When speaking English, Germans don't make the same mistakes the Chinese or French make, they make specifically German mistakes. This book is about those specifically German issues. I also slipped in a few ruminations about the differences between the two languages.
|This is from the book.|
Harry Potter vs. Freddy Nietzsche
I've spoken German for a long time, but not until I started writing in the language was I forced to deal with it in a more intimate way. It came as a surprise to me when I finally understood the central difference between the two languages: German is analytical, while English is deeply narrative.
It happened when my co-writer Astrid Ule and I were writing our first novel together, "A Town Called Hole." In case you're wondering: Yes, writing a novel with the woman you love is like a love affair itself - it's loud, stormy and full of misunderstandings. The good thing about it is: Even though the fights are just as frequent and just as passionate, you argue about more interesting things - language, for example.
Astrid approaches writing in a very German way. She can sit there and polish a single paragraph for days until each word, each period, each comma is airtight. She sees literature in the detail. In the end, she'll show me a few perfect paragraphs.
Like this: A scene about Karl looking out the window and contemplating the futility of life. Astrid asks proudly: "What do you think?"
"What I think?" I reply after I've read it. "It's brilliant. I love it. It says so much. Even the way he stirs his tea, lost in thought - that's poetic."
"Do you like the way he presses his forehead against the cold windowpane?" she asks with growing enthusiasm, "and how his breath condenses on the glass and he recognizes the patterns left by the cloth Claudia used to wipe the window and he asks himself if a truly clean window is even possible or if it's just another one of those casual lies that keep us going all our lives?"
"Oh yeah," I say, "very much so. Unfortunately, Karl slows down the whole story and I threw him out three days ago."
For me, literature is the big picture, the main statement, the dramatic arc, the clear argument. For Astrid, it is the atmosphere, the turn of a phrase, the details and how they are told. She's the woman for precision work. I am the hatchet man.
That seems to me typical of how the English-speaking world thinks and how Germans think.
I run into this difference between the German and Anglo-American mindset all the time. German literature tends to place more value on language than on plot. Goethe, the father of German literature, was a big fan of abstract ramblings and diversions. He took less pride in being considered a "story-teller" than he did in being a "thinker." His masterpiece "Faust II" is pure philosophy and has nothing in it you could call a "story." Though he actually understood very little about the natural sciences, he often wrote elegant (and wrong) essays on the subject. Shakespeare, on the other hand, never touched philosophy. With the exception of his love poetry, everything he wrote was story, and at the core of all his beautiful language you will always find a strong, clearly understandable and dramatic plot as well as characters everyone can identify with.
Even Goethe was just following an older tradition: Compare the German versions of medieval chivalric novels with the French originals they were adapted from and even then you will often find a strong German love of the symbolic, the analytical, the metaphysical and the psychological, the distracting detail, the narrative detour into the abstract. The French originals (most importantly the novels of Chr√©tien de Troyes) are much more interested in telling a good yarn.
Ever wonder why you see so few German novels in bookstores in America, especially in the popular fiction sections? It's not just the problems posed by translating the language: Go to the philosophy or psychology sections and you will quickly find Freud and Nietzsche - no problem translating them. But the popular German storytellers? Karl May's pro-Indian Westerns, the daring science fiction of Frank Schätzing, the wildly imaginative children's fantasies of Walter Moers? Never hear of them? They're all huge bestsellers in Germany and they've all been translated into English.
They just don't quite work for us.
Ask a German to name a popular English-language genre writer or book, and they will have no problem rattling off a long list of names: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, the Agatha Christie books, Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings and much more. It seems to come easy to English-speakers. But ask them about popular writers in German - they have to think. When Frank Schätzing's "The Swarm" hit the bestseller lists, the same newspapers that criticized him because he wasn't highbrow enough made him into a national literary hero for showing the world that Germans, too, could write a novel like Michael Crichton.
The opposite is also true: Take a look in the philosophy section of any American bookstore and you will probably have a hard time finding the American philosophers Willard Van Orman Quine or John Rawls... whom you have probably never heard of. But Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Marx you will find easily enough.
The German culture emphasizes and encourages analytical thinking over narrative story-telling. That's why German writers seem too abstract and artsy-fartsy for us, while Germans tend to think of Anglo-American writers - even those they read avidly - as basically superficial and not worthy of serious thought. Germans love Harry Potter, but they are often careful to make clear that they only read that kind of thing when they need a break from serious literature.
How did these two very different approaches to literature come to evolve? It wasn't just some cultural fluke of nature: The answer lies in one wholly underestimated word: "the."
Postman vs. Dog
It's hard to think of a word that has formed, changed and dominated the English language more than "the."
In the early days of the Anglo-Saxons, who communicated in a language we call "Old English," they still identified words as male, female or neutral: The sun was a "she," the moon a "he" and the "wench" was an "it" - as they are still today in German. In the Middle Ages, something strange happened - something that didn't happen in German or French or in most other languages, for that matter. Maybe it had something to do with the Anglo-Saxons being cut off from the continent. They stopped assigning genders to words. That made everything much simpler: Unlike other languages, English didn't need three different definite articles for nouns. While "sun, moon and wench" in German are "die Sonne, der Mond and das Weib," in English it was all just "the:" "the sun, the moon, the wench."
"The" didn't only make the language simpler: From that day forward, it was no longer possible to construct a sentence backwards. In other languages it's possible, even normal.
What's a backwards sentence? The best and most famous example is:
"The dog bit the postman."
In this sentence, it's the postman who goes to the hospital and the dog who is put to sleep. But if you juxtapose subject and object, it takes on a whole new meaning:
"The postman bit the dog."
Here, the dog is taken to the vet and the postman gets sued, if not put to sleep. In English, you can't juxtapose subject and object without changing the meaning. Not so in German or in any language that uses genders:
"Der Hund biss den Briefträger" and
"Den Briefträger biss der Hund"
both have the same meaning: the Postman is the one that gets bit, even when "Briefträger" (Postman) comes at the end of the sentence and "Hund" (dog) at the beginning. It's the definite article that tells you what is the subject or object, not the word order: "Der Hund" means the dog is the subject and thus the one doing the biting, while "den" indicates the object of the bite, no matter where dog and postman are in the sentence.
This means more flexibility: The writer decides where to put the postman or the dog ion the sentence according to his own preferences. By placing the dog at the end of the sentence, he creates a brief sense of suspense, because the reader know that the postman was bitten, but not by what - a shark? a mosquito? his wife? - until we get to the end of the sentence.
By using definite articles like arrows pointing this way and that, a good German sentence can spiral around its subject for half a page before telling you what it's really all about, driving you nearly mad with suspense. It can tell you everything you need to know to be able to judge what's going on before telling you what's actually going on, throwing in a number of unnecessary asides for atmosphere, and at the very end it will reveal that it wasn't taking about the postman at all, but about the dog.
A German sentence is like a hawk circling high above: It can see everything from up here, but nothing sticks out, there is no real difference between a shrub, a stump and a road, we see it all. Then it dives and the closer it gets to the ground, the more limited its view, and we, seeing through the hawk's eyes, finally figure out that he wasn't interested in the shrub or the stump of the road at all, but in that poor mouse whose days are numbered.
Germans have a certain reputation of being stiff and not very fond of surprises, but when it comes to the basic structure of language, it's English that is rigid and German that is dynamic.
But our rigid word order is also an advantage: Every English sentence tells a story.
Our word order lends even the simplest of sentences a basic dramatic arc: The main parts - 1) subject, 2) verb, 3) object - corresponds to the basic structure of a story: 1) Hero or main character, 2) action and 3) result. In "The dog bit the postman," the main character is the dog, the heroic action was to bite and the result was that the postman was injured. Turn that dog into a knight in shining armor, the biting into a battle and the postman into a dragon, and you have a story.
Even a sentence like "The weather is getting better" has a main character (the weather), a heroic deed (changing) and a heroic result (sunshine). For an English sentence to approach the dynamics of German, it has to turn to the passive voice or to unnecessarily wordiness: "The improvement of the weather is only a question of time" has a subtle irony to it in German ("Die Verbesserung des Wetters ist nur ein Frage der Zeit"), but in English it's drab and lifeless. It has no clear hero, and without a hero it loses focus.
The rigid sentence structure makes English into a story-telling language. We automatically think in terms of someone doing something and something coming of it. Germans don't. Their priorities are not set for them. When they start to tell a story, they're seeing it as a whole, like the hawk, while the English-speaker, like the mouse, has clear priorities, because it can only see what's in front of it: First, the necessity of naming the hero looms large; once that hurdle has been conquered comes the next: What's the action? After that, the sentence makes yet another demand: What happens next?
There is more to literature than hero, action and result, but these three things form the basis of drama, and anyone who grows up speaking English has already internalized the basics of story-telling.
Our rigid word order also explains why we love simplicity. English-language writing teachers are always talking about "economy of style," but writing teachers in other languages don't. English-language writers see elegance and truth in a simple sentence, but Germans admire complicated sentences and associate straightforward sentences with simplicity of thought.
Every once in a while some newspaper somewhere tries to find the most beautiful sentence ever written in English, and very often, one sentence ends up heading the list: John 11:35 in the King James Version of the New Testament.
It's the shortest sentence in the Bible, yet it's strikingly beautiful, and yes, it is the most beautiful sentence ever written in English.
Martin Luther also included this sentence for his German translation, equally beautiful, but it's not two words long and you don't know what the subject is until you've almost reached the end: It's not Jesus, but he way, it's "eyes:"
"Und Jesus gingen die Augen über."
"And the eyes of Jesus were filled to overflowing."
Sometimes Bad English is Better
I should mention one thing in warning as you go about forbettering your English: Don’t forbetter it too much. Some mistakes are so charming, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.
Take my old friend Jochen. Usually we speak German with each other, but when we have a beer or two, as we both loosen up, he slips into English.
One day, something strange happened.
We had already had three beers and it was late, so he looked at his watch and said, “My dear, it’s time to go.”
“What did you say?”
“My dear, it’s time to go,” he repeated.
That was new. Come to think of it, no man had ever called me “my dear” before. I didn’t know what to think. I rode the rest of the way home in shock.
The best thing was to ignore it, I decided at home. Maybe it was just one of those things. A week or two later we had another beer, and I had already forgotten all about it when he said, again, “My dear, it’s time to go.”
What did it mean? All the next week I thought about it. Was he trying to take our relationship to another level? Was he trying to tell me something his wife shouldn’t know about? The next time he called and suggested going out to a movie we’d both wanted to see, I didn’t have time. A week after that, he called and I didn’t pick up the phone.
I was going to have to do something about the situation, I knew, but I didn’t know what.
Then one day I was talking to a neighbor and he said, in German: “Dann schönen Tag, mein lieber.”
Mein lieber! That means “pal” or “my friend” or, in England, “old boy.” But the word the Germans use - lieber – is the same one they use to open letters: “Dear.” That’s why Jochen thought the English translation of “mein lieber” was “my dear.” The guy was trying to call me “buddy.”
I called Jochen right away and said, “I owe you a beer.”
You have to believe me. I was meaning to tell him. The main reason I called was to tell him. To warn him. After all, what happens when he’s out having drinks with some American business partner and he calls the guy “My dear?” I had to warn him.
And I meant to, really I did. All evening long I looked for my opportunity. But when he slapped me on the back and said, “My dear, it’s time to go,” I suddenly realized how rare it is for someone – anyone – to say something so sweet to me. “My dear!” It was a little weird, yes, but still it made me all warm inside.
I couldn’t do it.
So I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes, my dear, it’s time to go.”
|Some notes on "Forbetter your English."|
To earn my way through college in Munich in the 1980s and '90s, I taught English. Soon I noticed that all German make the same mistakes - but people from other countries make different mistakes. Linguists call it "interference" - it's the mother tongue trying to straighten out the way you're talking. I collected the mistakes and other notes about the deep structural and psychological differences between the two languages and promised myself I would put them into a book someday.
A friend of mine, Ralf Ilgenfritz, made a series of short videos to go with the book, which you can view on YouTube and Vimeo.
Buy the book.
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