Tag Archives: German

Why it helps to know the local language – II

I started this post ages ago, but last week I was back at the Bezirksamt Eimsbüttel and the experience was so much less stressful that I was finally able to complete it.

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I had just moved into a new apartment. As required by law, I was on my way to register this change of address when I saw this headline on the front page of the paper that the woman across from me on the U-Bahn was reading:

Kundenzentren Computerpanne legt alle sieben Hamburger Bezirksämter lahm.

Now the word lahmlegen was not familiar, but the word die Computerpanne was. I’d been reading the book Mein Leben voll daneben!* and in it there is quite a bit about “computer glitches” and their consequences for the young hero Polly (panne also exists as a slang word meaning “nuts” or “dumb”). Even without knowing the meaning of lahmlegen, it didn’t sound like the Bezirksamt was the place to be that day and so I went to the Isemarkt and did a bit of food shopping instead.

Later I was able to find out that lahmlegen means “to paralyze [something]” or “to bring something to a standstill.” On its own lahm can mean “lame” or “paralyzed” or “sluggish” and lähmen is “to paralyze [somebody/something].” I was quite relieved that I’d been able to get the basic meaning and had decided not to try to do my registration.

I should have stayed away a bit longer, though, as when I visited the next week, it took nearly four hours to be seen and there couldn’t have been more than five minutes left until closing time when my number appeared on the board. That being said, the woman who helped me was very calm and we finished the registration without any fuss in about two minutes.

 


*More soon about voll daneben, “alone” and other expressions that can only be used as predicates (e.g., while “He is alone.” is grammatically correct “He is an alone man” is not).

 

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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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