Wir sollen ein Stadtbummel machen.


It's an oft-made point that the German language contains a lot of really handy words for which there is no ready English equivalent. Part of this comes from the fact that Germans are flexible about creating new compound words by ramming old words together. As a sidenote, my two favorite of those compound words are Krankenschwester (literally "Sick Sister," but actually the German word for nurse) and Bleistiftspitzer (pencil sharpener).

Most of the words English-speakers pine over come from the field of sociology, where the Germans did some pioneering work. Frequently mentioned favorites include Schadenfreude and Schmerzangst. I'd like to add the more commonplace but much more useful Stadtbummel.

Stadtbummel literally translates as "city walk." It's how I spend most of my weekends when I live in a city. The closest English colloquialism would be "walk around the block," but even that doesn't quite capture it. A Stadtbummel is a walking trip with no greater purpose than to be walking in the city. You might have a direction, or some goal, but your primary reason for going out is walking and experiencing the city itself.

I had a chance to make a Stadtbummel today (the grammar gets annoying when trying to plunk Stadtbummel in English sentences, which is why an English equivalent is needed). I had seen a neat advertisement down on East 60th street just off Lexington while wandering around yesterday, and I knew a friend would get a kick out of it. I had a three hour break between classes, so I grabbed my camera and hoofed my way down Broadway to Columbus Circle, then over to Lexington.

En route, I discovered a store that actually sells bulk grains at semi-reasonable prices. It's not Berkeley Bowl, but I'll settle, and they don't require a membership fee or work hours. I think I missed it in my previous gambols down Broadway because the name of the place is "Uptown Whole Foods." The national Whole Foods chain has begun to infiltrate New York, so I must have previously dismissed it as a branch of the upscale high-priced realtor. Uptown Whole Foods is a New York supermarket, which means it's small and somewhat expensive and the selection is poor, but it has quinoa and millet and kasha and organic fruit and it's an easy walk down and a subway ride back.

The whole trip took about 2 1/2 hours; An hour and a half to walk down, half an hour to get lunch and look around the area a bit, and then a half an hour to take the subway home. But the point of the trip was in getting there, not what I was actually doing. I spend a good chunk of my free time on these wanderings, and I wish I had an easy way of telling people how I spent my Sunday without prefacing my remarks with a lecture on the German language.


Great Scott! A chance to be relevant!

I recently stumbled upon this, which you may have read. The sections on "reiste ab" and Tannenwald, if you have not already read it (or if you have and have forgotten), are exquisite.

And I daresay that you could explain how you spent your Sunday without beginning with a German language lecture, but it would make for far less interesting blogging.

True enough.

I hadn't actually read that until you pointed me to it, but I'm quite glad you did. It's the most exquisite explication of everything wrong with German that I have ever read.

I spent three years taking German in high school, on the theory that this would enable me to read Nietzsche and Goethe in their original language. This was a grievous error. You can't learn any language in three years of high school foreign language instruction well enough to read the language's masters, and German least of all.

Now I have a bunch of German anecdotes I want to share, but I shall restrict myself to one. Are you aware that the aphorism "You are what you eat" comes to us from the German language and is, in fact, a pun? Breaking it down, the german word for "you" in this instance, since it refers to a generic, universal "you," is "Man." The "to be" verb, conjugated to the proper form, is "Ist" (ich bin, du bist, er/sie/es ist, wir sind, ihr seit, Sie/sie sind). The verb "to eat" is an irregular verb; The general form is "Essen." Its conjugation, though, is like this: ich esse, du isst, er/sie/es isst, wir essen, ihr esst, Sie/sie essen. Which, when you put it together, means that "You are what you eat" was, in its original German, "Man ist was Man isst."

I may have you beat on the unrealistic language attempts (though not necessarily by much). I decided to teach myself Sanskrit and read the Vedas in it.

Actually, the Vedas were kind of an excuse. There's a line from the Bhagavad-Gita that I want to get as part of a religious/reading-themed tattoo in the original languages of the source materials (the other materials being the Tao Te Ching, the New Testament, and the Quran), and one thing I'm incredibly certain about is that I'm not going to be one of those people who gets a foreign-language tattoo in an unfamiliar language and fucks it up and is stuck with a typo or worse. At the least I have to be able to recognize the letters and know that they're written properly, and ideally I should be able to at least vaguely read the gist of the text.

But that's too complicated to explain on the train when someone asks why in hell you're studying Sanskrit on the way to work.

Oh, crap. This is what I get for being careless. Can you fix my unbold tag please?


You definitely have me beat. I gave up on my German reading ambition after about 6 months, when it became clear that our teacher, Frau Zois, wasn't going to try to make us literate. I can't blame her; she was our school's entire German department, its sole teacher. In a given day she taught two periods of first year German, two periods of second year, and a period of combined third year and AP/fourth year German. Given that the number of students hovered precipitously above the level where German would be cancelled and she'd have to seek other employment, I can understand her desire to hide from the first year students the difficulties of the language.

Unfortunately, this meant teaching us flat-out wrong German. Essentially, we learned German vocabulary and, for the most part, deployed English grammar. Then, in the second and third year, she would suddenly get angry at us for using a phrase we had been using for years, because, unbeknownst to us, it was grammatically incorrect. Then she'd complain that our English teachers hadn't taught us grammar (Obviously they had, but not crazy German grammar). Eventually she gave up and gave everybody Bs, except the German exchange student, who got an A.

It also didn't help that, when she got exasperated, she shouted "Himmel donner wetter nach ein mal!" which she later confessed was gibberish that just sounded threatening. It means "Heaven! Thunder! Weather! One more time!"

What peculiarities does Sanskrit have? I know ancient Hebrew is something of a nightmare. No vowels, no demarcation for words or sentences, just a long string of consonants that you have to break into words and sentences based on context, and then figure out what the vowels are to make the words.

Oh, it's got peculiarities out to here.

The vowels are actually one of the more manageable parts; most of them are added on peripherally like in Hebrew but at least their shapes don't change. The consonants, on the other hand, change like crazy. Any time you have two (or up to four) consonants consecutively they form a new symbol which may or may not be an intuitive combination of the consonants in their individual forms. They just have to be memorized, and they take up 8 pages in my Sanskrit book.

Additionally, it has a combining habit that's a little like what you find in German. According to my book, the compounds tend to take the form of long strings of adjectives which, instead of plainly stating the action taking place in a sentence, may instead describe it. An example that my book gives is a sentence about Krishna, describing him as "sandal-wood-smeared-blue-body-yellow-garment-forest-garland-possessing Krishna", instead of phrasing it as an active sentence saying that "he is wearing forest garlands and a yellow garment, and has his blue body smeared with the paste of sandalwood".

Let's see, what else is fun about it? It has an impossible number of similar letters: there are four Ns, two Ts and two Ds of which each has an additional version with a slight "h" appended to it, and there are 3 Rs of which two are vowels (a long R vowel and a short R vowel).

It's got cases and declensions like Latin, as well as three genders and three numbers for pronouns and verb conjugations (male, female and neuter in single, dual, and multiple).

Now two positives. Well, three. One, it's absolutely beautiful to look at. Two, the same combination of letters will always make the same sound (none of this cough/bough business). Three, one of the first vocabulary lessons in my book involved the verbs "conquer" and "abandon". I was no more than 30 pages into my studies when I was asked to translate "I think of happiness, and see only misery on all sides". Now that's awesome.

Yikes. I think Twain and I may perhaps have oversold the difficulties of German. I don't actually remember it being that bad when I was in the midst of it, but reading that piece made all the annoyances come flooding back (particularly memorizing the gender of different objects).

Of course, I think it's one thing to lay out all the difficulties of a foreign language at once, and quite another to actually study the language. When studying it, you start with very basic material and it gradually gets more complex. So it's one thing to complain of all the cases and tenses in German, but you really don't need to master them simultaneously. You start with the easy stuff, and gradually add complexity. I'm sure the same is true of Sanskrit.

All of which is not to say that some languages aren't more difficult than others, but merely to suggest that the difficulties of learning a language are easy to exaggerate to the layman.

I think my favorite part of the Twain piece was the portion where he discussed the smoothness of the sound of the language. That's something that most people who haven't studied it don't really appreciate; German is just plain fun to speak. I've heard lots of people who've never studied German tell me that German is a rough, angry language, that sounds like the speaker's always growling or shouting at you. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that their only experience with German is Nazis in Indiana Jones movies.

But German isn't gruff and harsh! It can be soothing and lyrical! I cite by way of example one of the few poems which I have memorized, Heinrich Heine's Die Lorelei .

And on the tangential topic of German literature, did you know The Neverending Story, the 80s movie, was based on a novel written in German by Michael Ende?

And if you did know that, did you also know that Berkeley owns an exquisite first edition English translation of it, with ornate illustrations for each chapter and different colored text for the two perspectives (red for Bastian, green for Atreyu)?

Sadly, our copy was left to waste away for years in the bowels of NRLF. I only discovered it while processing it for Interlibrary Loan. It's supposed to be returned by October 8, but since it is interlibrary loan it wouldn't surprise me if it never crosses the Clerk Desk again.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on August 29, 2005 7:06 PM.

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