Learners of German know all about its charm, but it seems lost on a lot of the public. In this article I explain why I like it so much, with examples of some of my favourite words and structures.
As I’ve referred to before, my undergraduate degree was in German and Spanish. When I tell people this, they usually act politely impressed, and there are two questions that they often respond with:
-Which one do you like more?
-Which one do you find easier?
Because the truth is, for a lot of people, it’s an obvious decision. Spanish is held to be an attractive language to speak and listen to, if not as much as French or Italian. It’s associated with beaches, sunshine, good food and dancing. German’s associations are… well, let’s say they’re not overwhelmingly positive.
Some people think it sounds ‘guttural’, ‘aggressive’, even ‘like swearing’. And German is a harsh-sounding language- if your only exposure to it comes from Rammstein songs and that clip from Der Untergang that’s been a meme since before memes really took off. To state the obvious, when you conduct your life day-to-day in a foreign language, that language sounds normal: so most Germans don’t sound like Bruno Ganz (who’s Swiss) playing Hitler, any more than most Spaniards sound like Antonio Banderas. German’s reputation is undeserved: inasmuch as any language can have an inherent ‘tone’ to it, I don’t think that German sounds harsh, but rather very precise and clinical, above all because of all the Latinate words and Anglicisms. Alongside words like ‘das Gesetz’ for law and ‘die Gerechtigkeit’ for justice, you have the far more latin-sounding ‘die Kommunikation’, that only really looks German because of the letter K.
For me, German has a real personality to it. One of the things I like most about it (though my perception is coloured here by the fact that I’ve been learning it for far about a decade) is that it’s completely unmistakeable. My ear took some training to recognise first Spanish, then Portuguese, then the difference between the two (to be crude, to me Portuguese sounds a bit like Sean Connery speaking Spanish, full of ‘sh’ sounds), but it’s all but impossible to think that German is anything else.
Then there are the Anglicisms. I personally find the existence of words like ‘der Projekt Manager/ die Projekt Managerin’ frustrating, because for me it detracts from the essential ‘Germanness’ of the language: in an office scenario, I sometimes feel like I’m speaking English with a German accent. At the same time, the use of Anglicisms is sometimes so glaring that it makes me laugh. During my placement at a company that provided translations and interpreters, I proof-read a document that, in the original German, proudly referred to the company’s ‘Know-how’ and the fact that its products were ‘Made in Germany’. In the flat that I rented, we used to barbecue ‘Chick’n wings’ in the garden, not ‘Hähnchenflügel’. German battle rap (yep, it exists) takes this up to eleven: in one battle (Breeze vs Rino Mandingo for Don’t Let The Label Label You, if you really want to look it up), one of the emcees angrily asserts ‘Das hier ist nicht Comedy sondern Battle-Rap und kein Poetry Slam!’ Fantastisch.
Truth be told, I myself don’t take the German language terribly seriously. I perpetuate the idea that it’s fully of ridiculously long compound nouns because I enjoy using those words. My current favourite is ‘das Pumpspeicherkraftwerk’, which means a reservoir that stores water to be used to produce electricity, and I would use ‘die Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung’ to say speed limit when, in fairness, most Germans would probably say ‘das Tempolimit’ instead. But where’s the fun in that?
Another wonderful feature of German is the despite-the-apparent-inelegance-perfectly-accepted extended participle. In English, you might say ‘the re-elected mayor’, but you wouldn’t say ‘the in a landslide re-elected mayor’. In German, that’s fine, as long as it ends in a past participle or a gerund (-ed or –ing in English). There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘the in the Second World War destroyed and later rebuilt cathedral’. And there’s nothing to stop you from referring to García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad’ as an ‘in the year 1967 by a recently deceased Colombian author written novel’: nothing but common sense. Then there are compound nouns. A lightbulb is a ‘Glühbirne’ (glow-pear): a nipple, worryingly, is a ‘Brustwarze’ (breast-wart).
Another factor that makes German appealing is how intuitive, in many cases, onomatopoeic, some of its words are. To pat someone on the head is ‘tätscheln’, to swallow is ‘schlucken’ (a small alcoholic drink is a ‘Schlückchen’), crispy is ‘knusprig’. For the (English-speaking) reader of a novel in German, you don’t have to look up certain words: if you can’t quite infer from the context, the sound is sometimes enough.
So if I pander to popular perception of the German language by emphasising particularly funny-sounding words, but I do so with love. Is German easier to learn than Spanish? For an English speaker, they’re about the same: maybe German grammar is slightly more complicated. (Though not according to a Spanish teacher in her fifties whom I met in Pontevedra, who had quite a rant at me and insisted that there was no way that Spanish wasn’t easier to learn). Which do I like more? German, very slightly. Spanish doesn’t have words like Gurke, Knerkel, knusprig, Wirbel, and Schlückchen, or place names like Poppelsdorf, Quedlinburg, Würzburg and Wattenscheid. The closest Spanish can come to the likes of ‘Zweisprachigkeit’ (bilingualism) is ‘la etiqueta de almohadilla’, which means hashtag. And I think that the perception of German is improving and that more people are seeing its appeal as time goes on. Though that said, Spanish does seem to have the better proverbs, and much better swearwords. But that’s another article. Also bis später!