Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Considering how much everybody raves about Germans, it's a shock to discover they're actually pretty fucked up. The trains are always late, the whole country lives on sausage, and there are drunks on just about every horizontal surface here.

Particularly irritating, though, is just how messed up the language is.

Now, there's a correct way and an incorrect way to order words, with no subjectivity about it. You put the important words towards the front of a sentence and the unimportant words later on. The English language is pretty good at this. For example, here's a common English sentence that you frequently hear:

I want to strangle you in the park with a fluffy blanket on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

This is an example of a good word order. The important stuff is up front. Somebody expressing this sentiment says the word "strangle" pretty early on, which gives you time to process his sentiments and start running. If you're anything like me, you're frantically trying to disappear into a passing crowd by the time they get around to the weather.

But here's the German translation (and feel free to pass it through Google translate if you don't believe me):

Ich möchte dich im Park mit einer flauschigen Decke an einem sonnigen Sonntagnachmittag erwürgen.

Let's go over that word for word. I, want, you, in the, park, with a, fluffy, blanket, on, a, sunny, Sunday afternoon --

Weird, right? We're already talking about fabrics and sunshine and everything is sounding swell when an alarm should have been raised by now. Remember, if this guy was speaking English about fifteen minutes ago you'd have found a hiding place under somebody's skirt. Instead, he's speaking German so all the way up to the bitter end you're picturing the sun on your face and wondering which outfit of yours is particularly picnic-appropriate. You may even be flirting: rubbing his hairy forearm and tossing your hair back, daydreaming about what a handsome couple you'll make. Let's see, you think: I'll bring potato salad, dill pickles, toothpaste, and a jar of lube. But wait: here comes the verb.

strangle.

Strangle. Okay. One second: I was expecting "kiss," "caress," or "make love." To be honest, I wasn't expecting any variation on the word "choke."

The reality hits you in stages. "Okay, buddy," comes your first thought. "I am definitely not bringing pickles."

Then the realization of your stupidity whacks you. You were actually picturing having children with this guy. And while you're trying to figure out where you went so terribly wrong, the guy's made a noose out of his shoelace. He's lunging at you while you're still processing thoughts about the picnic. In your last mental picture, you see your gravestone: "HE WAS STILL THINKING ABOUT POTATO SALAD AT THE END."

It doesn't help that all of this comes at you with a horrifying accent. With every syllable there's so much baggage involved. If a guy is French, everything sounds sexy. If a guy is British, everything sounds proper. But when a guy is German everything sounds like a threat.

Imagine all the words that your boy- or girlfriend says to you, but coming at you in Hitler's voice. If Jacques says to you, "Who's got a cute foot?" you giggle and say, "I do!" But if Dieter says the same thing your natural inclination is to say, "I DON'T KNOW SIR BUT I WILL FIND OUT AND I WILL FETCH THEM FOR YOU!"

I spent the first months of our relationship on edge, because everything Heinrich said made me defensive. If your grandma asks, "Did you do the dishes?" there wouldn't be any unease. It would sound almost sweet, since this is the lady who frequently asks, "Who wants cookies?" You say no, you didn't do the dishes, and she'll say, "Okay, I'll do them. Now do you want a Maple Bar or an Oatmeal Spunky?"

When the words are shot at you with a German accent, though, your body reacts even faster than your brain. You freeze up, and shout the first thing that comes to your mind. "I SWEAR I DIDN'T TOUCH THEM!" you scream.

Slowly you realize it was a question, not an attack. Your boyfriend looks at you like you're crazy. "Then I will do them," he says as he walks away.

Aside from the accent, the words can be a problem. We actually argued for two hours about ice. At least, I thought it was about ice, because I was using the word "ice." However, he thought I was using the word eis, which means "ice cream." Which explains why he stared at me like I was crazy when I said that I liked a whole bunch of it in my gin and tonic, that I always had a ten-pound bag of it in my fridge, and that I used to go outside and slide around on it when I was a kid.

We're at a Berlin drug store when I notice pickle cream. "What's this for?" I ask him.

"Pickles," he says. "It's for pickles."

"I know that," I said. "But, like the dill-cucumber things?"

He laughs and points to my face. "No," he says, "you know. These little bump things."

"Pimples," I correct, and I laugh until the thought hits me: Wait, did he just point at MY face?

After that I Google for other problematic words. There are a lot: kittchen means "prison," mist means "manure," and fahrt means "journey." I mentally invent sentences to avoid, like "I love spending time in the kittchen" and "My favorite thing about the British countryside is feeling the thick mist on my face."

I'm not convinced that fahrt would cause any confusion. I could have said to any of my boyfriends, "You enjoy a good fahrt now and then, don't you?" and the answer would have been yes either way.

I can't predict the problem we'll have with the word "eventually." Heinrich lives in Berlin and I live in New York and we're getting tired of flying back and forth. Finally on the telephone we confront the situation.

"We'll figure it out eventually," I say, and the line goes silent on his end.

"Are we breaking up?" he finally asks. "Are you dumping me?"

"No," I say. "I mean, we'll figure it out eventually. Like, some time, hopefully soon."

"Oh," he says with audible relief. "In German the word eventuell means 'possibly.' Usually never. It's what you say when you don't have the nerve to tell the truth."

"That's not what I meant," I say, but from the other end I still hear trembling. "Don't worry; we'll work it out. We'll figure out something at some point, and everything will be okay."

"Really?" he says, and I assure him that it's true.

"You have to know," he says, "if it ever sounds like I am being mean to you, it's not me. It's a problem with the words. I would never ever say anything mean to you, because I love you with all my heart. You will tell me if it sounds like I am being mean to you. You will promise?"

"I promise," I say, tears welling up in my eyes.

"I promise too," he says, his German accent disappearing in the softness. "But now it's very late for me and I have to go to bed."

"Good night, honey," I say.

"Good night, sweaty," he replies.

1 comment:

Yet Another Steve said...

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