I’ve been now been living in Austria for about 6 months and studying the German language for about 2 months now and think I’m doing pretty good. I can now order a meal in a restaurant, request specific cuts of deli-meats, cheese, and fish at the deli-counter or fish market, read a newspaper, and even speak with persons on the street. Mind you, none of this is perfectly executed but I’m fairly well understood and can answer a question without too much of a pause.
This developing skill has led to a rather guilty hobby – eavesdropping! I find that while I’m on the U-Bahn, conversations start floating past me and more and more, I’m understanding what’s been said. Further, folks seem to think its impossible I’d know any German (or either they really don’t care) and they talk about EVERYTHING and worse, everybody! This started me musing over the power of language.
Initially, my goal was to learn as quickly as possible to get my life back on track thus I attacked my classes with gusto. But as we progressed and the hieroglyphics changed to words and words to sentences, I found myself enjoying the process and not just seeking the goal. I started to note the thought process that goes into the words that are chosen and even how sentences are structured and pondered the meaning of this. For example, in English, we’d say ‘I’m going shopping with Theresa on Friday at ten.’ while in German the sentence would resemble ‘I wish at ten on Friday together with Theresa shopping going.’ I’m seriously not making this stuff up, there are rules that apply which are so foreign to my way of thinking that upon introduction, I have a really hard time comprehending a new concept. For example, when two verbs are used in a sentence, the first verb occupies the second spot in the sentence and the last verb goes to the end of the sentence. Another rule is that each noun has a masculine, feminine, or neutral article so things (including people and animals) can be ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’ (baby and child both have an ‘it’ article). There’s no rule/hints as to which one it will be, you just have to learn it. To further complicate things, articles change depending on whether the noun is used as a subject or object as does the adjective describing the noun and best of all, if the wrong gender is chosen to start with, the whole sentence is wrong. What kind of thinking produces this kind of language?!
Through my enforced eavesdropping I’ve observed somethings about the thought process of the German-speaker. They love to shorten everything as if they lived in a ‘walk and talk’ land (like New York, hello!). ‘Excuse me’ is shortened to ‘Excuse’ or sometimes to just a shove (yeah, that’s certainly my favorite – NOT!).
Caesar described the cultural differences between the Germanic tribesmen, the Romans, and the Gauls. He said that the Gauls, although warlike, could be civilized, but the Germanic tribesmen were far more savage and were a threat to Roman Gaul…
Origins are very important and are determined not by accents but by the dialect of German spoken and the wrong dialect can label you (I’m learning standard German so I should be safe – yeah right!).
The early Germanic tribes are assumed to have spoken mutually intelligible dialects, in the sense that Germanic languages derive from a single earlier parent language. No written records of such a parent language exist. From what we know of scanty early written material, by the 5th century CE the Germanic languages were already “sufficiently different to render communication between the various peoples impossible”. Some evidence point to a common pantheon made up of several different chronological layers.
Source: Germanic Peoples
German-speakers are rather blunt – they say exactly what they mean, there is no sugarcoating anything. This trait is particularly amusing when they speak English because they may come across as more than a bit rude or forward. My reading has led me to believe, and this is only my opinion, that the language still holds its barbaric roots of the ‘spear men’ that created the language.
Their whole life is occupied in hunting and in the pursuits of the military art; from childhood they devote themselves to fatigue and hardships.
Source: Germanic Peoples
In retrospect, I now realize its all a sentence structure thing – its why even though English is a direct derivative of German (yeah, didn’t you know, English’s mom is German!) it will never translate word for word. This may account for why most foreigners I’ve encountered here find the language to be crude and the natives to be rude, mean, unsmiling, and blunt. Obviously, 2 months of language courses and 6 months of immersion are insufficient to form a truly factual opinion, not to mention, all of the natives I’ve encountered are not alike. But these are my first impressions of the power of language. I’d love to hear your opinion!