Monthly Archives: March 2013

Hare-y stories

Today’s post is in honor of our shared cultural symbolism that connects small mammals with long and sometimes floppy ears with Easter and the delivery of eggs, especially the chocolate kind.  Now, you ask, why didn’t I say “rabbits” given we refer to the “Easter Rabbit” or even the “Easter Bunny” in English? Well, in German it is der Osterhase or “Easter Hare,” while the word “rabbit” (or as it was described to me by a German acquaintance “that smaller animal with spoon-shaped ears that children have”) is translated in my Pons dictionary as das Kaninchen – which to my ears sounds like it should be a small canine – and the word “bunny” is translated as das Häschen!

Well then, what is there to say about hares? It turns out that they appear in a number of German expressions. But before I get to the examples, I wanted to say a little bit about idiomatic expressions. To get some background, I looked at a paper that analyzed the ways in which idioms were arranged in Italian-English dictionaries. In addition to reminding me of the features that make idioms idioms, I also came away with a deeper appreciation of the challenges we languages learners face when trying to use dictionaries to learn idioms (the more linguistically-minded among you might enjoy perusing this article). In particular, there is the challenge that not every content word in an idiomatic phrase gets an entry under that word, therefore advance apologies if your favorite German expression about der Hase isn’t mentioned here!

Here’s the lowdown on idioms:

  • You may not be able to say why a phrase means what it does, but you only get the idiomatic meaning when you use the phrase as a whole, or to use an idiomatic expression, the whole is greater than (or different from) the sum of its parts
  • You may be able to change words or rearrange them, but only certain changes are allowed or the phrase loses its meaning
  • You may be able to connect some of the words to their literal meanings, but then again you may not

Let’s dig into some examples which feature der Hase.

In German you can say wissen/sehen, wie der Hase läuft and this can be rendered as “to know/see which way the wind is blowing.” The literal translation of “knowing/seeing how the hare runs” does have a connection to the meaning of the set phrase as it is about knowing, but it is unlikely that anyone (other than perhaps someone seeking those Easter eggs) would have much interest in how or where the hare is running. I loved the way this page explained the origin of the English idiom and made reference to Bob Dylan: What it suggests by saying that sailors needed to know the direction of the wind, is that this phrase is about understanding something important, however in our modern age of ships powered by motors rather than sails, this does seem a bit quaint.

Clearly, there is or was something quite significant about hares running as they also feature in so läuft der Hase or “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” which means something to the effect that “bad things can happen and it’s often best to accept them and move on rather than mope.” (Or if I were to quote a musical line to illustrate this it might be from the John Lennon tune Beautiful Boy: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.)

To take us in a different direction, in German you can say Mein Name ist Hase and mean something like “I haven’t got a clue.” I’m not sure where this would leave someone whose name really was Hase, but I am guessing that he/she would have been teased as a child. The English phrase seems pretty literal – “I don’t have any idea (sorry)” – however, if you replace “clue” with “piece of evidence” people very likely wouldn’t have a clue what you meant.

And somewhat poignantly, apparently der falscher Hase is “meatloaf.”  I wonder what you’d find in the Easter basket he delivered?!

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Is it Mother Sun in your mother tongue?

We don’t have grammatical genders in English – we say “the” for all of our nouns (at least the countable ones) – but even where there is no obvious connection to gender, there are some words with gender-based associations .  For example, “the sun” and “the moon.”  Although we have the expression “the man in the moon,” I would suggest that the common association for the moon itself is with the feminine and for the sun it is the masculine. In learning German, though, one has to go against this and learn der Mond and die Sonne. Even worse, if you also know a bit of Spanish, Italian, Portugese or French, all of which do have grammatical genders, you have a further challenge as “moon” takes a feminine and “sun” a masculine pronoun in each of these languages! And in my limited understanding of Chinese symbolism, I believe that the moon is associated with the feminine/yin/dark and the sun is associated with the masculine/yang/light.

Indeed, there is enough interest in the gender associated with the moon and sun that when you type [sun masculine] into Google, one completion it provides is [moon feminine]. The story that resonated most with me was that the further north you went, the more the sun came to be associated with giving life by giving light and thus with the feminine through the connection with giving birth. Now since arbitrary things are hard to learn, and most of the relationships between German nouns and their grammatical genders are arbitrary (or even misleading, to give the famous examples of das Mädchen – “the girl” or “the maiden” – and das Fräulein -“young lady” or “miss” – where the nouns follow the rule that diminutives with –chen and –lein take das), having a somewhat meaning cue for sun and moon feels helpful.

Therefore while Die Sonne scheint still doesn’t sound quite right to me (and not just because it seems such a rare event here in Hamburg), some light has been shed!

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Are we related?

In one of my German language learning books there is an exercise that involves filling on a family tree (der Stammbaum – Oma, Opa, Mutter, Vater, Schwester, Bruder, Nichte, Neffe, Cousine, Cousin, Enkelkind) and while completing it, I noticed both how relationships between words in other languages may stand out in ways that they do not in our own and how we use relationship words to talk about languages.

The first ‘aha’ came from reflecting on:

die Verwandtschaft – die Verwandteverwandt
“relationship” – “relatives” – “related”

I was already familiar with die Verwandte from previous lessons but die Verwandtschaft – “relationship” or “kinship” or “affinity” or “relatives” – was new.  And as I looked at it, I had a blinding flash of the obvious, namely “relationship” is related (pun intended) to other words in English like “relative” and “related.” I had never really thought about how saying “I’m in a relationship” means in some sense “This person is my relative” because I guess I tend to see “relatives” as givens – you are born into them – and “relationships” as choices. This narrative makes sense as I grew up with my biological parents and my biological siblings around me. At the same time, as the child of divorced parents and a step-parent myself, I’m surprised by my own surprise when seeing the way these words form a family (yes, sorry, another pun).

Which brings me to the other thought that this Stammbaum exercise prompted, the use of kin terms to describe language.  We say that German and English come from the same “family.” We talk about our “mother tongue” or unsere Muttersprache. These metaphors feel normal and safe to English (and I’m going to guess German) speakers. What about the case where two languages don’t come from the same family, though?  Does this encourage us to see the speakers of those languages as more different or perhaps even less than, just as we might forgive something in a family member that wouldn’t be acceptable in an acquaintance? Could such metaphors engender the belief that we might not ever be able to understand each other because the relationship between speaking and thinking seems so tight?  Moreover, think about how language enforces power (think of Animal Farm or 1984): some mother tongues have been wiped out as speakers were prevented from using them, economic opportunities may be restricted to speakers of particular languages, exercising the right to vote may be made more difficult by creating literacy tests. Like in many families, the German-speaking context perhaps offers an example of how family members may also face particularly bad treatment – there is a close relationship between German and Yiddish

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What’s the point? Pünktlich and punktuell

This is an intriguing pair because of the false friend status of punktuell  – according to my Pons Wörterbuch für Schule und Studiumit means “selective” or “dealing with certain points” rather than “punctual” which happens to be the meaning given by Pons for pünktlich.  Duden 5 (Das Fremdwörterbuch, more about this series of books in a moment) includes an entry for Punkt and gives it origin as Latin. This makes sense to me for punktuell (that uell ending screams loan word and is similar to another false friend aktuell which doesn’t mean “actual” but instead “current” or “topical” or “relevant”).  What is probably confusing me with pünktlich being a loan word is the –lich ending which is typically German and sounds a bit like and can correspond to the meaning of the English suffix “-ish.”It goes on to give the meaning of the Latin word as something like engraved (das Gestochene) or punctured (der Einstrich, now there is a resemblance with punkt).

Other German Fremd– or Lehnwörter (foreign or loan words) given are:

punktieren – “to dot, to stipple and to aspirate”
die Punktion – “puncture, tap” – as in draw out)
die Interpunktion and interpunktieren – “punctuation” and “to punctuate” – an alternative would be die Zeichensetzung which is interesting as das Zeichen can mean “mark” or “tick” which are a little like “point”
Kontrapunkt – “the counterpoint”
kunterbunt – “motley” or “multicolored” or “higgledy-piggledy” collection of things
die Pointe
– “punchline” or “nub”
pointiert –
 “trenchant(ly)” pr “pithy” or “pointed(ly)” – more at some point soon about this devilish slipperiness in German where one word is both adverb and adjective
pointieren – “to emphasize” or “to stress”

Now this was so much fun that I pulled another book down from the library shelf, Kluge Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutsch Sprache, to see what it might have to say about pünktlich and punktuell. Here I learned that pünktlich entered German in the 15th century and comparable words are punctueel (Dutch), ponctuel (French) and punktlig (Norwegian and Swedish). Even more intriguing were a few the words related to der Punkt. The first is der Spund which had two entries, namely 1. “spigot” or “tap” and 2. “whippersnapper” or “young pup” or “greenhorn.”  The second is die Akupunktur which means “acupuncture.” And finally, it is suggested that there is a possible connection with der Pygmäe – “Pygmy” – through the Latin pungere (a combination which, via Google, led me to Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English by Eric Patridge but I resisted that rabbit-hole, although not before noticing the connection to “pugilist” and “poignant”).

Okay, Duden.  There are 12 volumes.  Now we do have the multi-volume OED, but how many people do you know who have this (and don’t count your friends who are linguists, etymologists, etc.)?  And of course there are English language books with synonyms, with common sayings, with quotations, etc., but I’ve not seen them sold as a series like the Duden, which is advertised as Das gesamte Spektrum der deutschen Sprache – which I will translate rather colorfully as “Running the whole gamut of the German language.”  Volume 5‘s tagline is Unentbehrlich für das Verstehen und den Gebrauch fremder Wörter – “Indispensable/Essential for the use and understanding of foreign words” (I like “indispensable” as the “in-” prefix matches with the un– prefix and I swapped “use” and “understanding” because somehow that order felt more like English to me). Other members of the Duden Series will star in future posts.

I can’t say that knowing that pünktlich and punktuell come from a Latin root really helped me to see how or why their meanings diverge from the English meanings, though spending this much time with them while composing this post has helped to cement their meanings that little bit better!

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Friend or enemy?

One real advantage in learning German rather than Vietnamese, for example, is that the two languages share common roots and have many words in common.  This advantage can also be problematic. You can develop a sense that you know more than you do each time that you ask how to say something in German and are given either the English word or a cognate – Question/Frage: Wie sagt man “balcony” auf deutsch? Answer/AntwortBalkon. You can also be lulled into a false sense of security, a feeling that if a German word looks like English, you can treat it as the same word…which brings us to false friends – die Übersetzungsfalle or der Fauxami.

Just for fun, I broke down the first translation of “false friend.” With so many compound words in German, one can often come up with a reasonable stab at a word’s meaning from this sort of exercise and it certainly helps widen your understanding of the smaller words that make up the compound.

über – across
setzen – to put, to place, to set
Übersetzung – translation
Falle – trap
So, roughly, we have a trap in putting the meaning in one language across into a second language, or a translation trap.

The second translation is a loan word or Fremdwortder Fauxami is a direct import of the French faux ami.

Interestingly, der Feind, the translation of the word “enemy” is nearly a true friend or cognate as one’s enemy could certainly be thought of as a “fiend” especially if you engage in Freund-Feind-Denken or the feeling that “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us!” 

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