Friday, January 15, 2016

The Little Things: Language

Here's me back when I had a firm grasp
on the German language
When we decided to move to Hamburg I had a slight language advantage—I’d learned German as a child while living in Germany for three years, and I’d taken German for a year in junior high and three years in high school.

Despite the 25+ intervening years, the rules were still somewhere in my head, along with words I didn’t even know that I knew. What I do remember is we were taught Hochdeutsch (High German) in school and not Plattdeutsch (Low German). What I didn’t know was that Plattdeutsch is still a regional relic and not extinct, like say, Old English.

The first local lesson came from the movers, who wanted to impart a few key Plattdeutsch phrases. Then there was a page on Plattdeutsch in the Hamburg welcome magazine. With some words the link was obvious, with others it was like looking at a whole other language.

The clincher came when I went to take my placement test for my German class. During the oral portion I was naming things in a picture and used Plattdeutsch for a couple of items (Planten und Blomen, based on the name of a local outdoor attraction). The woman administering the test sighed and corrected me with the proper Hochdeutsch terms (Pflanzen und Blumen).

OK, need to learn how to straddle that line.

In my class I learned that some small things have changed since I last studied German (“oh, we used to write it like that, but now we do it this way”), and that different areas and other German-speaking countries use certain words differently. Not surprising when you think about how most languages evolve, but a bit tough to keep the peculiarities straight.

Then there are regional accents. I was reading an article that noted how police caught a criminal because of his “identifiable” accent. In this case it was someone from southern Germany who had committed his crime in the north.

If that weren’t enough, there are words in German adopted from other languages (just like in English). But in some instances new words have been created that are the “Germanization” of words from another country. These do not show up in my translation app.

And on many restaurant menus you’ll find words in German, English, and the native language of that cuisine—not in side-by-side translations, but all mixed up in some sort of polyglot stew.

The most important thing I’ve learned, however, reinforces the idea that most of our communication isn’t even through the words we use. Time and time again I’ve gotten someone’s meaning through their gestures or the context of the situation. In fact, if you look at this list of German idioms and think about some of the things we say in English, a word-by-word translation would just leave you confused.

I’m still working on expanding my vocabulary (bumper stickers, posters, and scrolling ads at public transit stops have been great for that) and improving my pronunciation, but I’m watching just as much as I’m listening. Because in many instances I might not be able to repeat or reconstruct what someone said, but I still understand what they mean and am able to reply.

And in the end that’s what it’s all about.

1 comment :

  1. Mmmm, polyglot stew. Going to guess in Germany this is decidedly NOT vegan ;-) Mini-Michelle is DARLING *squeee!!!*