Brutalities and Idiosyncrasies of the German Language

Blog Name: Life in Deutschland
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Location: Berlin Germany
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This blog has been active since: Jan, 2008
Post: Brutalities and Idiosyncrasies of the German Language / May 8, 2008

Brutalities and Idiosyncrasies of the German Language

Dear Readers,
As you know, I have been terribly delinquent in keeping up with my blog entries. (Or as my good friend informed me, I've been a total flake.) I wrote the following entry back in March while I was still living in Berlin and traveling for auditions. I have much more to share, but for the moment, here is...Brutalities and Idiosyncrasies of the German Language.

I love German. Really, I do. My first German language experience was at the age of twelve, when I sang my first German Lied: Schubert’s Heidenröslein. A sweet little text with diminutive words and an elegant lilt. (I’m sure my German was less than elegant, as it was taught to me by the choir teacher at Summer Arts in Tulsa, Oklahoma.) As I continued my vocal studies, I sang the songs of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, and studied the poetry of Goethe, Rilke and Heine. The music was so entrancing, and the poetry exquisite.

So imagine my surprise years later upon learning German grammar and vocabulary, to find that not all of German is beautiful. Some of the loveliest things in life are given the most heinous and graphic of German names. The word "butterfly" is commonly used as a point of comparison for different languages. In French, the word is “Papillon,” a sweet and lovely word even prettier than the English version. In German, however, the word for butterfly is “schmetterling.” Now, that isn’t the prettiest word in the world, but believe me, it gets much worse.

The German language is like the German people: capable of great elegance and beauty, yet sometimes cold, literal, direct, and with hard edges. Take for example, the German word for meat, which is “Fleisch” or literally, “flesh.” Every time I see that word on a menu, it is enough to make me want to become a vegetarian all over again. How about “Zahnfleisch”? As in, brushing your teeth regularly will keep your “Zahnfleisch” healthy. Translated into English, that word means “teeth meat,” or as we prefer to call them in English, “gums.” And downstairs next to my building, is a “Fleischerei,” or a “fleshery.” (I suppose the word “butcher” isn’t so subtle, either, but then, there are many similarities between English and German.)

To this day, I can’t figure out what the word “Spital” means in German. I know what it means in English, and it is revolting. Yet all over German speaking countries, you will see “Kinderspital” or “Spitalstrasse,” “Spitalmarkt,” or “Spitalgasse”. Regardless of what it means in German, it is a nasty looking and sounding word, and for some reason the Germans seem quite proud of it.

But by far, my all time favorite word to love and hate in German is…. ...are you ready???


Yep, you guessed it. And no, I am not kidding.

The translation of Brustwartzen is indeed: “BREASTWARTS!!!!


The Germans have managed to take one of the most beautiful parts of the body and turn it into something horrifying. (And they think the word “nipple” is slang!)

Some words in German are delightfully onomatopoeic, such as the word for chopsticks: “Stabchen” (“little stabbers”) and the word for a head cold, which is “Schnupfen.” I also adore the words “küsse” and “süsse,” which sound just as delicious as they are. And as most of us know, German words can extend on for miles, like the word “Jahreshauptversammlung,” which refers to an annual meeting. With words this long, I have yet to understand how one could play Scrabble in German.

In spite of all these linguistic idiosyncrasies, gross or just plain silly, German manages to redeem itself with lovely words such as “Rosenthalerstrasse,” or “Liebling.” I find these words incredibly satisfying and rich, and for all the ugly words to be found in German, there are far many more beautiful ones.

Which brings me to my love of languages in general. Last week I was in Paris, and within two days I felt like I could understand and communicate in French. Not well, of course, but well enough to experience the difference of what French feels and tastes like, verses English or the German I’ve been learning.

I remember that my graduate school boyfriend, who was both a native German and English speaker, would sound like a completely different person to me in each language. I felt like I was getting a glimpse into a whole different side of him when I heard him speak German, even though at the time I didn’t understand much of it. Someone once told me that you are as many different people as the number of languages you speak. I believe that is true, and perhaps that is part of why learning a new language is so deeply satisfying. In absorbing and reproducing the rhythm, cadence, and color of a new language, we allow different parts of ourselves to rise to the surface and be heard. The experience is an unveiling of a self you didn’t know existed.

Often maddening and always humbling, learning a new language forces you to put your ego aside and start from the ground up, like a child learning something for the first time. You must be willing to sound like a complete idiot for months at a time, and not allow your ego to creep in and prevent you from even trying. When one allows the protective walls of the ego to recede into the background, what comes into the foreground is always a relief. How wonderful to know that the world doesn’t collapse when I speak in a less than brilliant manner, when I make mistakes, when I allow myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. What a relief to know that people generally don’t care if you aren’t perfect. (How silly and egomaniacal to think it could be otherwise!) When those beautiful moments happen, when you realize you just had an entire conversation in German, or you spoke to someone with words you didn’t know you had inside of you, it feels like more than just a linguistic success.

It feels personal, as if you have allowed yourself to expand and briefly break free from the shackles of ego and insecurity. It is the best reward for all the patience and frustration that comes with learning a language, and it comes long before you have achieved full fluency. And so my love for German continues, in spite of my shock at words like “Zahnfleisch” and “Brustwarzen.” As long as I keep learning new words like “Gleichfalls” and “Blumen,” my love affair will continue.

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