Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mr. Mike

I'm going to go ahead and borrow something from a friend of mine's blog- Mike Kalunzy is a great guy, a fellow Camp Onway-er, and also here in Germany, chilling in Braunschweig.  You can find his whole blog here.

I'm actually going to take two of his posts- they're both very insightful about the German language, and are worth reading for anyone interested in learning it.  My comments are italicized in black, his posts are in purple.

The first:

beugen: to decline or conjugate (grammar)

I keep running up against this notion of noun classes and grammatical gender. Why do some languages have grammatical gender? Does it simplify language or make it easier to learn and understand? Gender is just plain confusing! In German you have to learn 3 articles for three different genders and then each gender in the 4 different cases and then the appropriate declinations for adjectives with either definite/indefinite/or no article. The list goes on and on. I have yet to find a decent explanation as to why this is all necessary.

 My own thoughts- yes!  This is very true, and, subsequently, German is an impossibly difficult language to master.  I have bemoaned grammatical gender many, many a time.  It is sometimes useful, though- for example, when there are two nouns of a separate gender in a sentence, they may both be referred to in subsequent sentences with pronouns, and the antecedent doesn't need to be repeated.  For example, in English, it's confusing to say, "The bird sat on the chair.  It was blue."  It is ambiguous- it could refer to the chair or the bird.
Of course, this only works sometimes in German.  Sometimes the two nouns will both be of the same gender, in which case we still need antecedents.
In German the problem is compounded by the fact that the language applies grammatical gender as opposed to natural gender. The latter is when the gender of the noun agrees with the natural gender of the object. For example die Frau: the woman. Die is the feminine article. German throws a wrench in the works by calling obviously feminine nouns such as the girl, das Mädchen. That is grammatical gender. I.E the gender of the noun doesn’t have to make sense.

For most English speakers, a language (seemingly) devoid of gender, all of this is very confusing. Learning articles is a chore that just has to be dealt with when learning vocabulary. The word Frau doesn’t exists. It’s die Frau. 

My point with all this is to illuminate the fact, that although grammatical gender in German is a pain, it also exists in English in a few number of cases. For example, oftentimes when countries, ships or cars are referred to, the pronoun she or her is used. While not required, it is a manifestation of gender in the English language.
Just an observation.

This is important to note- I think in English, when we use a gender to describe something that is traditionally genderless (countries, ships, cars, etc.), it's an emotional technique.  The application of a gender is supposed to draw a response- it's a sort of poetry in prose, designed at affecting the feelings of the audience.  

For German, this means one of two things:
1.  The German language is naturally poetic, or,
2.  German is just plain hard. Punkt.

In any case, the whole topic here reminded me of a study I read about sometime last year:

"[When] describing the word key (feminine in Spanish and masculine in German), Spanish speakers produced adjectives such as intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny, and German speakers generated adjectives such as hard, metal, jagged, and useful." (Sera, Berge & Del Pintado, 1994)

What this suggests is that grammatical gender does indeed have a purpose: it helps unify the speakers in a language on a conceptual representation of nouns.  Even without a natural gender, feminine and masculine nouns are consequently lent metaphorical characteristics.  

This conclusion would lead me to strike Point 2 above, and concede that while grammatical gender is infuriating to learn, it really does lead to a poetic language-among native speakers, that is.


The second:

One of my favorite things about the German language is how it simply deals with common diseases and medical conditions. In English, for example, most diseases are referred to be their scientific and medical names.
In German:
die Lungenentzündung: Lung inflamation
die Zuckerkrankheit: sugar disease
der Durchfall: ~fall through

It's not just medical terms that are like this, there are hundreds of words.  "A twig", translated literally, is "a thin stick".  "A bruise" translated literally is "a blue spot".  "Fenders" are "shit wings", "power outlet" is a "stick-in box", "Vacuum" is a "dust-sucker".  In some ways, German really does make sense!


A good read about languages (I haven't read it completely myself, only chapters here and there, but it's very interesting!):

Crosslinguistic Influence in Language and Cognition, by Scott Jarvisand Aneta Pavlenko.  You can find a lot of it on Google Books, here.


  1. Haha! I can see that as absolutely true. In fact, I had a problem here finding the right words and always put them together. People caught me oftentimes and gave me the right world. I still can't remember the word for "Hängematte" (online dictionary says it's "hammock") and I'm laughing about words like spatula when we have literally a "pan turn over" (Pfannenwender). It took me also a long time to say "it" for everything. I said "he" about the tree, "it" about the girl, "she" about the cat. It sometimes still happens but I mostly got over it.

    So, that's just my vice-versa experience to support what you said :)
    Take care!

  2. Hammock is correct, trust your dictionary. "Hang Matt" is what happened in Salem in the 1600's when they found out Matthew Burroughs was a witch.

    Pfannenwender is another good example... thanks for your input!

  3. Grammatical gender in English is not affected, it's a holdover from an earlier time. Old English had a system of genders much like modern German does. Over time these genders were mostly lost, but we remember things like ships, countries, etc. as feminine. Another interesting example is Dutch: it used to have three genders, much like German, but it modern Dutch has only two (gendered and neutral). Yet some gendered nouns are specifically remembered as feminine, so pronouns associated with them use the feminine in elegant, grammatically flawless writing.

  4. Hey I found your blog from the afs website I was sort of creeping on. I am also here in Germany with EF and the best one I've heard is when my host-mother kept referring to a woman as working at the "Children's Garden", I always thought it was the name of the place and never thought about it being strange it was English; But one day I realized it was just Kindergarten she translated :)