November 23, 2010 | German
In which I bother German shopkeepers.
I arrived in Germany yesterday. The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was go for a run around the perimeter of the Göttingen neighborhood where my father and stepmother live.
It happens to be the same neighborhood where I went to kindergarten when I was three and four years old, before moving back to the States. I have a few memories of German kindergarten, including the time I got a nosebleed in the middle of class and had to go lie down. Early trauma!
iPod Nano: My Tiny New Language-Learning Partner
Anyway, on my run I had with me a just-purchased Apple device, the new iPod nano, which may be the answer to my lifelong running prayers, as well as my more recent language-learning prayers. It is tiny and has a clip to attach to running clothes. It also has a lot of space on it for language lessons—plus there is a radio.
The radio worked great. I tuned in to NDR Info, a German station I’ve been following in New York via the web. As I ran along the edge of the woods, I listened to news stories in German about flu shots, vitamin D deficiencies, a tragic stampede in Cambodia, and military tensions between North and South Korea.
I understood almost everything. Very satisfying (albeit rather grim).
Next I took the bus into town, about a half-hour trip. It was a cold, drizzly, gray day, but I was happy to be a part of it. I eavesdropped with great satisfaction.
A Charming Göttingen Street
There Are Many Old Buildings
Once downtown I wandered around going into shops, including multiple bookstores.
In one store I noticed Keith Richards’s new biography, Life. I was surprised to see the English-language title on the cover, so I looked inside. All German.
Hmm. I asked a cheerful middle-aged salesclerk (in German) why they kept the English title even though the book itself was translated, and she said something along the lines of, it was cool and people would find it appealing.
My question launched a rather lengthy discussion between the two of us (in German, and actually, any conversations described in this entry took place in German) about the encroachment on German of the English language, a phenomenon much in evidence in signs and ads around town. Although the woman said she is not keen on the English invasion, she believes that certain words are useful.
This Doesn’t Sound Very German!
A Critical Question, Posed in a German Shop Window
She brought over a book on the evolution of German, written by a journalist who reports on language for a German weekly. I read through parts of it. In the book he talked about the incorporation of words such as “recycle” and “download” into German, and considered some of the grammatical challenges associated with importing words that do not follow typical German patterns.
Do you add verb endings that are typically German, which may look ridiculous on a word coming from English, or do you go with English verb endings? Habits and human nature favor German endings. Ich habe gedownloadet (I downloaded) looks a little silly, but a quick Google search suggests it is indeed in use.
Funny things do happen when you import from other languages, though. In English we use as a verb “RSVP,” shorthand for the French phrase “Répondez s’il vous plaît,” which means roughly, “Please respond.” You often see on invitations, “Please RSVP by [insert date],” which is kind of like saying, “Please please respond by…”
Or we make “RSVP” past tense by adding an -ed in typical English style. As in: “He RSVPed too late.” Forming the past tense of an abbreviation for an imperative does not make a lot of sense when you stop to think about it, but we purveyors of language—meaning human beings—muddle along and manage pretty well a surprisingly high percentage of the time. (Though I think it would be fabulous if that percentage could be substantially higher.)
When I asked the congenial bookstore employee her name, she responded with Frau (Mrs.) plus her last name. You would never hear such a response in the States, where we live on a diet of informality, first names, and pizza.
As she and I kept talking, she noted the current English-versus-German character of the eternal language schism between German youth and everyone else there. In contrast to past practices, she told me, the English-inclined younger generation never uses the word Verabredung any more; rather, they say simply “date.” Verabredung would be too altmodisch (old-fashioned), she said.
At the same time, she said, older people can’t always understand the English marketing language flourishing around town. They get frustrated. I can imagine that it would be annoying to stare at a shop window in which is posed a question such as “So naughty or so nice?”—which I indeed came across in my wanderings, and which is pictured above—and to have no idea what the hell is going on.
Runners Point, Where I Learned How to Say “Butt”
Reluctantly, since I was enjoying the conversation, I decided to let the nice lady actually work. Next I moved on to a running store, where I promptly improved my youth vocabulary by learning the word Po (approximately equivalent to “butt”).
A young female employee with spiky blond hair taught it to me. It was on a large ad for those shoes that supposedly tone your bottom and legs while you walk around living a life that is apparently grotesquely deficient in physical activity. Another employee, a guy probably in his twenties, elaborated on German bottom-related terminology, which I used to know but had forgotten. “Ass,” for example, is Arsch. Always good to have in your store of active vocabulary.
I then got into a detailed conversation with the same guy about a headlamp they sell. I couldn’t imagine running with a headlamp. Pointing out that it was heavy, I asked whether anyone actually bought it. He said yes, definitely, and that it was useful because it gets dark so early there in the winter that if you run after work, you have a real problem. He took me into the back room, turned off the light, and turned on the headlight to demonstrate its power. I found this hilarious.
I love roaming around talking to random people.