Having lived in this fine country for over a month now, and having struggled through many an awkward and grammatically incorrect conversation, I feel as if I am now well equipped to comment (and rant) about the annoyances and incomprehensibility of the German language.
1. Who are you?
In English the personal pronoun ‘you’ is a glorious all encompassing word which gathers up the entirety of anybody who is not yourself, and smothers them all in its large and welcoming arms. In German, however, there are about fifteen million ways to address somebody in the second person, dependent upon if they are singular or plural, and if you know or don’t know them. The worst part of this system is just how easy it is to offend somebody with your misuse of a certain ‘you’, which brings us onto…
2. Du vs. Sie
Du is informal and is used when talking to somebody you know well. Sie is formal and is used talking to people you don’t know (very well). I know this much. The problem, however, is what about people you know sort of well? What about the family of your host family? What about the endless pitfalls and problems that this second person pronoun tries to trick you into. I have been told that Germans too struggle with this distinction, but it doesn’t make it any easier for a poor English girl trying not to offend the entirety of the German population by being either over-friendly or over-formal with everybody she meets.
3. Oh man
Talking about personal pronouns, what’s with this man that everybody seems to use? It equates to the English ‘one’ which, of course, we would never use in real life unless one was the Queen. And yet in German people use man interchangeably with du and ich: “man darf das nicht machen” instead of “du darfst das nicht machen” (You are not allowed to do that). This is very confusing for my poor brain, not least because it requires entirely different verb endings.
4. Arrrre you kidding?
I cannot roll my rrrrs. I never have been able to. Unfortunately, the German language requires a certain amount of tongue rolling, namely every word with a ‘r’ in it. This has led to extreme measures, including me trying to avoid any word ever with a ‘r’ in it, just so I don’t sound so stupid. Es ist rrrrrosa? Nein, es ist lila. (Phew.)
The beauty of learning and experiencing a new language is discovering words untranslatable into your own language. Fancy how I felt when I found out that the German ‘doch’ used so often in conversation can mean yes in agreement, but in disagreement, and placed into sentences for emphasis. Doch, doch, doch. So much fun. The same goes for aber and gar and all these other tiny German words I like to just randomly insert into sentences and hope it makes sense.
6. Can you please tell me the verb now?
Germans construct their sentences in interesting and different ways. In simple sentences, the verb is always second idea after the pronoun: “Ich spiele”, “Er arbeitet”, usw. Yet when there is more than one verb in a sentence, things get a little tricky. Verbs get sent all over the place – to the beginning, to the end – and it is your job when speaking in conversation, to firstly try and remember where each verb should go, and secondly not forget what you were talking about in the first place. I’m a sucker for forgetting my verb at the end after a long and detailed sentence, preferring instead simply to trail off and leave the sentence meaningless without its crucial verb heart. Whoops. I cannot tell you how much everyday I am trying to-
7. The sun does not shine. It shines.
Leuchten = to shine. I learnt this verb and then, feeling proud of my new-found knowledge, tried to employ it in a sentence. “Die Sonne leuchtet” I declared proudly, to the baffled faces of those around me. “No,” they clarified after a moment. “The sun doesn’t leuchtet, that is for die Lampe and die Ampelmann. Die Sonne scheint. Die Sonne lacht (laughs). The sun does not leuchtet.”
Similarly, I heard the verb abholen used in conversation, to pick up, and decided to use it myself the next time one of the children dropped something on the floor. “Kannst du das bitte abholen?” I asked nicely. Can you please pick that up? “Nooo,” they said. “You can’t abholen something off the floor, that’s for people only. It’s “Kannst du das bitte aufheben.” I give up. I really do.
I could go on. And I expect I will do another time. Simultaneously one of the best and the worst thing about finally living a language after learning it for ten years, is that you are always discovering just how different it can be from the dry text book pages. I always knew that it was important to live in a country to speak their language fluently and I can see now just how right I was to come here and learn the language from native speakers in their native country. It’s difficult and exasperating at times, but it’s also so much fun and so rewarding to be able to communicate in an entirely different language. I’ve got a lot to learn but I’m definitely in the right place to do it.
Tschüss! Bis nächstes mal.