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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

10 quotes that get to the heart of the German language

The German language divides opinion - even among Germans. Is it caring and romantic, or hard and aggressive? Here are 10 erudite opinions on the tongue of Goethe that shed some light on the debate.

A German dictionary stands on a shelf.
A German dictionary stands on a shelf. How do you feel about learning the language? Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Oliver Berg

1. “When one is polite in German, one lies.”

In Goethe’s Faust, Part Two, a character named “the Bachelor” is seen making fun of the devil Mephistopheles’s bald head.

“Your bald head is worth nothing more than those empty ones there,” he says.

“Don’t you understand how rude you are?” replies Mephistopheles, to which the Bachelor replies: “when one is polite in German, one lies.”

While clearly a comedic line, Goethe was perhaps making a point that the beauty of German is its bluntness.

Portrait of Goethe by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

2. “It describes things that have no name in English.”

“Things could be brought into being that had no name in English – Weltanschauung, Schadenfreude, Sippenhaft, Sonderweg, Scheissfreundlichkeit, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.”

This is what Australian writer Anna Funder said about learning German, in an article for the Guardian. She added that her parents were somewhat confused at her decision to start to learn the “language of the enemy”.

There is no one single word translation, but we reckon we could have a good crack at these German words: world view, joy at another’s misery, collective punishment, special way, crappy friendliness, coming to terms with the past.

Schadenfreude or Scheissfreundlichkeit? Photo: Kurt Bauschardt / Flickr Creative Commons.

3. “A young lady has no sex, but a turnip has.”

“In German, a young lady [das Mädchen] has no sex, but a turnip [die Rübe] has.” American writer Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he highlighted the peculiarities of the language.

In German every noun is assigned one of three “genders”: masculine, feminine, and neuter. While it may seem strange that a turnip became feminine noun, and a young lady is neuter – it is due to the fact that all diminutive nouns (with the ending -chen) are neuter.

Mark Twain also wrote an essay entitled The Awful German Language, about the struggles native English speakers have when learning German.  

Photo: DPA

4. “German is only romantic if you have a past in it.”

“When people say that German or any other language is romantic…all they really mean is that they’ve enjoyed a past in the language.” Another American author, John Irving, on the truth behind calling German a romantic language.

A couple of romantic Germans? Photo: DPA

5: A language of “angry, angry poetry”

“The German language is so sonorous, isn’t it? Beautiful language…the language of poetry. Angry, angry poetry.” British comedian John Oliver reflected on how many people probably view German.

6. “Life is too short to learn German.”

Richard Porson, an 18th century classics scholar, on why German really might not be worth learning after all – and that is coming from someone who read Latin and Ancient Greek for a living!

This guy is definitely not learning German. Photo: Good Free Photos/Tim Boganov

7. Learning German is “what eternity was made for.”

A very similar sentiment came from the lips of Mark Twain who said that he “never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.”

We are guessing he never got his C2 certificate from the Goethe Institute, or not in this life at any rate.

Mark Twain. Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

8. “The entire language is threatening.”

“[If I want] to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, [I speak] in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement”. These words were attributed to Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, who would often have to speak many different languages in his courts.

He supposedly also said that if he wants to talk with God, he speaks Spanish, if he wants to speak with friends, he speaks Italian, and if he wants to flirt, he speaks French.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

9. “No German knows what he actually wants to say.”

“[Germans] think that they’re profound because their language is unclear; they lack the clarity of the French language, and it never conveys what it should, which means that no German knows what he actually wanted to say.”

Italian writer Umberto Eco was very clear about what he saw as the lack of clarity in the German language in his novel The Prague Cemetery. We’re not sure how many people agree with this sentiment.

10. It might be hard, but it’s still more logical than English

“The English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary,” eminent cartoonist Dave Kellett reflected on why you probably have already come across quite a bit of German.

For members

LEARNING GERMAN

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

The German word 'Wanderlust' means "the desire to travel" and is used even in other languages. Here are some of the other words commonly used in Germany to describe the nation's love affair with travelling.

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

Germans are very connected to nature and a lot of the activities they routinely do, even in winter, involve staying outdoors. So it’s no wonder the language also reflects that passion for walking, travelling, and spending time in nature.

Some of the German words that are most famous to speakers of other languages reference this passion. Perhaps most notably, the term “Wanderlust” which has made its way to other dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, with the definition “a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering”.

The word is composed of “wandern“, which means to hike or roam about and “lust“, meaning “pleasure or delight”.

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

This is not the only unique expression the German language has related to travelling. Another of the hard to translate ones is “Fernweh“. It comes from “fern“, meaning “far”, and “Weh“, meaning “pain”. It is used to describe the longing for far-off places – in contrast to “Heimweh”, a feeling many immigrants might be very attuned to and could be translated to homesickness.

The German language also has several interesting and even funny expressions for walkers and travellers alike. The Local talked with German teacher and travel enthusiast Lutz Michaelis to collect a few of the best expressions.

“So weit dich deine/mich meine Füße tragen”

It literally means “as far as my feet will take me” (or alternatively, “as far as your feet will take you”). It is often said as an answer to the question, “where are you going?”.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

“Die Sieben-Meilen-Stiefel anhaben”

“To wear the seven-league boots”. This means being able to walk long distances fast. Lutz explains that it was actually based on a trope in French mythology, in which magical boots could help the wearer cover long distances in a short amount of time. Having been used in The Little Thumb by Charles Perrault, the term was brought into the German language by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Wer rastet, der rostet”

The translation would be “he who rests, rusts”. It is used in the German language to say that being in motion is a good thing, not only with travelling but also to incentivise people to keep learning new things.

“Das Reisen kost’t Geld, Doch sieht man die Welt.”

It’s a very common rhyme used to show the downsides and benefits of travelling: “travelling costs money, but one sees the world”.

“Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.”

It literally means that “travellers shouldn’t be stopped”. However, Lutz explains that the expression is not only used to refer to travellers but also to anyone that might be going through a transitional situation – such as someone wanting to change their jobs, for example.

Rhododendren park Bremen

Rhododendrons bloom in the Rhododendron Park in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

“der Weg ist das Ziel.”

One of the most beautiful ones, and many languages have their own version of it. It translates to “the road is the destination”.

Of course, coming back home, especially for those suffering from Heimweh, can also be something beautiful. One common saying is “Wiedersehen macht Freude“, which means that to meet again brings happiness, used among those looking forward to seeing someone again after a long trip.

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

And one more…

In Germany, there is a common joke about finding German people abroad. The rhyme goes “Hüte dich vor Sturm und Wind, und Deutschen, die im Ausland sind“, which could be translated as “Be on your guard for storm and wind, and Germans in a foreign land”.

“It refers both to the bad behaviour of Germans on holidays or travels and a dark joke and a funny nod to the fact that German troops have invaded other countries”, Lutz, who is a German himself, explains.

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