Several years ago, when I first entered the real world of German language after doing an intensive language class, the first thing I noticed was that you don’t use the word schlafen unless you are over 50 (this might be a slight exaggeration – ed.). Instead you say the word pennen.
I had literally never once come across this word in a text book before. But suddenly in my shared Berlin flat there was pennen going on everywhere. People would bei uns pennen at the weekend. My flatmate would ‘ne Runde pennen if he had been out late the night before. Or if we were watching a film, he would warn me that he would probably einpennen at some point.
A lot of the pennen was going on after a heavy night of saufen – another word that was totally new to me. I’d read somewhere that the German for getting drunk was sich betrinken. But on one of my first nights in Berlin I was told “wir gehen saufen, kommst du mit?” Logically, after a few rounds of Pfeffi and beer, I was pretty besoffen, not betrunken.
The same goes for latschen instead of laufen and glotzen instead of fernsehen. And if you want to say how very besoffen you are, of course you don’t say sehr, you say übelst, sau or brutalste.
Then there are the Denglish words which are thrown in all over the place. I learned that, if you like something a lot, it's not hervorragend it's voll nice. And if a situation's a little bit weird it isn't komisch it's super strange.
That's not all. Throughout this mix of alleged words and anglicisms you have to throw in the word ‘halt’ all the time. ‘Halt’ fundamentally means nothing, it is just a word that gives you time to think. But, even if the sentence is so simple that you couldn’t possibly need time to collect your thoughts, it’s always advisable to throw it in at least once.
This can all be a bit intimidating and I have occasionally dipped my toe into the cool waters of German slang.
Sometimes, when I can’t remember what I was about to say, I try to squeeze in a halt. But the concentration involved in reminding myself to use it makes it even harder to remember what comes next.
As for words like pennen, if i haven’t seen them in a book, there is always some part of my brain that questions whether they are real. The ensuing uncertainty makes saying I’m about to go to sleep sounds more like a question than a statement.
You might think that using the Denglish would be easier, but you can’t just say the words how they are pronounced in English. Nice becomes naees and sorry gets a very throaty ‘rrr’ in the middle.
Safe to say, progress on sounding less like an audio book and more like an actual human being has been slow. Perhaps I’m just too self-consciously British to ever fully adapt.
If inspiration is needed though, one need look no further than a man who has travelled in the other direction. Even at the age of 50, German football manager Jürgen Klopp has had no trouble picking up the local slang after being hired by Liverpool FC in 2016. On being asked by a journalist what it was like to beat Manchester City, he recently said “The best word I can say to describe this is: Boom!”
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