it’s just not his problem. A nifty little phrase, I think, for dissing an irrelevant comment that has nothing to do with a post, and everything to do with the commenter’s own agenda.

The Polish have, I believe, put it like this: “Not my circus, not my monkeys”.

Jemandem das Kraut ausschütten
When you “spill someone’s cabbage”, then something you said or did has seriously pissed them off. Maybe you failed to remove your sock fluff from the apartment block’s communal dryer? Played your antique MC Hammer CD 15 decibels above the permitted noise emission level at 9:25 on a Sunday morning? And no, this won’t just blow over. Germans know how to hold a grudge. I’m afraid, you’ll have to bake a strudel or something to make amends.

What strikes me is that a great number of bloggers and commenters are not only experts in this field, but they are positively lying in wait for somebody to offend them! For some, their cyber success is entirely based on this…erm… “skill”. Luckily, they’ve not found me yet…

Before moving onto the next culinary gem, let’s dwell, just for a minute, on the word “Kraut”. It’s the Brits’ favourite pet name for the Germans, but I’m quite convinced that the majority doesn’t actually know that “Kraut” means “cabbage”.

For those of you ol… mature enough to remember, Germany had a chancellor named Helmut Kohl in the 1980’s (see pic below). “Kohl” is another word for cabbage. Now, if that’s not fodder for a jolly good joke, I don’t know what is, but I never came across any chuckles in the British press about the Chieftain of the Krauts being called “Kraut”. Or did I miss something there…?

OK... looks like somebody DID get the joke.

OK… looks like somebody, at least, did get the joke…

I trust that some of you will have tried “Sauerkraut”, a type of pickled cabbage that serves as the most traditional accompaniment of German pork sausages.  The term, which the nickname “Kraut” was originally derived from, literally means “sour cabbage”.

What has long baffled me is that far more people seem to be familiar with the French term “choucroute”, which is but a screwed up French way of mispronouncing the original German word. I can’t actually get this aberration over my lips, try as I might. And neither should you. I am hereby launching my campaign to re-instate “Sauerkraut” as the only correct way of referring to, well, Sauerkraut! [Note that the “au”, which features twice, should be pronounced like the “ow” in “chowder”, or, for that matter, the “ou” in “sour”. It’s as simple as that.]

Seinen Senf dazugeben
This one’s very important. In fact, any self-respecting hater or troll is an expert on this – it’s their raison d’être.  The expression, which translates as “to add one’s mustard”, means to give one’s opinion, though the implication is that nobody asked for it in the first place. Adding one’s mustard has always been a cherished human pastime, but the internet has taken things to new heights. And lows.

As an aside (ha!), Senf is a quintessential German condiment. Many kinds of sausages and meat products simply CANNOT be eaten without mustard. Germany is home to hundreds… what am I saying… THOUSANDS of different types. And we take our mustard matching much more seriously than picking the right wine.

So ein Käse!
Another staple item in the hater’s toolbox. If you want to deride a German blogger’s reasoning abilities, or just trash a post with one crisp little phrase, you can do so by poo-pooing their precious writings as “cheese”.

This should be of particular interest to Spanish speakers, because when my Spanish friends refer to someone as “being like a cheese” (“¡está como un queso!”), they will usually be drooling over a hunky guy. So, amigas (y amigos), if you’re trying to pull a German, it might be best to steer clear of cheesy pick-up lines.

Du gehst mir total auf den Keks!
“You are totally getting on my nerves!” “Keks” means biscuit or cookie. There’s another, slightly less savoury version of this, where the biscuit is replaced with “Sack”. Sack means sack in both German and English, but it’s also a German colloquial term for scrotum. You get the picture…

Kalter Kaffee
“Cold coffee” is old news. So, when a blogger bores the pants off you with trite statements or an in-depth analysis of last week’s headlines, you can express your dismay by pouring cold coffee into their comment box.

Not what you were expecting? It's a tough life...!

Not what you were expecting? It’s a tough life…!

Incidentally, Germans do like their coffee cold, especially in the summer, when we drink “Eiskaffee”. But watch out: Eiskaffee is NOT iced coffee. Instead of a refreshing coffee slushie, what you’ll get is a caloric missile of coffee laced with at least two scoops of ice cream and a whipped cream & chocolate sauce tower on top. There may even be a Keks or two sticking out. If you’re surly enough to send it back, you’ll run into serious risk of spilling the waiter’s cabbage…

 

 

 

 

[If you want to expand your repertoire of choice German phrases even further, you might enjoy this: The German National Character Explained In Three Culturally Loaded Phrases]

Language Learning: Darn Interference!

Teresa, my Portuguese teacher, harbours a dark fantasy. She would love to get hold of one of MemoryEraserthose Men-In-Black memory eraser sticks and expunge every trace of Spanish from her students’ brains. Then she could finally teach us proper Portuguese from scratch.

Sadly, since this fantastic gadget doesn’t exist in the real world, her little fantasy is doomed. She’ll just have to keep on rolling her eyes every time we say “pequeño” instead of “pequeno”, and sigh in quiet desperation over us pronouncing what should be a mellifluous sing-song language in the machine-gun-like staccato characteristic of Peninsular Spanish.

But it’s not just poor Teresa who suffers.

My brain is no blank canvass. Besides being littered with useless factoids, it comes with two languages fully installed that don’t always play very well together, a third one is running at 72% (and still loading), and now I’m attempting to pour another one into this turbid pond.

In general, I guess it does hold true that the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one, but the downside is that they interfere with each other in menacing ways. For instance, the similarities between Romance languages are both a blessing and a curse. Because of their considerable lexical overlap, if you’re a laid back kind of a person and just want to “communicate”, you’ll do great by kidnapping Italian words to plug the gaps in your Spanish, but if you’re a stickler like me and you care about getting it right, it’s the road to insanity. Verbs are among my biggest headaches, as I’m still battling with the fifty or so versions that exist of each Spanish verb. With Portuguese thrown into the cauldron, the putrid, gurgling broth isn’t going to turn into a bowl of translucent consommé any time soon.

More of a messy stew...

More of a messy stew…

...than a clear broth

…than a clear broth

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some people I know have given up. One of my Spanish friends, while living in Barcelona years ago, attempted to learn (the local language) Catalan. She abandoned the attempt, because every time she tried to speak it, Italian (acquired during a year studying abroad in Rome), shot out of her mouth instead. An old college friend of mine keeps insisting that all those years studying Italian as a youngster have prevented her from communicating in coherent Portuguese to her Portuguese husband’s family.

I follow this blog http://myfiveromances.wordpress.com, owned by “Bernardo”, a very witty Australian guy, whose personal challenge lies in tackling Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian simultaneously. I believe he spent last summer in Romania to get to grips with the latter. His grammar posts from back then made my head spin. I’ve no idea how he maintains his sanity, I really don’t.

It’s not just closely-related languages that cause an interference problem. During the early-to-intermediate stages of language learning, it’s a very common phenomenon that our brains, while labouring hard to retrieve the required vocabulary, dredge up the corroded remnants of languages we haven’t used in years. When I first started learning Spanish, what kept popping into my head was my long-forgotten Russian from half a life-time ago.

Green thicket

Interference can manifest in many ways. For instance, I seriously struggle with gender agreement in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s not too difficult to match nouns with adjectives that directly follow them, but if the adjective or a pronoun refers to a noun, which occurred in a previous sentence or even further back, I tend to get it wrong. And it’s not my fault. It’s my German that’s doing it.

Grammatical genders are, for the most part, entirely arbitrary, and so German and Spanish genders don’t usually coincide. Since German is my native language, its genders are indelibly etched into my brain stem. I never realised this would lead to so much trouble.

Naively, I thought I had an advantage, because I was, at least, familiar with the concept of genders. Unlike native speakers of English, Japanese, Chinese, etc, I didn’t have to go through the futile questioning stage: “How can a table be male/female – it makes no sense!”

In the early phase, the gender issue creates some minor problems for Germans learning English. We may refer to inanimate objects as “he” or “she”, but this usually doesn’t persist for very long. Everything is “it”, and even for animals sporting discernible genitals, you still get to resort to the convenient choice of “it” – now if that ain’t an easy rule, I don’t know what is!

I never thought I would keep jumbling my Spanish genders about in such a dilettantic fashion after all this time, but, as it turns out, overriding one’s primal programming is harder than herding cats with firecrackers up their butts through a dog pound.

As always, I’m curious to hear from my readers – how does language interference play out for you? Which “cross-contamination issues” are you struggling with? Were some of these unexpected?

The German National Character Explained In Three Culturally Loaded Phrases

You may as well admit it: Dissecting national stereotypes is almost as entertaining as delving into the Daily Mail’s gossip pages. So, I thought, why not throw a bit more fuel on the fire?  I may well live to regret this…

Having now spent most of my life outside of Germany, by living instead in the UK and in Spain, I’ve been brooding for quite some time over what defines my birth culture. As most of my readers will be aware of by now, I like to shunt my hare-brained ruminations through the prisms of either food or language, and for this exercise, I opted for the latter. I’ve picked out three phrases that every German will have uttered at some point in their life, and which, I hope, will shed a flicker of light on the collective German psyche.

At first glance, these statements will seem rather innocuous – banal, even – to non-Germans, but don’t be deceived. I am going to attempt, as succinctly as possible, to convey some of their cultural significance.

1. “Wenn das jeder täte!” (= If everybody did that!): Why Germans are partial to public shaming

Germans have a legendary reputation for sticking to the rule book. This is rooted in their (not entirely erroneous, I’m sure you’d agree) belief, that for society to work smoothly, a set of guidelines needs to be obeyed by the majority. And as tempting as it may be, at times, to weasel your way round them, Germans take great pride in resisting, because, “wenn das jeder täte” (if everybody did that), the whole system would descend into chaos. And nobody wants that. It would be just sooo disorderly…

Foreign visitors have been known to watch with incredulity when witnessing an upstanding German citizen venting their indignation at somebody caught in the act of flaunting rules, some of which may, perhaps, seem rather trivial. For Germans, however, impeding minor infractions, such as failing to pick after your dog or making too much noise on Sundays, is seen as a collective responsibility.

If you crossed the street in Germany while the little red man was telling you not to, be prepared for your fellow pedestrians to pull you up on it. In the UK, this would NEVER happen. The reason given by Germans as to why they feel the compulsive need to police pedestrian crossings is “to not set kids a bad example”. Needless to say, any criticisms of rules conceived to protect lives of innocent children are dead in the water. Besides, unlike in the UK, Germany’s birthrate is horrendously low, they need to conserve numbers.

Another example is littering in public – if you dropped some tissue paper accidentally, somebody is likely to point this out to you, most likely with a friendly smile. If, on the other hand, it’s obvious that you did it on purpose or out of plain carelessness, vigorous finger-pointing and some hissing may be coming your way.

Germans have a strong sense that some of the good things, which exist for everybody’s convenience and communal benefit, will be taken away if people don’t make an effort to preserve them. One example of this is newspapers sold from “honesty boxes”. These “Zeitungskästen” are positioned in accessible locations where you, the customer, is being trusted to deposit the correct amount of change before helping yourself to your daily rag.

Newspaper boxes, neatly lined up by the bus stop. Photo courtesy of my brother :)

Newspaper boxes by a bus stop. [Photos taken on Monday, courtesy of my darling brother 🙂  ]

The inner workings of a Zeitungskasten: Put your money in the slot, take your paper. No fuss, no hassle.

The inner workings of a Zeitungskasten: Put your money in the slot on the right, take your paper.

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2. “Ich bin doch nicht blöd!” (= Well, I’m NOT stupid!): Don’t even try to screw me over, I’m German!

If Germans hate anything more than people willfully breaking the rules, it’s being taken advantage of. Although Germans are not a terribly gullible people, per se, Germany is what some sociologists refer to as a “high trust” society, which implies that Germans will generally assume another person, even if they are a total stranger, to be honourable and not defraud them. (However, they are inclined to mistrust certain foreigners assumed not to be sharing “German values”.)

Spain provides an interesting counterpoint. I remember a table conversation a while ago in a café here in Toledo, where I live. A story was told about somebody having been cheated, I don’t remember details. Instead of deeming the con as deplorable, it was cause for amusement – a shining example, as one of the people pointed out, of “la picaresca española”, which loosely translates as “Spanish cunning”.

According to the dictionary, “picaresca” signifies the act of “cheating or taking advantage of someone for one’s own benefit”. It’s not the first time I’d come across this Spanish cultural concept. And while scamming friends and family is most definitely out of bounds, it’s apparently OK – and downright hilarious! – to do it to strangers, as long as it’s nothing too serious. I guess that might be one of the reasons why Spain isn’t considered a”high trust culture”. Unless you have personal ties with someone, you run the risk of being seen as fair game. Oh, and the “finders keepers” concept is big time in operation in Spain. If you lost your wallet in Germany, there’s a very good chance you might get it back with all your cash still in it. In Spain… not so much.

OK, after this brief digression, let’s get back to the significance of the “ich bin doch nicht blöd” phrase. Germans don’t just blindly assume that they are immune to being duped – in fact, they pride themselves on their self-perceived shrewdness, believing that it’s just not that easy to take them for a ride. If somebody does succeed in getting one over on them, it pisses them off royally. You can easily tell when this has happened – fumes will come out of their nostrils, preceding the imminent melt-down.

And just to illustrate how deeply culturally ingrained that little phrase is, MediaMarkt, a large German electronic goods retailer, employs “ich bin doch nicht blöd” as their marketing tagline, implying that by shopping there, you’ll be getting the best possible price, rather than being ripped off by the competition.

MediaMarkt

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3.”Das hab’ ich nicht nötig!” (= I’ve no need [to to this]): Why Germans are better than *some people*

This phrase is probably the most puzzling out of the three. Let’s try and give it some context.

Here’s a couple of scenarios:

  • Somebody believes themselves to be suspected of some kind of petty behaviour, e.g. taking a newspaper from the box without paying, or plundering the office stationery cupboard. By uttering this phrase, they are rejecting this insinuation/accusation, because they are better than that, they are morally above such shabbiness. (Or at least they want to give that impression…)
  • The person, who says it, is gossipping about somebody, and dissing them for having acted dishonestly, or for having engaged in an ostentatious act clearly motivated by drawing attention to themselves or showing off. (NOTE: in the latter case, the haughty “das hab ich nicht nötig!” exclamation is probably just thinly veiled envy…)

The upshot is this: If you want to bitch like a German, you need to internalise this phrase, and learn to spit it out with bile-dripping disdain.

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[If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read about why you should never ever call a German woman “Fräulein”. Click here.]