Monthly Archives: July 2015

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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