October 11, 2010 | German
I Can’t Take Care of Myself in German
My German vocabulary tends towards the abstract rather than the practical.
The reading glasses that became necessary after I began this project—which involves a lot of squinting at unfamiliar alphabets—recently broke, yet again.
The New York City Subway: A Great Place to Cross Paths with German Speakers
Well, “broke” may not be quite the right word; the same screw keeps falling out. It is the one that holds the right lens in place. Brandt is a big fan of the whole taped-together spectacles look. I can tell by the expression on his face when he comes home and finds me studying through a haze of Scotch Magic Office Tape.
I have just realized I cannot set a table in German. That’s because I don’t recall how to say “plate,” “fork,” or “spoon.” Until yesterday I had also forgotten how to say “knife” (which is Messer), but then I thought of “Mackie Messer,” the Kurt Weill song that is the origin of the English-language standard “Mack the Knife.” All it takes is a little humming and I am good on cutting utensils at least.
When I began this project, I quickly noticed that the foreign-language vocabulary you acquire in school differs rather significantly from what you are likely to be taught as an adult. That’s because one is more likely, in high-school and university courses, to focus on literary and academic vocabulary than on the mundane workaday words required to live an adult life.
German Books at Barnes & Noble and Borders Tend to Focus More on Practical Vocabulary Than the Ones I Used in College
Not that I didn’t know how to name the elements of a place setting when I studied German back in school; I did. But even at my German best, I was never all that good at it. Nor did I spend much time in my college German classes learning how to buy train tickets and vegetables. As a result, my credit-card and vegetable vocabulary remains limited.
Unfortunately, being able to rattle off a term like “comparative literature” in German (vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft) is not particularly helpful when you are in Bavaria confronting a broken doorknob and you need to go to the hardware store. I am already a very unhandy person, not good at setting up new gadgets, repairing hinges, or understanding how electricity works. My lack of practical vocabulary both mirrors and exacerbates this pre-existing condition.
By the way, if you are unfamiliar with German and perhaps wondered whether the initial capital letter in the word Messer several paragraphs back was a typo, it was not. All nouns in German are capitalized. This is a language tradition that does not strike me as terribly compatible with the Internet age.
Some of the German Publications, Complete with Capital Letters, Available at the Goethe-Institut
Which is why last Friday at the Goethe-Institut, I wondered out loud whether in a text- and IM-happy world, it was likely that German nouns would soon cease to be capitalized. “Nein,” came the response.
Nonetheless, I cannot help observing that the modern human is no friend of the Shift key.
Hindi, on which I just spent two months, has no capitals at all. Neither does Arabic. That aspect of those languages was pretty appealing to me, I must admit. I have wondered lately whether English has a future as a capital-letter-free language. I am secretly hoping so.
I personally find it very easy to read capital-free English-language texts, although I would never advise anyone to write without standard capitalization. After all, I teach business-writing seminars at large corporations.
But private fantasies and public proclamations do not always have to coincide perfectly.