Archive | October, 2011

„Darf ich Sie duzen?“ or German intimacy issues

21 Oct

Now here is a tricky question that I hear frequently from German learning foreigners: When do you use „Du“ and when „Sie“? In German we have two forms of addressing people, a formal and an informal one. This in itself is not so unusual. English might not have it but countless other languages do. However, the decision when to use which form seems to be more complicated in German than say for example in Norwegian where the formal form is reserved for the king.

The choice is a difficult one to make even for Germans, and not just because we don’t have a king. There is one rule of thumb that we learn as children. All conversations and relationships (outside of family) start out with “Sie” and then it is the job of the older one to offer the “Du”. Sounds easy, right? Well, and then there are the exceptions. A young waitress in a hip bar will use the informal address for her boss, even though their relationship is purely professional. Two university students meeting at a party for the first time wouldn’t dream of using anything but the informal form. The parents of my childhood friend will forever use the informal form with me while I will always stick to the formal one when talking to them. And I know people who have been doing grammatical gymnastics for years when faced with their in-laws because they are unable to decide which form to use.

In order to make sense of this, it might help to look at it chronologically. Children are always addressed with “Du”. By everyone. In secondary school teachers start using “Sie” for their students from ninth grade on. This is when the messy time starts. Teenagers among each other will always use “Du”, adults will gradually start to use “Sie” if they don’t know them. In the years between age twenty and twenty-five I could slowly feel the balance shift when people asked me for a light or directions on the street. By the time I was 26 everyone, even people my own age, used the formal address with me. That’s when you know you are now officially regarded as an adult by the world. In professional relationships “Sie” is the usual choice unless you work in certain types of areas like the bar or media industry.

Several friends of mine think all this “Sie” and “Du” business is totally unnecessary and would like to do away with it completely. And it is true; the point behind it has something to do with respect but also with keeping your distance. It is things like that which cause other nations to claim the Germans are cold and unwelcoming. The German language provides the opportunity to cement hierarchy and even superiority. The formal address usually keeps the other person at arm’s length. I, however, am a fan. Keeping my formal relationships formal makes my informal ones so much more special. And using the polite form reminds everyone to stay professional and refrain from insults in moments of great frustration. “Sie Arschloch” is just a bit harder to say than “Du Arschloch”.

I once had a job where I had to work for a man who was in every respect a horrible person. Unfortunately, before I realized that, I had agreed to address each other with “Du” and first names. From that point on I cringed every time I heard him call me “Du”. I didn’t want this guy to think we were friends. I wanted to make clear that we were very different people and that I don’t want him close to me in any respect. I kept wondering whether there was any polite way to return to the formal address. Unfortunately there is none. So I guess my personal rule of thumb and advice is this: When in doubt, start with “Sie”, if only because it is much easier and more pleasant to go from formal to informal.

“Spießer” or a deep look into the German soul

16 Oct

“Spießer” is hands down one of my favorite words ever. I absolutely love it because it is so practical and contains so much information. Sometimes I try to describe someone and I can sum all kinds of characteristics up in that one word. It can also serve as a powerful insult, if you ever happen to need one. That’s why it has been bugging me for years that there does not seem to be a translation. Could this be one of those words that just doesn’t exist in English? Is it in the same category as “Schadenfreude” and “Doppelgänger”?

Leo Online Dictionary offers a couple of suggestions:

1. Babbit – Never heard of it. The dictionary also says it is dated. Can a native speaker help me out here? Has this word ever been actually used and if so, what does it mean?

2. bourgeois – Oh please. I know this word but it does not even come close to describing what I mean when I say “Spießer”.

3. middle-class person – Haha. That is rich.

4. petty bourgeois – okay, we are actually getting closer.

5. square – yes. That’s the one. Does not quite nail it but I guess this is as good as it gets. Traditionally most Germans, if asked what they associate with the word “Spießer” (also known as “Spießbürger”) say something like: White picket fences, boring run-of-the-mill house in the suburbs, extremely conservative, narrow-minded and so on. The details might differ but there is consensus about the negative connotation this word has.

What I love about it is how much this word is changing through time. The current meaning of “Spießer” is a symptom of the current Zeitgeist. In my childhood the most boring thing you could do was get said house in the suburbs and have the same furniture (preferably a “Schrankwand”) as the neighbours, wash the car every Saturday and mow the damn lawn every damn Sunday. These days we are a post-dot-com-bubble-burst, post-nine-eleven society and the new “Spießer” is living in one of the fancier parts of Berlin, has a pretty loft, designer furniture and no lawn. His or her 1,7 children have Japanese class in Kindergarden and they live on a diet of soy chai lattes and anything that has been basked with portwine reduction or original balsamico.

When I thought about the changing meanings of the word it occured to me that the thing these people have in common is a narrow horizon. They don’t understand anybody who is not like them, they don’t want to understand them and in the more dangerous cases they discriminate them. So we have arrived at the very general translation: intolerant and narrow-minded person. Once you work with this definition you see them everywhere. Especially those that think of themselves as the opposite of “Spießer” often turn out to be the same in a different color.

The thing about “Spießer” is that it seems so very, truly German to me. Of course, there are narrow-minded people everywhere. But this particular brand can only be found here. And while I, too, consider it a negative word and an insult, I cannot help but have a trace of fondness for the word and the people. These are my people. They are not perfect but like family you cannot choose your country of origin. I deeply disapprove of any kind of intolerance. However, it is a part of reality and while I condemn the thing, the people are still my fellow country men and women and I grew up among them. What can I do? Hope that the majority is harmless…

Welcome or “Don’t be so curious!”

13 Oct

Hello and welcome everybody. This blog is, well, let’s be honest, it is mainly for my very own pleasure. However, if you are fascinated by words and/or if you are learning German the articles that can be found here could be of interest to you.

I like learning languages. I like unlocking their secrets bit by bit. Ordering a beer in a language that isn’t your own is cool. Making a joke is even cooler. I have never been someone who likes translating though, because it is a tedious work and all too often you come across words that cannot be directly translated. The dictionary might give you an answer but I often feel that the word does not completely have the same connotations in both languages. Words can be so much more than just the name for a thing or a concept. They contain information about the history and culture of a people. They carry in them the key to understand the mentality of a group of individuals who are connected by the common language they speak. This complexity makes learning another language fascinating and exciting, and it makes translating a frustrating job at times. Let’s look at an example: “Neugier”.

The German word “Neugier” is translated as “curiosity”. In German we have this wonderful thing that we can just put any two words together and make it into a new one. Such is the case here. The word can be split into the two parts “neu”, meaning new, and “Gier”, meaning greed. Now isn’t this wonderful? In German you are not merely curious, you are greedy for something new. You want to know it, you have to know whatever it is that you don’t know yet. This also explains why as a kid I always thought it had a slight negative connotation. I frequently heard the phrase: “Sei nicht so neugierig!” – “Don’t be so curious.” Okay, I admit I was a smart ass kid and often stuck my nose where it didn’t belong. Still, “Neugier” was associated with such nasty habits as gossiping. The English equivalent of “neugierig” in this case would be “nosy”. And there we go. Apparently the German word “Neugier” has two possible translations; depending on the context it can either mean “curiosity” or “nosiness”.

These days I am all grown up and think that “Neugier” is a virtue in every part of life. And it is virtually impossible to learn a new language without being “neugierig”, no matter how you translate it.