Tag Archives: homonyms

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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The Keys to The Kingdom

Just recently, I was listening to a German language CD and heard the word die Schüssel – “the bowl.” That’s the word that was said anyway, what I heard was der Schlüssel – “the key.” Keen observers will notice right away that like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, I had the key to unlocking this misunderstanding with me all along: “bowl” is a die word and “key” is a der word. But as David Bergmann so elegantly and succinctly captures in the title of his book about wrestling with the German tongue – Der, Die, Was? (or in his own English translation “Take Me to Your Umlauts”) – we don’t have grammatical genders in English (although see my thoughts on at least one occasion where we do have intuitions about gender) and thus this useful key to correct word recognition is one we fail to take advantage of all too often!

Those of you who know about some of my past experiences will know that the main impact I had on the world of experimental psychology was to show that the earlier you learn something, the easier that something is to retrieve from memory and in many cases the more likely you are to continue to be able to retrieve it following a stroke or other event that compromises your cognitive abilities. This suggests that the later you learn about grammatical gender, the slower you will be retrieve it. Thus, the downside of not having learned about grammatical gender early in life is that even when I do know a word’s gender (as I feel do with der Schlüssel), it is relatively hard to retrieve and thus it can be hard to make use of this information to help me understand what I am reading or hearing. The upside is that unlike a speaker of French, or many other languages, I don’t need to displace the le from chat when I learn die Katze – “the cat” – as I don’t have any competing gender designations to distract me. An additional implication of the earliest things being easiest to retrieve is that early learned words within a language can compete with each other. As I learned der Schlüssel quite a long time ago (when I was first learning German in 1989), it competes very effectively with die Schüssel which I only learned the other day. In the struggle to make any meaning from what I read and hear, the early learned words simply come into mind unbidden with a minimum amount of evidence to support their presence.

And don’t get me started on the competition that arises in my head between different meanings for the same word, for example das Schloss (“the palace” and “the lock”), or I may have to be locked away!

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