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

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

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

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.

Comments (3)

Jordan • Posted on Thu, October 14, 2010 - 9:50 pm EST

Yiddish also does not use capital letters, except in the transliteration. So, if you want to find meser (same word as in German) in lower case, try Yiddish!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, October 15, 2010 - 8:48 am EST

Jordan, thank you! I didn’t know that. I’ve thought about studying Yiddish, since it has an important place in New York language history. I don’t currently have a place for it on the schedule, but if I increase the length of the project, I would seriously consider it. Not just because of the lack of capitals, of course, though that’s a plus. ;)

Julian • Posted on Sat, October 16, 2010 - 12:30 am EST

I wonder why each time I look at the photo in this entry I read “German Verbs Kill”?

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