Friday, May 28, 2010

Why I Love the German Language, Part 1

I can't tell you how excited I am to write this series, but, first off:


If you feel about languages the way most people feel about, say, integral calculus or spiny lobster fishing, you may want to skip this series. If, however, you, like me, view language as a fascinating extension of humanity, the medium through which all other subjects are understood, an entity which substantiates the very concept of knowledge, then you might want to stick around. Also if you have been sitting around wondering which European language to delve into with great passion and fervor. Then this would be for you, too.

German has gotten a bad rap. My personal theory is that the events of the 20th century made Germany the nation everybody loves to villainize, and snarky attitudes about the nation's language were thrown in for good measure. Although I suppose it may go back further than that. There is the famous quote from Charles V (1500-1558) that goes, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." Very funny, Charles V. What did you ever do with your life that was so great? But ever since, it seems that German is the perpetual bootay of language jokes. Mark Twain had some kind of love/hate relationship with German, for years making zinging remarks that bordered on the flirtatious, such as "I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it" and "I don't believe there is anything in the whole earth you can't learn in Berlin except the German language." Come on, Mark Twain. I hear that hint of longing in your tone. And then there's the Monty Python sketch about the funniest joke in the world, which, when translated into German, becomes a method of warfare because it makes Nazi soldiers laugh themselves to death. The sketch works so well, of course, because everyone knows how unfunny German actually is.

So, sadly, it seems to be universally accepted that German is a harsh, perhaps even barbaric, language. In fact, when I typed "ugliest language" into Google, its autofill feature immediately supplied me with the alternate "German world's ugliest language" before I even got to the search results. Sigh…. Still, the purpose of this series will be to convince you--yes, you!--that German is, in fact, an amazing language with many beautiful features. You may not want to listen to it while you're getting a massage, but I hope to surprise you with its aural and structural delights.

So without further ado, Part 1: Flavoring Particles!

Ah, flavoring particles. That little packet you sprinkle on your Ramen noodles. Or a set of untranslatable German words that defy classification and can change meaning from one usage to the next. How enchantingly hopeless for students of German! When I taught the chapter on flavoring particles to my German Conversation students, they looked at me like I was, well, speaking a foreign language. As in, you're telling me there's no literal translation of any of these words? How the hell am I supposed to learn them and, more importantly, pass the test on them? I told them they had two options: a.) move to Germany and immerse yourself for approximately four years, or b.) flashcards. (Kidding.) Even when I gushed that English actually does have similar words to German flavoring particles, it apparently wasn't fascinating enough to make a difference at 8:30 in the morning when you're hung over from a frat party.

Flavoring particles, to give an approximate explanation, are used primarily in spoken German to add emphasis or reflect the speaker's mood or attitude. I'll give you a reasonably equivalent English example: the word "even." We throw that word around in a lot of different ways beyond its function as an adjective or a verb. "I don't even know what you're talking about!" That sentence doesn't actually need the word "even"; it's just there for emphasis. Or take "just." "I just wish I could bring myself to part with my Vanilla Ice memorabilia!" That sentence doesn't need the "just," but it adds emphasis and reflects the speaker's existential despair. So these strange little particles do also float around in our English atmosphere, they're just a little more predictable and less frequent than in German. Some German flavoring particles (which include aber, auch, denn, doch, halt, ja, mal, nur, and schon, as well as some other outliers) may actually already look familiar to you if you've had even an introductory course in the language. You might recognize aber as the word for "but" or ja as the word for "yes." This, unfortunately, is the part where we pull the rug right out from under you. Because when you see a sentence like "Das ist aber schoen!" you'd want to translate it as a kind of protest, like "But that's pretty!" when in reality, the aber functions here to add emphasis: "That's really pretty!" A similar dilemma with ja. German instructional materials always make these really genuine but ultimately lame attempts to contextualize each individual particle. For example, here is how Wikipedia (I know, not a reputable language learning source, but go with me) explains the particle ja: "Ja indicates that the speaker thinks a certain fact should already be known to the listener and intends his statement to be more of a reminder or conclusion." Thank you. We'll all be sure to remember that when we're fumbling for our passports in a crowded airport.

By now you're probably wondering what opioid narcotic I was on when I said I intend to show beauty and appeal in the German language. I admit that figuring out flavoring particles can be murder, even to an experienced speaker of German. (I still don't get how to use halt.) But it's a lot easier than it looks on paper. Because these words are intended for emphasis or attitude, it's actually pretty easy to determine how the native speaker is using them because you can frequently already tell from their tone, their body language, etc. what type of statement they're trying to make. And like we saw in our English examples, these words usually aren't technically necessary to establish meaning. They're more just for fun, to make things interesting. As you get used to hearing and understanding them in context in spoken German, you can begin to make attempts of your own.

And you want to know why I really love these funny little words? It's their fluidity, their flexibility--the ability of a word to slip into something a little bit more comfortable and show up where you don't expect it. The ability in your speech to add emphasis without having to just get louder or more profane or add gestures. It's all possible within the language itself, with an intricacy that defies unraveling. Plus, how awesome is it when your language is so unique that it possesses words that cannot be translated into any other language? I think that's beauty right there.

So bring on the flavoring! It may even be biblical: "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:6). May we all find that perfect balance in our speech, whatever the language.


  1. Thanks Sarah! Seeing as I am actually a lover of integral calculus (and not so much languages) I can see how German could be a fun language to learn. Even if it doesn't sound pretty. ;-)

  2. Very funny, Charles V

    I've been looking into this - see Charles V language meme - and it looks very unlikely he actually said this. My guess is that Jonathan Swift added that detail, which has been taken out of context; it comes from the bit in Gulliver's Travels where Gulliver, talking approvingly of the language of Houyhnhnms, says how it resembles German). However, the variations on the story are all derogatory to German: the earliest known versions (1601) say German is a military language and one to be used "to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement".

  3. Very interesting. I don't think about languages a lot because I don't feel i have time for them but part of me would love to learn another one. You are making a good case for German, my friend! (Also I can't help but thinking of Dwight from The Office, you've seen it right? Like when he tricks Angela by marrying her in German, and she had no idea she was saying I do to real German wedding vows, and he's like "Don't be mad at me, I've been telling you to learn German for years!")