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“Anerkennen” or is seeing really believing?

4 Feb


The other day I received a request on Twitter to explain the difference between the German verbs “erkennen” and “anerkennen”. At first I thought: that’s easy. “Erkennen” means to recognize and “anerkennen” means to recog…wait a second! Look at that. I never noticed that there is only one word in English for two entirely different things.

Okay, so to break it down, “erkennen” means ‘to make something out’. Me for examle, I am near sighted. Last summer I lost my glasses while partying too wild at a wedding and I had to wait two weeks to get new ones. In those two weeks I had trouble to read signs or recognize people on the street. Recognize as in “erkennen”.
Anerkennen is to recognize as in ‘to accept’. As a teenager I spent some time wishing my brother would accept that I know stuff, too. I wished he would recognize my knowledge and opinions. Recognize as in „anerkennen“.

Maybe the somewhat wobbly ‚donkey-bridge’ (ahem, mnemonic device, obviously) to help you remember the difference could be to think of the phrase ‘seeing is believing’. I can see the face of my teacher (erkennen) but I can’t believe he is supposed to be smarter than me (seine Intelligenz anerkennen). The tricky thing in spotting the verb in a sentence is the German habit of splitting up verbs. So the sentence might look like this: “Ich erkenne Ihre Autorität nicht an.” Look to the very end of the sentence, if you find an “an” there, it is “anerkennen” and not “erkennen”.

Oh and one more thing. The problem of having only one word for two things is not exclusive to the English language. In German for example we don’t distinguish between heaven and sky. Strange, right?

tweet tweet tweeeeeeeeeet

12 May

Just a quick announcement:

I am now on Twitter. You can follow me @EllenAura where I will post every new article and maybe other stuff, too.


“handhaben” or handle foreign words with care

21 Apr

First off, let me say something about Anglicisms. I don’t mind them. Language is a dynamic thing that changes naturally over time. In this globalized world it is a given that we adopt words from other languages, most likely English, since it is everywhere. Having said that, there is a word that is becoming more and more popular with Germans and it makes me cringe every time I hear it. It somehow doesn’t sound right and it bugs me that people use it when we have a lovely German word that would totally do. I am talking about “handhaben” – to handle.

It is not a sexy word, I know. It is kind of like a kitchen pot; not something you would put on display but without it you couldn’t make soup and that sucks. I like soup.

On closer inspection “handhaben” is actually kind of pretty. Let’s say, it is like the one pot in your kitchen that you got from your mom when you first moved out and it has that funky orange color that was so hip in the 70s. The word can be loosely translated as ‘to have a hand’. I get that people are confused by it. It has a somewhat unusual shape for a German verb but it isn’t anything German grammar couldn’t handle (haha).

Now, in recent years Germans have started to say phrases like this one: “Das kann man dann auch viel besser händeln” or “Ich weiß nicht, wie ich das händeln soll“. Seriously, it weirds me out. For one thing, I just realized that I have no idea how to spell the Germanized version of it. I did it phonetically in this case. It sounds ugly to my ears and there is one more reason why we should abstain from The Fancy English word in this case: It is very easy to confuse it with another essential German verb: “handeln” – to act.

In the end we have incidents like a (then) famous German girl band performing at some benefit (think Live Aid only less cool) and calling out to the audience: “Handle with care”. What they wanted to say was ‘act with care’ or rather ‘act responsibly’ and we go for the full circle here when I will now tell you how to say that in perfectly beautiful German language: “Handle mit Umsicht!”.

„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.