Tag Archives: formality

Getting a word in edgewise

I’ve started a new Lernkrimi which has an exercise where you are required to pick out the words whose meanings that are similar to sagen – “to say, to tell or to speak.” From the list given, I already knew the words sprechen, reden, plaudern, erzählen, erklären, and vortragen. I wasn’t yet familiar with äußern, kundtun, schwatzen and anmerken. There were, however, more words in my vocabulary from this semantic field: ausdrücken, erwidern, antworten, meinen, flüsternbemerken, tratschen, klatschen, sich unterhalten, diskutieren, debattieren, heißenbehaupten, schreien, rufen, quatschen and berichten. Looking further led me to erläutern, verdeutlichenausrufen, ankündigen, kontern, sich über etwas/jemanden auslassen, durchsagen, labern, plappern, quasseln, faseln, schwafeln and schwadronieren.

One way of exploring the different nuances in meaning is to look at the common co-occurrences or collocations. If you take the trio antwortenerwidern and kontern and look them up on DWDS.de, you find both overlap and contrast among the words that commonly accompany each of them. For antworten the most common words are: mit Jamit Neinausweichend (“evasively”) and auf Frage (“to [a] question”). For erwidern they are: Gruß  (“regards” or “greeting”), Liebe (“love”) and Zuneigung (“affection”). For kontern they are Attacken (“attacks”), mit Gegenfrage (“with a counter question”) and Vorhaltungen (“reproaches”).

Our word choices can also indicate our feelings or opinions about a subject. For example, if you say plaudern – “to chat,” or as PONS puts it „sich gemütlich unterhalten“ – you likely mean to convey quite a different feeling about the interaction you are describing than if you were to use the word diskutieren – “to discuss” (although there can be occasions when someone asks you to “pop in for a little chat” where this can be a threat of something quite ungemütlich to come). If we mention seeing someone and use the word schwadronieren – to hold forth – to describe the way she/he told a story, we create quite a different impression than if we were to use the more neutral word erzählenClearly there is a lot to say when we are talking about “talking!”


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Excuse me, can you translate?

I had a visit to the Zollamt today as a package of my own things had been mislabeled as merchandise by the friend who so kindly sent it and I needed to explain why the “merchandise” arrived with no receipt or pay duty if that explanation was not satisfactory.  I took along a native speaker because interacting with public servants often requires the use of das Papierdeutsch, a term used seriously in dictionaries to represent the language of government and bureaucracy (hence the variants das Amtsdeutsch – “the German of a government bureau or agency,” das Beamtendeutsch – “the German of an employee of a government bureau or agency” and das Kanzleideutsch – “chancery or office German”) and used more lightheartedly (scherzhaft – “facetiously, playfully, humorously” to take another dictionary term) to mean “gobbledygook.”

To get a feel for Papierdeutsch, imagine taking a fairly abstract concept and expressing it with a cumbersome compound noun rather than a simpler combination of noun and verb: die Nichtbefolgung – “noncompliance” rather than nicht befolgt “not followed.” And to make sure that you further obscure your point, try to use a passive sentence construction (z.B. Es wird darauf hingewiesen, dass… “It should be noted that”  Wir weisen darauf hin, dass… “Please note that”) and substitute as many simple prepositions as you can with more complicated ones (z.B.  betreffs – “regarding” – instead of wegen – “about”)! Thanks to http://www.werbewolf.ch/News-Inhalte/Sammel%20Duden/dujuni.html for these wonderful examples.

I came away happy because with my German speaking friend’s help, the explanation of my US friend’s mistake was accepted, and while I can’t say I feel much more confident navigating Papierdeutsch, it was a great example of how language learning helps us recognize when we need to be humble and ask for help. I was also put in mind of the “Jive” scene in the film Airplane where a little translation is required and wondered if perhaps Monty Python had done any sketches poking fun at Papierenglisch?!

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