Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The language of Goethe

Folklore is the expression of the soul of the German people. Goethe led the way in writing poetry in folkloric style, a style which was emulated by poets who followed him, a style which still endears his poetry to the masses today.”

It’s been thirty years since I was in the BDR as a young English teacher. When I left, I never thought I’d come back and so threw away the dictionary. Now I‘ve had to go back into the museum of my mind, find the lost room, unlock the door, throw open the windows, take off the dust covers – and there, somehow, my German treasure house is still intact, apart from a little oil needed to grease the wheels. In fact, it’s been so long that I can’t actually remember ever speaking German! It’s a little bit scary.

Of course, things have moved on since then. There’s the new technology to catch up with. So I’ve had to learn the German for mobile phone: das Handy and the mobile phone emporium is das Handy Shop. Then in so many bars you get live music: Live Musik or sometimes there’s just a DJ: Live DJ (happily).

Every so often I get stuck for the right expression. I never like to stop in full flow so just throw in a word from another language (usually French). I find you can use die Nostalgie; die Philosophie; die Melodie usw. This seems to do the job and people tell me how good my German vocabulary is!

The easiest conversations are professional because here again German has adopted a lot of the English international development language. Some attempt has been made to integrate a German ending. For example you have ‘evaluation’ become
die Evalueirung. Der Monitoring sort of sounds a bit German, but then - oh why bother making it even look German: let’s just use der Gender Mainstreaming!

As always in a foreign country it is the everyday that is problematic, rather than debates on philosophy and politics. Because it is in the everyday where you expect things to be most familiar and yet you constantly feel as if you’re in a parallel universe – things are just that little bit different.

At the local orthopedic practice, which clearly caters for, and employs, a lot of people from eastern Europe, the doctor barks at me: “What, don’t you speak Russian?”

At the Postamt, I shamefully have to ask where the post-box is (no, they’re yellow and on the other side of the pavement!) but also am forcibly impressed by the notice that says:

Sie werden heute ueber unser Girokonto angesprochen!

(Attention! Today you will be spoken to about our Girobank!)

At the hairdressers – well, I’ve learned that hair stylists all over the world have their own understanding of what I want to look like, whatever language we’re speaking – I just sit back, smile and pay the tip.

So it’s always comforting to get back on the internet; that’s my medium and in Berlin every other café has wifi for free. You can sit in the sun, drink white wine and surf: what better working environment? I can do everything online! I was told for train journeys you go to www.bahn.de (our equivalent would be www.train.uk). I follow the German order here thinking: why not try the same for flights www.flugzeug.de (www.aeroplane.uk )? Yes!

However when I come to put new entries on my blog, I see that the instructions on blogspot are in German! (All the adverts come up in German too: how do they know, I ask myself?) Later I check my blog stats to see who is reading and find a lot of hits in northern Germany. Oh no, I think, the police are tracking me as a suspected terrorist planning violent action against the G8 summit! But then I realise it was probably just me uploading my entries in the local bar. Which also feels bizarre…

Bridging the gap

We don’t have wifi (I should say wireless lan) in the flat. I tell my landlord he has to move into the 21st century but he’s proudly fixed in the 19th, has no knowledge of the internet and doesn’t speak any other language than German. Still we manage to get on well, because we’re both very direct, have a good sense of humour and after all, we have to negotiate the important intricacies of shared living – whose turn is to buy the toilet paper and, oops, who left the lights on all night?

I just love playing with language. Like little children, that’s how you learn how to do it. My landlord comes in with his friend from their traditional Saturday afternoon pub-crawl (Kneipenbummel)

Wie geht’s? Besoffen? How’s it going? I say (Are you) drunk?
Verneunftig! he says. (We’ve been) sensible
Verneunftigerweise besoffen? I ask. Sensibly drunk? (Lots of laughter)
Ich auch! I say, me too…

Because there’s no easier way to get your tongue round those polysyllabic German words – and some are longer than that. Try the word for gender equality: Geschlectergerechigkeit (nice!) and another favourite at the moment is Entwicklungsnichtregierungsorgansiationen = development non-governmental organisations. The thing always to remember is that when we actually say those things in English, we don’t mind the gap either.

Noam Chomsky - before he became known as a political analyst and activist - first won worldwide fame as a socio-linguist, with the groundbreaking concept of the difference between the surface and deep structure of language. You have to track back from the words that are used (the surface structure – or code) to the speaker or writer’s actual intention (the deep structure - the real meaning).

The intelligent reader here will begin to see how this might relate to analysis of political rhetoric. Unfortunately in our so-called sophisticated society, so much use of language has become a self-serving commerce along with everything else.

I would say that genuine communication is more to do with paralinguistics : that is, the ability to pick up clues in a new context from your own knowledge of the world and to read one another – because you want, simply, to have real human contact and share fundamental life experiences for non-profit-making purposes.

Svenja Cussler, a German film maker who collaborated on a documentary of female genital mutilation in Mali, put into words for me what impressed her most there: “In Africa, people really see who you are. When they reach out to greet you, it’s not to check if your suit’s from Armani, they’re feeling the quality of your soul.”

(So, all in all, I seem to get by pretty well in the language of Goethe.)

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