Tag Archives: children’s books

Did you get it?!

Since I was a girl and read Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles alongside my grandmother Mimi, I’ve enjoyed all sorts of jokes involving wordplay. For example, poised between a chuckle and a groan is “Why do birds fly south?” Answer: “It’s too far to walk.” Today at the library I checked out Witzbuch für Kinder, a collection which contains jokes of a similar nature in German. I found myself taken back in time, and like poetry, I think the economy of language in jokes gives you a special insight to real-world or everyday word use (die Alltagssprache).

WARNING/VORSICHT! You may want to read the examples below in private just in case you let out a loud guffaw (eine Lachsalve or in ein Gelächter ausbrechen – “to erupt in laughter” – or wiehern – ” to bray with laughter” – or gackernd lachen – “to cackle” – or schallendes Gelächter – “peals of laugher”) and then have to explain yourself by telling one of these jokes…

Zwei Flöhe kommen aus dem Kino. Es regnet in Strömen. Was meinst du? fragt der eine Floh. Springen wir zu Fuß, oder nehmen wir uns einen Hund?

Two fleas come out of cinema. It’s pouring rain. “What do you reckon?,” asks the one flea. “Should we walk home (literally jump or leap by foot) or should we take a dog?”

Zwei Spatzen sitzen auf der Fernsehantenne. Sie schluchzt herzerweichend. Er versucht, sie zu beruhigen. Vergeblich. Schließlich schreit er ganz verzweifelt: «Nun glaub mir doch endlich! Ich bin nicht verheiratet. Der Ring ist von der Vogelwarte.»

Two sparrows are sitting on a TV antenna (hmm, a bit dated, that). She is sobbing inconsolably. He is trying to calm her down but in vain. Finally he cries out in despair: “You have to believe me! I’m not married. The ring is from The Audubon Society” (or The European Union for Bird Ringing).

While das Rätsel seems to be the most common translation for “riddle,” I prefer die Scherzfrage – “the question joke” or perhaps “the joke question.”  Now hold onto your hats, because here’s my attempt to have a bit of fun by creating a “question joke” in German.

Sf: Wo findet man die Deutschsprachigen Leute?
A: Meisten sind unter dem demselben D-A-CH.

Qj: Where do you find the German-speaking people?
A: Most are under the same roof.

For this to have a chance of being funny you need to know that the word for “roof” is das Dach and that the abbreviations for the three major German-speaking countries are Deutschland, Austria and Confoederatio Helvetica (Switzerland). Therefore while coming up with this pleased me to no end, I’m not going to be outselling Mr. Cerf anytime soon!

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First Week Anniversary

I thought I’d return to earthquakes for inspiration in this first post of the second week of the Earthquake Words blog. To help me, I checked out a children’s book on volcanos and earthquakes (just the sort of thing I devoured as a young girl). One of the first things that struck me was that I found it quite a bit easier to read this piece of non-fiction than to read fiction aimed at roughly the same age group. I see two reasons why this might be so. First, and perhaps obviously, non-fiction mainly sticks to a theme. When you know the theme, your guesswork is simplified. For example, if a word has multiple meanings, some of them are excluded by the context. In a book about volcanos, you are on relatively safe ground assuming that der Ausbruch means “eruption” rather than “outburst” or “escape.”

The second thing that I have noticed about children’s fiction is that it tends to use the simple past tense rather than using the compound tense that is more commonly heard in speech.  And in German, for many irregular verbs the simple past tense is is anything but simple…as a couple of examples will illustrate.

SEHEN – “to see”
Friendly compound tense: Ich habe das gesehen
Scary simple tense: Ich sah das

GEBEN – “to give”
Friendly compound tense: Ich habe ihr es gegeben
Scary simple tense: Ich gab ihr es

KOMMEN – “to come”
Fairly friendly compound tense: Ich bin gekommen (this is a compound formed with sein “to be” rather than the more common haben “to have”)
Scary simple tense: Ich ging

I chose the words above for their relatively straightforward form in the compound tense (in fact, they might be a misleadingly easy because their past participles are irregular in that they keep the –en ending rather than replacing it with a t as happens with regular verbs: SAGEN “to say” past participle – gesagt, simple past – ich sagte). But to give German its due as a source of word forms that really shake things up, here are a few other examples in the form INFINITIVE “translation” – simple past form where the infinitive and the simple past tense diverger greatly: DENKEN “to think” – dachte; ESSEN “to eat” – ; GIEßEN “to pour” – gossLEIDEN “to suffer” – litt;  and SITZEN “to be sitting” – saß.

My favorite, though, is ZIEHEN “to pull, to draw, to move, to go” – zog (past participle gezogen).  It is an incredibly productive verb that enters into a large number of set expressions and can be coupled with a large number of prefixes. As a result, you see and hear words and phrases built from this irregular base all over the place.

In researching this post, I not only rekindled my love for the earth sciences, but also discovered that my struggles when trying to read children’s fiction in German are not that surprising given it is a general rule that written language uses the simple past and spoken language the compound past (for more on forming the past tense in German, click here).

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