Puzzler

Des has some news.

I see him after Dortmund’s home match against Cologne. The hosts hit five without reply in a raging storm of a game played under angry black September clouds. As the final whistle blows and the heavens open the visitors run for the dressing room.

I met Des for the first time after the corresponding fixture last season. He’s lived all his life in Sheffield but has been coming here for matches for longer than I have. Like me, his first encounter with Germany was a chance one — he travelled over with some friends back in the 1990s and he’s been coming back regularly ever since.

That’s commitment — but for Des it’s not quite enough. He has decided to take the project a stage further and has enrolled at a local night school.  As of October, he will be learning German.

“I can do a bit” he says “hello and goodbye and ordering beer and the like. But I want to put it all together. It’s embarrassing how well they all speak English. Maybe in fifteen years I’ll be able to speak German like you do”.

As I tend to string together endless chains of clauses and subclauses only to forget what I was trying to say I wouldn’t recommend speaking German like I do. Otherwise though,  the idea is a good one.

I tell Des this, and also that it will save him a fortune in snuff tobacco and Magnet ale: What’s going to happen next will blow his mind.

It’s often said that German is a difficult language but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. What is true is that it has a very unusual learning curve.

As an English speaker from northern England, Des possesses certain natural advantages which a French or Japanese person does not.

For a start, he will master the pronunciation within a matter of seconds. The northern English have a natural advantage over those born north of the Tweed or south of the Humber — or anywhere else in the world for that matter — that saves hours of contorting one’s mouth in the mirror.

The German word Bus is pronounced as it would be in Rotherham and Stockport and not “bass” as it would be in London or Sydney. Boot, the German word for a method of sea transportation, is pronounced “boat” as it would be in Yorkshire. If spoken correctly, it should sound exactly like “bought”.

Pass, the word for a passport, a pass on a football field, or a pass in a quiz show; should sound rhyme with “mass”. If it rhymes with “cars” then you need to spend more time in the mirror and less time listening to Stephen Fry.

The playing field is more level when it comes to vocabulary but English speakers have a foot up over most. Only Dutch and the Scandinavian languages are closer to German than English is.

Around half of the basic vocabulary in English derives from the same root as German so that as a Brit or American you can, for example, roll your way up the human body without significant difficulty: Fingernagel, Finger, Hand, Arm, Ellenbogen, Schulter, Brust.

Other words might require more imagination but you only need to hear them once to master them. Take the word for “wrist” for example: Handgelenk. “Hand-link” sounds logical enough and so you can probably deduce pretty quickly what Fußgelenk means.

The verb “to write” is schreiben and, as you probably know what a scribe is, you will doubtless have no difficulty in translating the following sentence:

Ich schreibe ein Buch.

As you probably know the phrase “guten Tag” you can probably also translate this sentence:

Ich schreibe ein Tagebuch.

“I’m writing a diary” or “I write a diary”.  In German you also don’t need to specify if you’re doing something now or if you do it regularly.

As an English speaker, the magic of learning German comes in how sentences open up. Once you have part of the puzzle, other parts start to appear around it. Like everything else to do with Germany the language is strange and yet familiar.

As to why German is perceived as difficult, well this is where the mindblowing part comes in.

As an English speaker, the delight experienced at German’s familiarity wears off by the end of the third chapter. On their own, the words are not difficult. The problem comes when you start adding articles.

All nouns come in one of three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter so that there are (at least) three renderings of the word “the”.

Der Rock (masculine) — the skirt.

Die Granate (feminine) — the hand grenade.

Das Mädchen (neuter) — the girl.

I can offer logical explanations as to why hand grenades are feminine and girls are neuter but that’s a story for another day.

Confusingly, while you still need to bear in mind whether a word is masculine or feminine when it is expressed in as an indefinite article “a”, there are only two forms.

Ein Büstenhalter (masculine) — a bra.

Eine Hode (feminine) — a testicle.

Ein Geschlecht (neuter) — a gender.

Testicles can also be masculine by the way. Often words have two genders because Germans are not sure themselves. That, however, is not the mindblowing bit.

A couple of weeks ago I was passing a classroom the when I saw our example sentence written on a flipchart:

Ich schreibe ein Buch.

It must have been for a class of refugees; there were about half a dozen people sitting and one standing. I knew exactly which sentence was going to come next.

You now know how to say “I write a book” of course so we’ll move on to the next stage: how to say “I write a letter”.

On the face of it this should present no problem. The word for “letter” is Brief. You know what a briefcase is so it’s not hard to make the connection. Brief is masculine so “a letter” is ein Brief. Logically then, the translation should read:

Ich schreibe ein Brief

It does no such thing. In actual fact what you have to say is:

Ich schreibe einen Brief

The –en is the standard introduction to the accusative case — and a whole world of hurt.

It’s only the masculine words that you have to change, and only in specific circumstances. Here it’s because the letter is the direct object, the thing being sent. Other uses include to denote motion towards something and after a list of prepositions selected seemingly at random. Other words change too, most notably the word Du, meaning “you”.

To someone learning German for the first time there now follows a period of frustration, bewilderment, red pen across exercise books and the feeling that the Germans have come up with this as some perverted revenge for Geoff Hurst’s second goal at Wembley in 1966.

There are other sets of changes to be made. Hot on the heels of the accusative case comes the dative case. Like the accusative, it involves changing articles and pronouns like Du in certain cases, most notably to accommodate another list of randomly selected prepositions, to denote static position and to signify an indirect object.

An indirect object is usually a bystander, an accessory or a recipient. In English grammar we completely ignore this for the most part so that we make no distinction between “I send you a letter” and “I send you home”.

The meaning is not quite to same. I send a letter to you but I send you home. In German the distinction is made clearly:

Ich schicke Dir einen Brief takes the dative whereas:

Ich schicke Dich nach Hause is rendered in the accusative.

If Des gets it wrong his teacher will box his ears.

German is often precise in ways which English is not. We do have an accusative and dative in English; that’s why it’s “who cares?” but “to whom it may concern”– but you can survive for years without using them or even knowing that they’re there. In German you can’t put a sentence together without them.

Perseverance is the key. Eventually it will make sense. After a while the penny drops and you’re ready to master the genitive…

On the plus side, many Germans have lived on this planet for several decades and have not got this far. One advantage of German’s complexity is that native speakers also struggle. A never-ending spiral to an unreachable goal the German language is, particularly when it comes to word order. Therein lies the fascination; perfection is impossible.

As a Sheffield Wednesday fan, Des knows how important it is to never stop believing. He also knows what it’s like to nervously consult tables, something which many Germans still do when it comes to the various noun and adjective endings which have to change to fit the various cases.

Will Germans understand you if you get it wrong? Yes of course they will. Like most speakers of other languages they appreciate the effort and are keen to help. They are usually happy to explain, right up until they realise that they don’t know why it’s like that themselves.

Like Des, I sometimes sit in an evening class and try to learn a few words of a new language for my holidays. Having gone through the torture of French and German I started trying to learn what used to be called Serbo-Croatian. German is a piece of cake by comparison.

The first sentence is easy. Zovem se Brian: “I’m Brian”. They know it’s easy and so for sentence two they pitch you a curve ball.

Ja sam iz Glasgowa.

“I am from Glasgow”. The extra ‘a’ at the end of Glasgow signifies that you are now using the genitive. This allows them to pummel you with case endings for the next few lessons until you’re fit enough for sentence three:

Ja živim u Hernu.

“I live in Herne”. This is the locative case, a new one on me and one which meant that for the next few hours I got a serious overdose. There are still four more cases to go.

Each case comes with a big long list of changes to make and the warning from the teacher that “if you don’t get them right then they won’t understand you”.

I decided to ignore that piece of advice, just to be daring. I’ve said “ja sam iz Glasgow” without the extra ‘a’ in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo in the past few years and they understand me just fine.

I hope they do anyway. Next week I’ll be in Serbia so we’ll find out. I’ll let you know what they think.

 

6 thoughts on “Puzzler

  1. “Ja sam iz Glasgow” is not a million miles from “Ah`m frae Glesga” (which is Glaswegian for “I`m from Glasgow”. Try it in Belgrade when you`re there.

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