The two dots that will make or break you

umlaut and foreign languages

Listen to Brenda tell the story

Once while I was translating an article from German into English on the viability of artificial snow, the word Beschneidung leaped out at me. It means circumcision. A bizarre word to find in an article on Alpine tourism.

Then I put on my glasses.

Oops. Make that Beschneiung, which describes what snow guns do to put artificial snow on the slopes. It literally means “to spread snow on.”

This kind of mistake happens regularly, with or without glasses. The first thing you learn when you start speaking a foreign language is how to recover from making a fool of yourself through such mistakes. Some people, like my father-in-law, have the illusion they can study a language for X number of years, open their mouth and speak fluently.

The equivalent of this would be a baby sitting in its highchair until age three, then suddenly descending gracefully to the floor and sashaying across the carpet like a fashion model.

It just doesn’t work that way. You have to fall – a lot – and nobody escapes the bruises in the process. The humbling experience of speaking a foreign language is hard to trump.

The snow gun incident was of no consequence because I didn’t actually say this. The mistake took place only in my mind. But there have been many other times when I was not so fortunate.

The hidden lives of wolves

Chatting with my colleague Matthias one day, we stumbled across the topic of the difference in behavior between wolves and foxes. I was pontificating about how foxes are much smaller than wolves. Foxes also hunt individually, as opposed to wolves, who hunt on sleds.


I meant… they hunt as pack animals. I had mixed up the word rodeln, to sled, with Rudel, which means pack, as in wolf pack. Matthias immediately launched into an imitation of what a wolf might look like sledding down a mountain by extending his arms out like little wings. To this day I pause to take a breath and plant my feet firmly on the floor before I say the word Rudel, just to be sure I’m not inadvertently swopping in an “o” instead of a “u.”

Heat me, please

An Australian colleague once tried valiantly to excuse herself for her inability to express herself precisely in German. A delivery man had just brought some large packages. She was trying to tell him where he should put them, namely in the back room. Discovering that she couldn’t drum up just the right words at that moment, she did the Anglo-Saxon thing: she said she was sorry.

At least that’s what she thought she was saying. In actual fact she said “Heat, me please!” Verheizung, bitte! Instead of Verzeihung, bitte! It wasn’t too hard to recognize that she was not a native speaker, so the delivery man just smiled. With the help of a few arm gestures, they figured out where to put the boxes anyway.

Not your average sausage sandwich

These mix-ups happen to native speakers, too. My friend Ute lives in the Rhineland, a state famous for its massive, extended carnival celebrations. This reflects the general friendliness and happy-go-lucky attitude of the population, too, as I noticed on a visit there once.

“These lights last longer every day!” said a woman at a street corner waiting for the pedestrian light to change. I looked around to see who she was talking to. Turns out she was talking to me. A total stranger! Wow. This wasn’t Bavaria.

Recovering my composure, I found my voice.

“Yes! You’re right!” I responded, drumming up some enthusiasm. Cool. Chit-chat with a stranger.

This breezy, casual attitude was helpful to Ute when she misspoke one day when she was ordering a slice of sausage at a butchery. That’s what she intended, at least. But what came out of her mouth was:

“One vagina of sausage, please!” Eine Scheide Wurst, bitte.

The saleslady didn’t skip a beat.

„Ja, eine Scheibe Wurst,“ she responded, with very strong emphasis on that elusive letter “b.” A slice of sausage.

The children’s birthday party with that little extra oomph

As a foreign mom, you have to get used to the fact that your kids speak the local language better than you do. This is a painful reality. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can move on to just speaking it. And making colossal mistakes.

Like at the birthday party for my daughter when she turned 10. She chose the theme of the Middle Ages – an early sign of her penchant for history, her current major in college. I felt very clever for rising to the challenge by devising a quiz on the era.

The birthday quiz included this question:

“What is a jester’s job at the royal court?”

The correct answer was “to be funny,” of course. Since this was a multiple choice quiz, I included silly wrong answers next to the correct one to make it funny. One of the answers was quite a bit funnier than I intended, however:

Instead of writing die Hunde zu füttern, to feed the dogs, I wrote die Hunde zu futtern, meaning to eat the dogs.

Who invented this language, anyway? Talk about confusing messages! Clearly there was no PR guy involved in deeming that the addition of two teeny-weeny little dots on the letter “u” would determine whether the poor dogs will get food or be food.

Very, very unusual weather we’re having

Then there are words that are so dodgy that it’s better to avoid them altogether. Surprisingly, the normally innocuous topic of weather is particularly tricky. It wasn’t just the snow gun that got me in trouble. Summer weather also has its pitfalls.

Where I used to live in Northern Virginia, the summers are very hot and sticky. Sweat drips off you after being outside for just 10 minutes. Another descriptor that comes to mind would be the word humid. This is just what I tried to say in German when we had a rare day of hot, sticky, humid weather.

Normally, discussing the weather is the perfect topic of conversation. Unlike politics or religion, it’s impossible to be controversial when you talk about the weather. Or so I thought.

Here comes another one of those German words with pesky little dots on some letters. They seem inconsequential, but they change both the pronunciation and the meaning. The word for humid is very similar to the word for homosexual. Schwül, schwul, one with an umlaut and one without. I knew this.

But which one is which? I wracked my brains.

Eeny-meeny-miney-mo…I had a 50 percent chance of getting it right. I took the plunge:

“The weather sure is homosexual today, isn’t it?” I said.

Damn those umlauts! Of course I got it wrong, much to the amusement of all those present. Dots mean gay, no dots mean humid. Rather than risk getting it wrong again, I’ve since learned to sidestep this word altogether.

“Quite a bit of water vapor in the air today, don’t you think?”

“Pretty, uh, warm weather, and the air is anything but dry, know what I mean?”

I’m always hoping that the person I’m talking to responds with the right word.

Ja, sehr schwül!

Ja! Genau! Yes, exactly! That’s what I wanted to say! Just couldn’t remember whether to dot or not.

Finally, you can’t be hot in German, either, unless you’re Marilyn Monroe. That would be ich bin heiß, I’m hot, in the Hollywood sense. If you’re being bothered by the heat, on the other hand, that would be mir ist heiss or something like “warmth is being perceived by me.”

Better yet, just turn on the air conditioning and be done with it.

The wisdom of the years has taught me to simply avoid talking about hot, steamy weather, artificial snow, or packs of wolves. I avoided getting a dog, too, to circumvent the possibility of ever having to say that I’m going to feed it.

I steer clear of wily words, high and dry on safe linguistic ground. Like always waiting for the light at the crosswalk to change, even if it seems to take longer every day. Just in case.

Brenda Arnold

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3 thoughts on “The two dots that will make or break you

  1. Claudia says:

    I know exactly what you are talking about. I’ve made some of this mistakes too. Some words I also avoid are „fordern“ und „fördern“. I normally say both and let my conversation partner pick the right one.
    The humid days pitfall you’ve is a regular issue for me as well. And in those hot and humid days I’ve also struggled with “Schweiß“ and „Schweiz“ in my early years in Germany.

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