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The awful German language

I'm really not sure what to say about this.

I'm really not sure what to say about this.

Although it sounds completely daft to say this, I am completely in love with the German language. “Really?” Germans ask when I tell them this. “It’s such a crap language. It sounds like a garbage disposal choking on a fork.” We compare the words for “butterfly” in several languages. In Spanish “mariposa.” In French “papillon.” Beautiful words that evoke the delicacy and grace of their subject. In German? “Schmetterling!” In terms of words sounding like the things they describe, “schmetterling” should really be applied to some kind of automatic weapon. As in “Hordes of enemy troops were streaming toward his machine gun nest, but his Schmetterling had jammed, and there was nothing he could do.”
But this is exactly what I love about the language. Even when I’m asking for directions I sound like a total badass. “Auf recht? Oder linkes?” Gott im Himmel it’s awesome. If you grew up, as I did, watching a lot of Star Trek and perhaps even going so far as running out and BUYING the Klingon/English dictionary when they got around to writing one, you were perhaps a little disappointed knowing that all your hard work learning “To be or not to be” in Klingon would never have any practical applications in the real world (“taH pagh taHbe’. DaH mu’tlheghvam vIqelnIS” for those of you that are curious, and psychotic). Yeah, try picking up a girl by impressing her with your mastery of Klingon. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
(By the way, if this actually WORKS for anyone…run. She’s either A) a dude B) doesn’t shave her armpit hair because doing so would be a form of “body defilement not in keeping with the ideals of Starfleet or C) a gorgeous nymphomaniac who happens to love science fiction. Oh yeah, C) is a figment of your fucking imagination.)
But with German, you get the next best thing. German is the real-world equivalent to Klingon: a language so martial, harsh, and throat-scratching that absolutely NO ONE WILL WANT TO FUCK WITH YOU if you pronounce it correctly. I’ve given myself laryngitis twice trying to perfect my accent.
As an added benefit to English speakers, all the words are basically the same. I ask the pretty lady at the coffee shop how I would ask for a coffee for here, rather than to go. “Fur hiere” she says. After a few days, I stop asking people for the German translation of words, and instead just start speaking English while channelling my best Arnold Schwarznegger. Everyone seems to understand me perfectly, and in my newly acquired cravat, out-of-towners start coming up to me in the subway for directions. Mark Twain called it the ‘awful German language,’ but with apologies to the master, I like it just fine.
I have the rather surreal experience of catching a Spanish jazz singer at A-Trane one night, the premier jazz club in Berlin (Laura Lopez Castro, check her out). I can kind of understand the Spanish in her songs, but she addresses the crowd in flawless, impressive German. The two girls I’ve been chatting with all night have to translate “she just asked if anyone here understands Spanish.” I’m about to raise my hand when she’s already launched into the next song.
In addition to having an absurdly easy yet badass-sounding language, Berlin is an easy-going town that’s simple to navigate yet full of dichotomies. It has a street named after Karl Marx. And another named after John Foster Dulles. There is an entire museum devoted to John F. Kennedy near the Brandenburg Gate, with a gigantic picture of Barack Obama. I’ve seen stormtroopers on Unter der Linden. Not Nazi stormtroopers but, well, guys dressed up as Star Wars stormtroopers. As a city, it has instincts both collective and individualistic. This is expressed in a funky, idiosyncratic dress code in which everyone strives to be as different as possible from everyone else. This is a place where street musicians still can make a living, where artists use the remains of the Berlin Wall as their easels. But its also a place where the locals won’t dream of crossing against a traffic light, no matter how empty the street is. A place where there is little controversy about attacking climate change through stringent laws limiting energy use and emissions. She was divided in two for over forty years, and now that she’s whole again she hardly knows what to do with herself. It feels like a trial separation that no one really wanted is finally over, and now the makeup sex is really getting into high gear. Squatters have taken over the East, artists claim what’s left of the Wall, the Red Light District consists of the entire city and the cyclists claim whatever’s left. You can rent an apartment in the heart of the city for 350 euros a night, buy an excellent Turkish kebap, but good luck getting a residence permit. It is in turns both confounding and delightful.
If people want to see where the new and innovative is being born, let them come to Berlin. If they want to see the bleeding edge of jazz, hip hop and cabaret, let them come to Berlin. If they want to live as poor Bohemians among the Bohemians, to live surrounded by a music and a language that is not their own, let them come to Berlin.
And so I take great pride in saying: I am a doughnut.

  1. CD
    August 5, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Yeah ah, I think both of us were guilty of purchasing the Klingon Dictionary in middle school.

    • nycwastrel
      August 5, 2009 at 11:44 pm

      Who could forget that magical bus ride to Washington? No heat, sub-freezing temperatures, and two dorks memorizing a made up language…

  2. Juan
    August 5, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    So it’s true! It’s 70% how you look (cravat), 20% how you sound (arnold), and 10% what you say.

    mmm….ein berliner…..

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