Archive for the ‘language’ Category

IN THE fight against English, France is famously out in front. Now Germany is joining in.


The second world war stripped Germany of its cultural defences, allowing English to infiltrate unopposed. Sat.1, a broadcaster, is “powered by emotion”; Audi, a carmaker, “driven by instinct.” Even scholarship succumbed. Archaeology, a bastion of German-language research, is buckling, lament scholars at the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. So have teenagers, who now chillen and smsen. When Germany’s Lena Meyer-Landrut takes to the Eurovision stage on May 29th to sing “Satellite” in English, purists will cringe.


Since reunification in 1990, Germany has pushed back. A Neue Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft was founded in 2007. Mr Krämer’s Verein, with 31,000 members, publishes an index of 7,200 anglicisms, four-fifths of which, it claims, crowd out good German words. A pet hate is “blockbuster”, originally a 1942 coinage for city-destroying bombs. Mr Krämer, who lost six relatives to Allied bombing, prefers Kassenschlager (“box-office hit”).

After reading this, I then began watching Ken Burns’ latest documentary, which calls the American’s national park system the country’s “best idea” in part because of how it has protected and preserved America’s natural beauty. One weakness in both these positions is that they assume what’s being preserved is static and pristine.

It’s not as if, for example, that Deutsch has ever been a closed system, free from external influence. Language is constantly evolving, incorporating and discarding various linguistic bits. A broad and more correct viewpoint could never see a language like German as pure, but always as an alloy of sorts. And isn’t an all-knowing authority’s pushback just another bit of meddling?

Similarly, America’s national parks have not preserved and protected nature so much as they’ve attempted to place various ecosystems into a certain equilibrium perceived to be superior by man. I did not rejoice when watching to hear of bison populations decimated or lumber mills working overtime in Yellowstone, but one has to keep in mind that at one point Yellowstone had no bison or trees. Indeed, if one wants to get really absurdist, at one point Yellowstone was very naturally under water. Too bad no one was around to preserve YellowWater, I suppose.

I’m being a touch obtuse, of course, but the irony remains: by attempting to remove the messy influence of man, these preservationists are just reinserting him in a different way.

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The iPad has been unveiled, and I with my unquenchable thirst for what everyone’s saying about it just performed a twitter search, which allowed me to view people’s comments in real time. As it happens, this tweet was one of the first I read:

Vielleicht gibt es irgendwann ein iPad mini mit dem man auch telefonieren kann… oh, halt..


Perhaps someday there’ll be an iPad Mini with which one can also make phone calls….oh, wait.

I’ve evinced in the past that Germans do actually understand sarcasm; nonetheless the fact that this comment was auf Deutsch rather than English made it about 34 percent funnier to me.

UPDATE–After posting, I kept refreshing the page. Another tweet:

If someone gave me an #ipad I’ll gladly accept it but not sure if I’ll go out & buy one at the current price. #underwhelmed

Fig is begging me to bite my tongue, BUT….I ...CAN’T……

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I haven’t  learned much Kinyarwanda yet–French is far more useful on the margin–but after a colleague showed me a phrase book (a scanned page of which is below), I’m having second thoughts:

After all, what if I’m stuck helpless in a situation where the following phrase might be needed?

  • Of what use are these little things? Just take them.
  • Outside help comes when the rain is over.
  • I’d rather die than give it up.
  • I worked harder than the others, but you didn’t see it.
  • I’m wet (from the rain). I’m going to find shelter.
  • Who is the mother of this child?
  • It’s my paternal uncle that you saw, my maternal uncle is dead.
  • Learning to whistle skins the mouth.

And my personal favorite:

  • The child’s small hands deprive him of his share of the sorghum.

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To Be, or To Not Be?

THE NY Times has an op-ed by renowned psychologist Steven Pinker espousing his theory of why Roberts screwed up the oath:

On Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Flubber Hall of Fame when he administered the presidential oath of office apparently without notes. Instead of having Barack Obama “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States,” Chief Justice Roberts had him “solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.”


How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling.


Among these fetishes is the prohibition against “split verbs,” in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.” Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that “I will always love you” but “I always will love you” or “I will love you always.”

As for me, I have rarely separated the verbs in my writing and find that to never split an infinitive is usually quite easy.

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An FT article highlights a phenomenon that accords well my own observation; namely that the financial crisis is being described immer mehr in German. Unsurprisingly, Schadenfreude is first on the list, followed by one familiar to my readers:

Schadenfreude is not the only one suited to neatly capturing the Zeitgeist. Angst, which has been doing English service (on and off the couch) for decades is an obvious case – though its usage this year has slipped (down 3 per cent in the UK and 8 per cent in the US). Perhaps we have moved on from plain fear to something far more dramatic – a full-blown Götterdämmerung, maybe? When it comes to expressing volatile market behaviour, try Sturm und Drang.


But it is not just the credit crunch that has offered the chance for some payback. Take über. A handy little prefix that elevates all that follows, über was supposedly brought into English by a combination of George Bernard Shaw and Nietzsche (think übermensch). It has not looked back since. In the UK its appearance in media has risen nearly sixfold in the last decade; in the US fourfold.

But what is it about German that makes it uniquely suited to describe the credit crunch? The article gets it spot-on:

Compound nouns – a German speciality – with their ability to express different things lend themselves to the complex nature of the current crisis.

To a laconic fellow like me, compound words can be just plain wonderful. Weltanschauung, Weltschmerz,  even Kühlschrank are wonderfully concise and descriptive.

Sometimes the Germans can be über-eager in shoving words together, however. Even if it’s probably not true, I had no problem believing that Germans initially called their tanks Schützengrabenvernichtungsautomobile* when someone first told me.

For many moons I’ve had a post completely written in my head listing three elements of German language that I liked.  This article reminds me of a fourth, and encourages me to begin forming my own English compounds willy-nilly.


*(Or “trench-destroying-vehicles”; the German word for “trench” is a compound itself, however, making for the odd and macabre English hyphenate of “protecting-grave.” Putting it all together yields “Protective-grave-destroying-vehicles.”)

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In Cold Water

My former work colleague in Germany sent me today a newspaper article breathlessly describing a “scene just like from an action movie” in Schwerin. Long story short, a drunken twenty-year-old drove his Nissan Sunny (funniest part of the story for me) off the road, over a small pedestrian walkway, down some steps, and onto the frozen Pfaffenteich, which is a large pond/small lake in the middle of town. His three passengers disembarked and attempted to get the car off the ice and back up the steps–and nearly succeeded–but when the driver saw a police car, he decided to turn tail and escape by racing to the opposite shore, covering about 600 meters (2,000 feet) before the ice gave way and he and his car plunged into the dark water.

The style of the article is the icing on the pond…er, cake. Perhaps channeling Truman Capote, the reporter opts to write the article in the present tense and alert us to the characters’ states of mind. Here’s my translation of the best bit:

But before the car can go completely under, the young Grambower [Grambow is a town] escapes the vehicle. Because his escape on foot proceeds exactly where the ice becomes even thinner, he breaks through into icy water a few meters from solid ground. His strength quickly fades; he will not survive for long in the icy water.

The police, who already fear the worst, hasten from the southern shore to the northern one. At first silence reigns. But then the officers hear a light splash. They extend to the victim a wooden board, can finally pull him on shore…

Whew, that tension’s so thick it could sustain the heft of a Nissan Sunny!

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A good rule of thumb when educating yourself about the current financial situation is to avoid sources that use terms like “free market fundamentalism” and “socialism.” Usually these words are used as nothing more than pejoratives, and one suspects that many of the people who use them couldn’t even provide a good definition of either concept.

Such as here, for instance:

Sarah Palin derided Barack Obama’s and Joe Biden’s tax policies yesterday, telling a rally in New Mexico, “Friends, now is no time to experiment with socialism.” Note: Sarah Palin is the governor of a state that practices collective ownership of oil and other natural resources, and equally distributes the state’s cut of the revenues to every citizen.

Good write-ups on free markets and socialism can be found here and here, respectively. Ironically, I think socialism is a lot easier to define than is a free market.

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