Archive | November, 2011

„Selbstbefriedigung“ or why that word?

29 Nov

Once upon a time a German girl was standing on a street in front of a bar in a city called Krakow. It was late at night and next to her stood an American with a swatter and a very drunk Irishman. The three of them were laughing loudly and had a lot of fun when all of a sudden the Irishman said the following word in German: “Selbstbefriedigung”.

As a German who gets around a bit I am used to people telling me the German words they know as soon as they learn where I am from. This is always a lot of fun. There are of course the classics like “Alles klar!”, “Guten Tag”, “Du hast” (Thank you, Rammstein), “Wie geht’s” and so on. Occasionally I still get a “Heil Hitler” but usually only when I run into English stag parties. Every once in a while, though, there are some real surprises. Many years ago I met a woman from Belgium who told me her favorite German word was “Fingerspitzengefühl”. This is another one of those words that consist of several parts. The part-by-part translation would be “fingertip-feeling”. The dictionary only offers the rather puny “tact”. I liked this word as well but the way she said it made me really appreciate the beauty of it. She was scrunching up her nose a bit, put on a half smile and was wiggling her fingertips. It was actually really cute.

Another nice moment was the American who did not speak a single word of German but started to recite Nietzsche’s Zarathustra within the first few minutes of meeting me. And then there was the aforementioned Irishman with his “Selbstbefriedigung”. For those of you who haven’t looked it up already, “Selbstbefriedigung” is a rather technical term for masturbation. The exact translation would be self-satisfaction which isn’t that bad, but in German I can’t help but feel that it sounds a little cold.

I just don’t get it. How does this happen? When you only know a couple of words in a certain language, how do you end up knowing exactly that word? What is the story behind it? Who taught him that? Can a reader help me out here?

And while we are on the subject, what are the weirdest words you were confronted with?

“Doch!” or the power of defiance

25 Nov

“Das funktioniert nicht.” “Doch!” – That doesn’t work. Yes it does!

A reader told me the other day that I should write a post about the German word „doch“. I have to admit, to this day I have never even thought about this little, seemingly unimportant word. It used to be just the tiniest piece of plankton in the ocean of words that is my mother tongue. But I have been told that the Russians have adopted it because they don’t have it in their language. Then I thought about possible translations in the languages that I speak. I can’t think of anything in Polish, but that doesn’t say much. My Polish is not as good as I would like it to be.

In English there isn’t a word either that would express the same thing as “doch”. You can sometimes use the word ‘too’. As in: “You don’t dance.” “I do too!” But it is not the same. “Doch” is powerful. It is defiant like a three-year-old stamping the ground and insisting on candy, only less whiny. “Doch!” is positive. It is a slogan strong enough to serve a political movement. And now that I think about it, it kind of has.

In 2008 the Obama campaign coined the extremely successful phrase “Yes, we can!” It was so successful that it was copied by politicians all around the world, the most amusing example probably being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who used the Persian version of the slogan in the 2009 Iran elections that led to a people’s uprising. The spirit of “Yes, we can!” is pretty much exactly the same as that expressed with “doch”.

It stands for determination in the face of obstacles. It is the same determination that has been glorified in countless Hollywood movies. You know which ones, underdog wins in the end. There is another phrase in German that fits this mood: “Jetzt erst recht!” – now more than ever! But I prefer “doch”. One little word, no questions left unanswered.

“Streitgespräch” or how to fight right

22 Nov

Fighting is exhausting, fighting sucks, fighting is important. There is an entire industry teaching people how to fight in the right, constructive, and respectful manner. Said industry calls it ‘conflict management’. But in the end we little human beings more often than not succumb to the urge of behaving like proud, petty children.

Someone recently mentioned to me that hardly anyone is lucky enough to receive a decent fighting education at home from their parents, so most people develop rather destructive strategies. Either they just power through every opposing argument and debate with a force that can be likened to physical violence or they just pretend to be deaf and mute and wait for it to be over. Most people associate fighting with something bad so they try to avoid the open conflict at every cost. One friend of mine said fighting equals wanting to win minus competing. When you put it like that it just comes across like a selfish waste of time. I don’t particularly like fighting either. I am scared of the moment it turns nasty and becomes all about hurting each other and name calling. It takes tremendous effort and constant reflection of one’s own action to become a “good” fighter.

Now while I am writing all this you might have noticed that the English word ‘fight’ can be misunderstood. Am I talking about a verbal exchange of arguments and accusations or an actual fist fight? The answer is, of course, the former. I hate violence. Period. One German word that I particularly like is “Streitgespräch”. It consists of the parts “Streit” – fight, and “Gespräch” – conversation. There is no room for a misunderstanding here because the German word “streiten” only means a verbal fight. For the physical option we have “kämpfen”. But the best thing about “Streitgespräch” is that it is at the same time a name and an instruction; a reminder, if you will. Folks, keep it civil! We are just having a conversation, after all. And it also frees fighting of its bad reputation. A conversation is not inherently negative. It is neutral. How we feel about it depends on the content so there is no need to avoid it right from the start.

So next time, when you start to feel the bad vibes in the room, invite your opponent to a “Streitgespräch”. Make a cup of tea, put out some biscuits and then have at it!

“Ich hab dich lieb” or German as the language of romance

7 Nov

No, that is not a very elaborate typo you see in the headline. I mean it. One of the things that I frequently encounter when outside the German speaking area is people looking at me either with derision or doubt and saying something like this: “German is not a bad language but it is impossible to say something romantic in it.” And then they proceed to demonstrate by saying the phrase “Ich liebe dich” – I love you – in a way that I can only call a Hitler impression. First of all, the words “ich” and “dich” are pronounced softly and secondly, I have never met anyone who talks in staccato all the time. But okay, today I don’t want to talk about the widespread prejudice that we speak like soldiers. I want to talk about romance.

Apart from the pronunciation misconception there is another error at work here. The phrase “Ich liebe dich” is not the best way to express the queen of all emotions; at least that’s my opinion. I recently met someone who phrased it perfectly. He said “Ich liebe dich” is at the same time too common and too radical. Granted, he was talking about Slovenian, but the same thing applies in German. The phrase seems so overused that it has become a cliché. On the other hand I shy away from saying these words. They are radical, too much to bear. Fortunately we have another way of expressing extreme fondness for someone: “Ich hab dich lieb”. This phrase is intimate and private and romantic on so many levels that I don’t know where to start. Its power is not limited to romantic love, though. It can also be said to a friend, your mother or your nephew.

The best thing about it is that it is always personal. While “Ich liebe dich” becomes somewhat of an unimaginative and maybe even boring phrase, “Ich hab dich lieb” will always be understood as coming straight from your heart. In other words “Ich liebe dich” is like giving red roses on Valentine’s Day. Men with no imagination spend a lot of money on red roses because the whole world says they are romantic so they must be. But “Ich hab dich lieb” is the equivalent of surprising me with a bunch of white tulips (my favorite) on a completely inconspicuous Wednesday.

Lucky for my Slovenian friend his language also has this more personal option. “Ich hab dich lieb” in Slovenian is “rad te mam” (for guys) or “rada te mam” (if you are a girl). Don’t say I never teach you anything…