What’s all the flap about?

Yesterday I learned that the expression “to have blinders or blinkers on” can also be used in German – Scheuklappen aufhaben or Scheuklappen tragen or mit Scheuklappen herumlaufen – when one wants to describe someone as rather close-minded. According to an entry on http://www.redensarten-index.de/ the word has been used in this figurative manner since at least 1512 (albeit with older word Scheuleder).

The word die Scheuklappe is a combination of scheu – “timid,” or “skittish,” in the case of horses – and the “flap” meaning of die KlappeScheu is also found in the expression die Gäule scheu machen – “to upset the applecart.” The word die Klappe appears in the expression zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen – “to kill two birds with one stone.” Die Klappe is also part of the expression Halt die Klappe! – “shut your trap/gob” – which one might be tempted to shout at someone wearing those Scheuklappen.

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Bob the Bilder?

As I walked past a toy shop today and noticed a sign for Bob der Baumeister, who is called Bob the Builder in English. Now the English word “builder” /ˈbɪldəʳ  US,ˈbɪldɚ UK/ and the German word die Bilder /ˈbɪldɐ/ (“the pictures”) are pronounced and spelled similarly. Therefore to my ears the phrase die Bilder des Baumeisters – “the pictures of the builder” – sounds humorous.

In English we can say that someone has “built up a picture” of someone or something to mean that they have developed an impression or idea about this person or thing. While I couldn’t find a definitive answer, I believe that one could use the verb aufbauen to express this same notion in German as PONS includes examples of using this word when describing building up a new relationship, a new life, one’s stamina or strength. What I can definitively say, however, is that learning German has helped me to build all four of these things.


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Nee-ther, nigh-ther

This bit of doggerel on a subway car poster had me pondering how linguistic differences might reflect cultural differences:

Wer am Handy Reden hält, bekommt weder Applaus noch Geld.

What intrigued me was not whether talking on the phone on public transportation would get you applause or money – I am pretty sure that the English and German speaking worlds are in agreement on this – but rather that the shorter word weder means “neither” and the longer word entweder means “either.” In spite of the fact that in terms of frequency (as measured by dict.cc entries) entweder is more common and canoo.net assures me that both words cannot be broken down any further, I still cannot help but see weder inside entweder and wonder if that makes the basic notion “neither” the primary one in German. Could this perhaps translate into a more pessimistic cultural outlook? One where people are more worried about what is not allowed, not done or not said? Where the response to “How are you?”/Wie geht’s? is  frequently “not bad”/nicht schlecht instead of “good”/gut?


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Why you need to learn the local language I

There are lots of things you can manage when you can speak with the locals in their own language. The ones that you hear about are things like ordering food and drink, securing a bed for the night, or getting directions and the correct ticket to get you to your destination. What I’d like to explore is some of the things that the phrase books don’t discuss. So, here’s an example from a couple weeks ago.

You are walking down the street on your way to the bus stop. A man and a boy, they are probably father and son, approach you. The son is carrying a notebook. He tells you he is doing a school project where he needs to find out what people know about birds flying south (or I suppose north if we had been in the Southern Hemisphere) for the winter. You are expected to guess how far birds fly to get to their winter homes. The father tries to help you make your estimate by suggesting that they likely fly to another continent. They both are looking at you expectantly.

If you speak their language, you can enjoy this interaction, if you don’t, perhaps you make a young boy’s day a little tougher since he now has to get up to gumption to ask another person about birds’ habits. As it turned out, my German was sufficient to allow me to share my thoughts about birds’ winter habits and receive a smile from father and son both.

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Upstairs, downstairs

I needed to use the words “upstairs” and “downstairs” – treppauf and treppab – today and I realized that the morpheme »ab« was confounding me as I tried to learn which form was which. The verb with »ab« as a prefix that I use most often is abholen– “to pick up something or somebody” and so »ab« has become associated with “up” in my mind. Learning that treppab means “downstairs” made it crystal clear that this association was not a helpful one from which to generalize. A search turned up a discussion of separable verbs and the most common meanings of the separable prefixes. »Ab«, according to this page at Dartmouth “usually…carries the notion of ‘away from.'” On the list was another »ab« prefixed word that I use with some regularity: ablenken. One of its primary meanings is “to distract” with the sense of “taking someone’s attention ‘away from’ something.” This should work long enough to help me master up- and downstairs and to discourage me relying on abholen to derive the meaning of »ab« when added to another word. Let’s hope it’s not enough distract me into thinking that abstimmen means “to vote down” something – that’s niederstimmen – or to make me want to niederbrennen – `’burn down” – or niederreißen – “tear down” – anything.

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Zu Tränen gerührt sein?

Es gibt eine Konkurrenz zwischen zwei Regeln in meinem Kopf:
• die Präpositionen, die den Akkusativ regieren, wenn man etwas oder sich selbst in Bewegung setzt und
• die Präpositionen, die den Dativ regieren, und in einem Zusammenhang mit Bewegung häufig zu finden sind

Zum Beispiel muss man sagen »Ich fliege nach den Staaten« und »Ich gehe zum Arzt« und nicht »Ich fliege nach *die Staaten« und »Ich gehe zu *den Arzt,« obwohl »fliegen« und »gehen« bestimmt Bewegungen sind.

Weil ich jetzt für diese Konkurrenz besseres Verständnis habe, stoße ich vielleicht nicht so oft auf diesen Stolperstein.


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I, E, I, E, Oh!

Have you ever had a sense of panic that you might have been mispronouncing something for years and no one ever told you? I had such a moment recently when I was reviewing the variety of ways you can form plural nouns in German. There is a subcategory of words that end in »e« (or unstressed »el« or »er«) where there is no need to add an extra »e« when forming their plural forms. Two examples from this list that I use regularly are die Energie and die Familie. When seeing them together on the list of words that cannoo.net refers to as e-Tilgung bei Endung -en (“e-deletion triggered by an -en ending”), I was suddenly thrown into doubt about how their final syllables – »gie« and »lie« – were pronounced.

What’s additionally challenging about this is that one of the first mnemonics you are given for German pronunciation is that with the »ie« and »ei« combinations you pronounce them by saying the name of the second letter of the combo in the ENGLISH alphabet. Therefore »ie« is pronounced like the letter “E” and »ei« is pronounced like the letter “I.”

With doubt sometimes come enlightenment, however. In this case, I discovered that there is a pronunciation rule that governs final »ie« in German (you can read about it and listen to some examples here: http://joycep.myweb.port.ac.uk/pronounce/vowelie.html). In a nutshell, because the stress in Energie falls on the final syllable [enɛrˈgi:], the »ie« is pronounced as you would expect, namely a “long e” [i:] sound as in the English word “bee.” On the other hand, because the stress falls on the second syllable in  Familie [faˈmi:lə] (i.e., the final syllable is unstressed), the »ie« is pronounced [ə] similarly to the final syllable of the North American pronunciation of the English word “cafeteria” [kæfəˈtɪriə].

What is fabulous about learning this pronunciation rule is that I can now purchase parsley – die Petersilie – at the Isemarkt with a confident [ə] on the end! The only other question is then glatt oder kraus.

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Liebe auf den zigsten Blick?

Letzter Donnerstag beschrieb ich, wie ich PONS den Laufpass gab. Aber dieser Donnerstag bin ich mich mal wieder verliebe, weil ich ihres »Deutsche Grammatik & Rechtschreibung« fand. Mein Vertrauen in PONS wiederherstellte, hätte ich nun die Energie, um einen Beschwerdebrief über »Grammatik in Bildern« zu schreiben. Bleiben Sie dran!



Noch ein paar Beispiele von diesem schrecklichen PONS Bilderbuch:

Es gibt nur »Die Ableitungen mit trennbaren Präfixen« (S. 140) und »Die Ableitungen mit trennbaren Präfixen« (S. 142-143). Keine von den, dass trennbar und untrennbar sein, nämlich (laut canoo.net) durch, über, um, unter, wider.

»Die Ableitung mit Suffixen« (S. 144- 147 fehlt fünfte der Häufigsten -heit, -(ig)keit, -ei, -schaft und -ung.


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Meaningless Coincidence?

Sometimes I notice a relationship between two words that do not in fact share etymology or morphology. When I make such a connection, I worry about whether I should persist in using it to help me increase my vocabulary or avoid using it because it doesn’t reflect reality. Today’s example involves noticing that both verwirrt and geirrt have »irr« inside them. To me, the meanings of “confused” and “mistaken” seem quite similar and so it made sense for these words to have a common morpheme. That is not, however, the case. The »irr« in verwirrt comes from the stem wirr which also means “confused,” while the »irr« in geirrt comes from irre, which means “mad” (in the sense of “insane”), via the verb irren – “to err.” According to Duden online, the roots of these two words are also different.

So, what do I do with this discovery? It feels helpful to me to see them as related and yet I worry what confusion it might bring or what mistakes I might be led to make, given the relationship exists in my head and not in the structure or history of German. And mistakes are probably very likely as according to dict.cc, there are 371 words which have »irr« as a component and 61 of these contain »wirr.« Many of the words with »irr« are unrelated to the concepts of confusion and error, for example, das Geschirr – “dishes” – while others like der Irrgarten – “maze” – do share some components. And the same goes for »wirr.«  Das Geschwirr is a “buzz” or a “whirring” sound, while wirrköpfig means “muddleheaded.”

My sense is, therefore, that I should tread somewhat carefully when the commonalities I notice comprise only a few letters/sounds – as in the case of »irr« – while feeling on firmer ground with those such as (der) Zufall appearing in the adjective zufällig – in this latter case, it is no “accident” that “coincidence” and “random” share components.

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English, German or Heavy Metal?

I’ve written before about the challenges of syllabification in learning German in Uh-oh, a stop and Breaking up is hard to do and this morning I finally figured out a mistake I was making in trying to figure out an English name. On my run, I go by a column covered in posters for upcoming musical events. I’ve been looking at one of them for a few days and not been able to make sense of the band’s name. My first mistake was to imagine from the somewhat gothic writing that they were a German group (not so, they hail from Texas) rather than a heavy metal one (true). My second mistake flowed from assuming it was a German name and thus should be broken up in German fashion. The third problem is that running and trying to read gothic-style letters at the same time is not as simple as it might first appear. (For those interested in the use of gothic or blackletter fonts, here’s a piece on some of their musical and cultural resonances: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/inspiredby/2014/10/typography-from-gothic-to-blackletter.html)

Today I stopped. I looked hard. The mysterious HELLY|FAT or HELLY|FAH was suddenly clearly HELL|YEAH. Phew.

Which got me to pondering the words bisherig and bisher. The first was familiar to me from having moved so often and needing to provide my Bisherige Anschrift – “previous address.” However, I’d never heard this word spoken and made the English-language-driven mistake of syllabifying it in my head as bish•er•i•ge where the “sh” is rendered as [ʃ] as sch would be in German. (Also at play may be the fact that my last name “Hirsh” was anglicised by my grandfather, making it easier for me to see  »sh« as an alternate spelling for »sch« and I’m not helped by the fact that there are many, many loan words with the »sh« spelling and the [ʃ] pronunciation in German.) The actual syllabification and pronunciation is [bɪsˈhe:rɪgə].

I was disabused of this error when I first heard the word bis•her [bɪsˈhe:ɐ̯] – “until now” or “up until now” or “currently” or “yet” – spoken last Saturday. More than the usual number of participants had arrived for Dialog in Deutsch, and so although there was only one leader, we split into two groups. Luckily, at the Wednesday group, one of the leaders had brought a number of sentence stems to start us off on a discussion of our pasts (and to help us practice the perfect tense). The one with bisher in it was Die schwerste Aufgabe in meinem Leben war bisher… It turned out that for many of the group this most difficult task was making or coming to terms with the decision to live in Germany.





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