Tag Archives: language traps

Second Week Anniversary

As I did last week on the first anniversary, I will once again make earthquakes the topic of my post. This week I want to mine the idea that earthquakes have different magnitudes to see where it takes us in terms of interpreting the magnitude of particular cross-language differences on the learner. In other words, can we rank words, phrases and grammatical rules in terms of the degree to which they shake up our mental worlds?

Most people are likely to have heard of the Richter Scale for measuring the magnitude of earthquakes. While it is named for one just of its co-inventors, it was born of a collaboration between Beno Gutenberg and Charles Richter. According to Wikipedia, Gutenberg was born in Germany  and came to the US in 1930 to take a job at Cal Tech where he met Richter.  Although I wasn’t able to find out if Richter had German ancestors (he was born in Ohio which has a large German-American population), in German der Richter means “judge” which seems fitting as a name for a scale that allows one to judge the intensity of an earthquake.

The Richter Scale is a logarithmic one, which is explained by the US Geological Survey as follows: “Because of the logarithmic basis of the scale, each whole number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude; as an estimate of energy, each whole number step in the magnitude scale corresponds to the release of about 31 times more energy than the amount associated with the preceding whole number value.” To put this another way, an earthquake that measures a 4 on the Richter Scale is ten times stronger than one that measures a 3, 100 times stronger than one that measures a 2 and 1000 times stronger that a 1. Now, while I do feel that different challenges in learning German are of different intensities, I am not so sure that the logarithmic part is a good fit!

To rescue comes the Modified Mercalli Magnitude Scale which describes an earthquake in terms of what people experience. I will now proceed to make a tongue-in-check adaptation of this scale to the language learning context.

Level I: Instrumental – small differences between languages can be measured but are only noticed under very, very, favorable conditions such as having the dictionary (the instrument) open to precisely the page which contains the word causing the disturbance.

Level II: Weak – differences between languages noticed only by sensitive people, registered in the mind only (indoors and on the upper stories). Poorly grounded words/phrases/grammatical rules may be most affected (delicately suspended objects such as chandeliers may swing).

Level III: Slight – differences between languages noticed by many more people internally although they may not associate this internal feeling with linguistic interaction in which they are engaged (indoors, especially on the upper stories; many do not recognize it as an earthquake).

Level IV: Moderate – differences between languages noticed internally by many or all (indoors) and a reaction appears on the faces in or in the body language of a few (outdoors). There are some blank expressions of the faces of listeners and they may make disturbing sounds such as Wie, bitte?, however the linguistic interaction suffers no permanent damage (objects shake noticeably, walls make cracking sounds and dishes and windows rattle noticeably).

Level V: Rather Strong – differences between languages noticed internally by most or all and a reaction appears on the face or in body language (outdoors). There may be damage to the linguistic interaction and in a few cases people will be frightened enough to run away (dishes and windows may break, damage to buildings is possible).

Level VI: Strong – differences between languages noticed by all internally and this shows up in facial expressions and body language; many people will discuss these feelings (felt by all indoors and out, many will run outdoors from fright). If the grasp of a word/phrase/grammatical rule was not sturdy to begin with, there may be some damage, however other areas of language competence are slightly or not at all affected (damage slight to moderate in poorly built structures, none to slight in all others).

Level VII: Very Strong – differences between languages become so noticeable that it can be difficult to sustain the linguistic interaction (difficult to stay on one’s feet), books or pens may be set aside, conversation may falter. There is light damage even to words/phrases/grammatical rules that are well-learned and those less well-learned may sustain a considerable hit.

Level VIII: Destructive – differences between languages become so noticeable that while the best learned words/phrases/grammatical rules may not be impacted, there can be partial collapse of some words/phrases/grammatical rules, and, for those that were shaky to begin with, the damage can be extreme (brick buildings receive moderate to severe damage). Pens and books are thrown down, conversation may cease (chimneys, factory stacks, columns, monuments, walls, etc. may fall).

Level IX: Violent – differences between languages become so noticeable that panic begins to set in and there is an impact on all language structures not matter how well learned. The mother tongue may not be immune and errors from one language can infiltrate the other (some buildings may be shifted off foundations; walls can fall down or collapse).

Level X: Intense – differences between languages become so noticeable that errors begin to become the norm rather than the exception (large landslides) making the linguistic interaction very difficult to sustain.

Level XI: Extreme – differences between languages become so noticeable that things start to get very quiet, little or no linguistic interaction is possible (few, if any structures remain standing; numerous landslides, cracks and deformation of the ground).

Level XII: Catastrophic – differences between languages become so noticeable that no linguistic interaction is possible (total destruction – everything is destroyed).

I can’t see giving each of my post a rating on this scale, but I can imagine keeping the image of a swinging chandelier at the ready for those times when I get feeling that it would be better to “run outside” – most people won’t be noticing anything, much less thinking that the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

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How far does the apple fall from the tree?

In both German and English we have the proverb Der Apfel fällt nicht weit von Stamm – “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” – which I understand to mean that parents and children are often alike. This got me thinking, when we talk about words, we can sometimes say that they have a fairly transparent relationship – like apples and the trees from which they fall – but many times this proverb is violated, with words straying from their roots or being dramatically changed when they form compounds. To explore this, I took the German words fallendie Falle and das Fallen.

fallen – “to fall” or “to drop”
die Fallen – “pitfalls” or “traps”
das Fallen – “descent”

The relationships here seem relatively transparent and indeed in English we have expressions that use both “fall” and “trap.”  Of course, “fallen” itself is an English word.  Unlike German where it is the infinitive, “fallen” is the past participle of “to fall” (gefallen auf deutsch) and can also be used as an adjective as in “fallen arches” (to describe a foot problem).

What about compounds?  My favorite, given the topics of this blog is Sprachfallen or “language traps.”  They come in many forms, including the false friends like punktuell , and to keep with the connection to “falling,” we might say that you need to take care not to “stumble” over your words or that you must take care as some words can really “trip you up” (as one website said, you need to learn these Sprachfallen to avoid peals of laughter – um schallendes Gelächter zu vermeiden).

There are also a number of combinations in English that use “fallen” where it is not used in German such as “fallen asleep” – eingeschlafen; three ways of saying “fallen out with someone” – 1) entzweit (which has a literal meaning, “split in two, as you might expect from breaking it apart), 2) zerstritten sein (mit) and 3) jemand. hat/hatte sich mit jemandem verkracht; and “fallen short of” – unterschritten.

Moving to German compound verbs, an interesting relative for me is the verb ausfallen – “to fail (harvest, machine, power, etc.)” – because “fall” and “fail” are only one phoneme apart in English, and, if my experience with German word pairs of this type is anything to go by, these two are likely to be a “trap” for the non-native speaker.  Another prefix+fallen verb is zufallen “to shut.” Its membership in the family helps make the phrase jemandem natürlich zufallen – “to come naturally to someone” – make more sense to me (and to link it back to the tree, you could say that for such a person something “is as easy as falling off a log”)!

But probably more common than any of these are a set that leave me feeling out on a limb:


All three can take the meaning “to occur to somebody.” Of the three, as far as I can see only the first, einfallen, has a meaning that is related to “fallen” – it can mean “to collapse” or “to dip.” For beifallen dict.cc gives only the meaning “to occur to somebody” and says that it is both humorous and more elevated in tone. Auffallen has as its most frequently given meaning “to strike” in the sense of attracting attention. Now I suppose an idea could literally strike you – take the perhaps apocryphal story of Newton, the apple and gravity – but for my money we have wandered away from “fallen”

And since we’ve come right back around to speaking of apples, I wonder if it means anything that der Apfel is one of the few fruits (the only other I could find was der Pfirsich) with the masculine gender?!

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