by Brooks Riley
We gave them ‘okay’, they gave us ‘Angst‘ (Did they ever!). We gave them ‘cool’, they gave us ‘kaputt‘. We gave them ‘laptop’, they gave us ‘Weltschmerz‘ (Thanks for that.). We gave them back ‘hamburger’, they gave us ‘Frankfurter‘. We gave them ‘showtime’, they gave us ‘Schadenfreude‘ (just what we needed). We gave them ‘zap’ (which became ‘zapp’), they gave us ‘Zeitgeist‘. We gave them ‘rock ‘n roll’, they gave us Recht und Ordnung (not that it’s helped). We gave them ‘Happy Birthday’ (the lyrics and the music), they gave us ‘Gesundheit’ (the verbal amulet against a cold).
And so it goes, the ebb and flow of language exchange. In reality, Germans borrow more from English than we do from German. But this has much to do with ad campaigns in search of short, catchy words to get the message across, instead of the traditional three-or-more-word pile-ups. These days, who has time to read a 34-letter word, let alone twitter it? That’s why words like ‘tip’ (which is spelled ‘tipp’) and ‘okay’ enjoy universal acceptance.
Years ago Volkswagen tried to introduce the word ‘Fahrvergnügen’ (driving pleasure) into the American language in an effective attempt to grab your attention, so that they could sell you a car. You might still remember trying to put your mouth around the word before it slipped into oblivion stateside as soon as the ad campaign was over, and rightly so. ‘Driving pleasure’ is an American invention, one of our pursuits of happiness, and immune to German invasion, although it could be debated who has more Fahrvergnügen hurtling down their respective highways.
Given globalization, why aren’t there more verbal transactions going on? Every language can lay claim to inadequacies and English is no exception. Take the word ‘nonsense’: The German exclamation ‘Quatsch‘ (pronounced ‘kvatch’, meaning ‘nonsense’) is an onomatopoetic grenade that explodes from the mouth in reaction to a blatently wrong declaration by someone else. Compared to it, the exclamatory ‘nonsense’ seems faded, almost quaint: So do ‘ridiculous’ and its abused cousin ‘absurd’. Even ‘rubbish’ is in remission. It’s no wonder that ‘bullshit’ is knocking at the door of respectability.
The German language may have a reputation for exhaustively long words, but when it’s pithy, it’s penetrating: The word for ‘scene of the crime’ is ‘Tatort’, a linguistic slamdunk.
And then there’s the economical ‘doch‘, an invention that should have been imported years ago. I say, ‘The world won’t end today.’ You answer, ‘Oh yes it will.’ A German answers, ‘Doch‘, a four-letter contradiction instead of a four-word one. ‘Doch‘ has an elegant finality about it—having the last word without spelling it out. ‘ You’re not going out dressed like that!’. ‘Doch.’ Try to argue with that.
I’ve been away so long that I no longer remember if a particular English word made up of two words is hyphenated, one word, or two words—it varies. There’s a consistency in German that removes all doubt. The hyphen is irrelevant in a language that shamelessly pastes words together without asking for permission or apologizing with a hyphen.
English also suffers the boyfriend-girlfriend issue, a problem dating back to the Sixties, when young people started avoiding marriage. Before then, ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ were useful terms for a temporary state of affairs, to be discarded when the young ones tied the knot. Now that marriage is just one of many forms of monogamous pairings, those without a wedding ring are left hanging–some of them well into old age–without a proper word to describe their Significant Other, other than ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’. In both languages, the rather tepid solution is to use ‘my friend’ to imply romantic involvement, and ‘a friend of mine’ to suggest friendship. (This distinction works only if you omit the name of the loved one: “My friend Flicka” would hardly be mistaken for a romantic liaison). ‘Partner’ pops up in both languages, but what does it mean? A business partner? A lover? Is it a he or she (the same predicament applies to the word ‘lover’)? Do they live together or do they just do dinner? In German, unmarried cohabiting (or is it co-habiting) pairs refer to each other as Lebensgefährte (male life companion), or Lebensgefährtin (female life companion), profiting from a language with male and female nouns. But what if they break up? You can’t exactly refer to a former boyfriend as a ‘former life companion’ (unless you tweak it to ‘companion of a former life’). One cynical German suggested the word ‘Lebensabschnittsgefährte‘, or ‘slice-of-life companion’. An American friend of mine uses the term ‘serial monogamy’ to describe a lifetime of long-term relationships, but it’s not one that solves the problem of what to call the S.O.
German too has glaring sins of omission. The great German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder despaired over the German title for his film ‘Despair’, based on the Nabokov novel. He worried that ‘Verzweiflung‘ didn’t have the gravitas of the English word and decided to retain the English title for the film’s German release. Now that I’m at home in his language, I would disagree. But there are other English words lacking a perfect German counterpart: A simple English adjective like ‘kind’ gets no satisfaction in German. The translations range from ‘nice’, ‘pleasant’, ‘friendly’ to ‘loveable’ and even ‘gracious’ before petering out at ‘benevolent’ (‘gütig‘), good-hearted (‘gutherzig’), and dear (‘lieb‘). While close, none of these German words manages to capture the feeling of kindness. Does this mean there are no kind Germans? No, but it may mean that the kindness of strangers is not translatable.
Language is a grand experiment that never ends. In my everyday life I often speak to my Lebensgefährte in ‘Gerglish’, which allows me to pick and choose the best of all possible words in either language. It’s an unshakable habit dating back to a time before I was fluent in German. Back then, we traded words: ‘indubitably’ for ‘infolgedessen’ (consequently), for instance. Nowadays, when I speak to him, I typically hopscotch back and forth from one language to the other within a single sentence. Alas, it’s a form of communication only he can understand.