Little Teapots and Donkey Bridges

So what do “little teapots” and “donkey bridges” have to do with language learning?! The first make learning a foreign language harder, the second should make is easier.

Das Teekesselchen means a “homonym” or a “game in which you ask people to find homonyms” that is, two words with different meanings but the same spellings (in German there is also the possibility that they have different grammatical genders). Literally, der Teekessel is a “teapot” and the suffix –chen is a diminuitive so Das Teekesselchen would be a “small teapot.” There are several stories about the origin of the term – a British game where things were hidden in teapots, the word Kessel or a variant meaning someone a bit stupid – but it seems a bit of a mystery.

Die Eselsbrücke means a “mnemonic” and eine Eselsbrücke bauen means “to give someone a hint/clue or to use mnemonic device.” Literally, der Esel is a “donkey” and die Brücke is a “bridge.”  The verb bauen can mean “to build.” As I understand the history of this expression, donkeys aren’t keen to cross fast moving streams but their owners still want to get them and the goods they are carrying to the other side. They build a bridge as a means to reach their goal and thus the trip involves a short detour. In a similar fashion, with a mnemonic, you are not trying to learning a new word or set of words directly but instead by making a small detour through something else, the bridge, that you already know or is easier to remember.

Here is an example of a Teekesselchen from a page with ideas for how to keep yourself entertained when the weather outside is frightful:

die Blume – “flower” (this is the meaning that those of us new to German know, and a cognate to boot “bloom”-Blume)
die Blume – “head of a glass of beer”
die Blume – “bouquet” in the sense of the scent of a glass of wine
die Blume – “top round” in the sense of a cut of meat
die Blume – “the white tip of a tail” on a fox

Here is an example of a Teekesselchen where all three grammatical genders are different taken from another lovely book from Duden, Unnützes Sprachwissen: Erstaunliches Über Unsere Sprache (my rough effort at translation – Useless Language Knowledge: [Be] Astonished by Our Language):

das Band – “ribbon” or “measuring tape” or “conveyor belt” or “wavelength” or “ligament”
der Band – “volume” as in one of a series of books
die Band – “music group”

And here is an example that is a not strictly a Teekesselchen as the two words are not spelled alike: „Heute gibt es Wahlessen.“ „Tatsächlich? Blauwal oder Pottwal?“ or “Today we have top quality (Wahl) food. Really, blue whale or sperm whale (Wal)?

Having faced these very dangerous words with multiple meanings, let’s turn our attention to our helpful friends the donkey bridges or mnemonics. (Sadly, I have not yet been able to get my hands on the Duden volume  that covers these – yes, there is one, namely, Eselsbrücken: Die schönsten Merksätze und ihre Bedeutung (Mnemonics: The Best Mnemonic [Sentence]s and Their Meanings) – but if I do, I will share my impression.) There are Eselsbrücke for all sorts of things, I’ve selected a few related to language learning to illustrate the concept.

First one that is supposed to help German speakers with English:

Kurz, betont und einfach – macht Konsonanten zweifach! (Beispiele: sit – sitting, run – running, swim – swimming, jog – jogging) – “When short, stressed (as in syllabic stress) and simple, you | take the final consonant and make it two”

Now one to help German speakers with German:

Wenn „wider“ nur “dagegen” meint – dann ist das “e” dem “i” stets Feind! Wenn „wieder“ nur “noch einmal” meint – dann sind dort ‘i’ und ‘e’ vereint! – “When wider means against, then the e is the i’s enemy. When wieder means one more time, then the i and the e get along just fine.”

And finally, one where it appears that both German and English speakers learn to help them with English:

‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’ or when it spells ‘AY’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’ – which the site from these Eselsbrücke examples come from translates as „I“ before „e“ (except after „c“) if the pronunciation is „ee,“ which was very hard to parse as a helpful mnemonic for English until I realized that the ‘ee’ was the German pronunciation of the double ‘e’ as in the word der Tee and not in the word “tee” (as in the item used in golf or American football to hold a ball aloft)!

Clearly, to help you learn the Teekesselchen, you need a good set of Eselsbrücken. And I wonder whether anyone ever plays with the “volume” meaning of der Band in concert with the “music group” meaning of die Band?

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