16 October 2022
When English speakers try to learn German, they stumble across words that are for some mysterious reason masculine, feminine and even neuter. Their teachers try to lull them into thinking that this early form of gendering makes sense by starting out with words that are indeed logically masculine or feminine: the word for “woman”—die Frau—is feminine, while the word for “man”—der Mann—is masculine. This instills short-lived confidence that the language makes sense.
But no language makes sense. Faith in German language logic is quickly dashed with the introduction of other words whose genders are meaningless. English, on the other hand, is free from genders or declinations and is often shorter, more direct and neutral. And for the sake of this article, let’s please just ignore the madness buried in the tenses and spelling of English.
To name just a few examples, a German cat is feminine (die Katze) while a dog (der Hund) is masculine. I can see how cats with their inherent elegance might fit a human female stereotype while dogs with their rough-and-tumble qualities could be perceived as masculine. But this superficial logic breaks down when I reach the masculine fence, der Zaun, while wearing my cap, die Mütze, which is—yep—feminine.
Perhaps this is some kind of perverse grammatical power play, particularly when you consider the fact that the word for girl is neutral. Das Mädchen. Clearly, some dude came up with that one, most likely an early Christian linguist weighing in on early German grammar to try to keep girls chaste by denying them a gender, even in the language. All eyes on you, Martin Luther! There’s an interesting podcast on the interaction between language and culture on Hidden Brain.
German is not alone in being complicated. It extends to French, too. My first job in Germany was for the International Basketball Federation, FIBA. I was tasked with translating French into English. Years of high school and university French were soon embellished with sports vocabulary that I never dreamed I would need. Panier, faute, ballon. Basket, foul, ball.
But truly challenging was distilling the essence of what was often flowery French into brass-tacks, no-nonsense English. We English speakers don’t do flowery, certainly not in public, at least not since the passing of Shakespeare. The French, by contrast, push their language to the extremes of grandiloquence. Take the standard closing phrases in any formal French letter: Veuillez agréer, cher Monsieur X, l’assurance de mes salutations les meilleures. As in: Please receive, dear Mr. X, the assurance of my best salutations.
Uttering such a sentence in English will make people think you’re a modern wandering minstrel who made a wrong turn on his way to the local poetry slam. And it would be the last business meeting you’d attend at that job.
Such verbal ornamentation is also embedded in everyday, spoken French. The equivalent of the famous British “Mind the gap” announcement on the London tube stretches out interminably on French trains: Prenez garde à l‘interval entre le marchepied et le quai. This means “Pay attention to the interval between the step and the platform.”
But by the time this announcement is over, you’ve not only fallen into the interval but have been run over by a train.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited Australia a few months ago. In his gracious farewell speech thanking his hosts, he made sure to include the Australian Prime Minister’s “delicious” wife. While incorrect, this is perfectly charming—which is what we expect from the French, after all.
I can think of far worse adjectives to be called than “delicious.”
Italian also tends to be bombastic. This is, uh, deliciously illustrated in a scene from the movie Tea with Mussolini when an Italian businessman dictates a letter to his British secretary. She isn’t taking dictation, though, because what he is saying is an Italian version of English, unintelligible unless you also speak Italian. So instead, she transcribes what he is saying into actual English while simultaneously typing it. There is no better demonstration of the differences between the styles of the two languages.
Spanish also gets in on the game. I once interpreted Spanish into German for someone who was buying property in Spain. The Spaniard spoke in quick bursts of densely packed language, stopping occasionally only for breath. Fortunately, this left me enough time to translate what he had said, even though the bursts of Spanish lasted about five minutes and my translation about 30 seconds.
This lopsided ratio of Spanish to English earned me some censorious stares from all parties present. “Why wasn’t I translating everything he said,” was the implicit accusation. All I did was cut out all the fluff.
However, the Spaniards do deserve praise for their no-nonsense response when answering the telephone. No verbal frippery going on here. They just say: “Diga?” or “Dígame?” meaning “Speak” or “Speak to me.” This would be like answering the telephone in English with “Whaddya want?” It’s not an altogether inappropriate greeting since nobody would call if they didn’t have a reason to. May as well just spit it out, I suppose.
German has additional complexity up its sleeve. As if genders weren’t enough, the Germans like to keep you in suspense by putting the verb at the end of the sentence. You might get used to this after a while, but it makes simultaneous interpretation next to impossible. When faced with interpreting German into another language, the interpreter is forced to guess what the speaker is going to say since the target language requires a verb in the middle of the sentence, not at the end.
Er war sauer, weil sie den ganzen Kuchen, der für die Geburtstagsfeier gebacken wurde, gegessen hatte.
The correct translation is: He was angry because she ate the entire cake that had been baked for the birthday party.
Except the German word order goes like this: He was angry because she the whole cake that had been baked for the birthday party ate.
Interpreters deal with this by guessing what the verb must be and then quickly revising the sentence once the German finally gets around to uttering it at the end of the sentence. You can practically hear the translator sweating in live televised speeches.
Mark Twain expressed it best. Learning German, he bemoaned the language’s unusual syntax. He claimed to have lost the last page of a book, thus never finding out what happened. Why? All the verbs were on that last page.