Tag Archives: poetry

Louse-y old plurals

Today I needed to go to the Apotheke (“pharmacy, chemist or drug store”) in order to buy something to get rid of head lice – Kopfläuse – after finally realizing that they were what was making my head itch (this article helped me to figure out what to do). This got me pondering words where there is exclusive, or near exclusive use of either the singular or plural form. For instance, we rarely have reason to use the word louse in the singular when referring to the insect form. Contrariwise, you can’t really say about a group of disagreeable people that they are “lice,” the way you can use “a louse” to describe a single disagreeable person. (As an aside, “lice” is also interesting because it is an irregular English plural, although many lists include only its irregular sibling with a similar transformation: from singular “mouse” to plural “mice.”)

Canoo.net gives a list of four types of nouns that are normally only used in German in the singular:

Materialsdie Baumwolle, der Regen, das Kupfer – “cotton,” “rain” and “copper.” Sometimes plurals are formed from this type of word by adding a suffix – die Lederarten or die Tabaksorten, “the leathers” and “the tobaccos.”

Collectives: das Obst, das Gepäck – “fruit” and “luggage.” We can say “fruits” in English, however “luggage” exists only in the singular form as in German.

Abstractions: der Neid, die Kälte, das Glück – “envy,” “the cold,” and “luck.” “Envy” and “luck” appear only in the singular in English, as does “cold” when the meaning is a sort of weather/air temperature; one can talk about “colds” when the topic is a runny nose.

Proper names: (das) Amerika, der Rhein – “America” and “the Rhine” (river), the former can be used in the plural in English as in “potatoes are originally a food of the Americas” but this form is rare.

Canoo.net also offers a list of nouns found exclusively in the plural in German:
Place namesdie Azoren, die Pyrenäen and die USA – “the Azores” (island group), “the Pyrenees” (mountain group) and “the USA” (country name).

Groups of people: die Geschwister, die Leute – “the siblings” and “the people,” In English, we can say “sibling” and “people” is considered to be on of the plural form of “person” and is more commonly used than “persons.” German also has the word die Person which has the seldom used plural die Personen.

Collectives: die Kosten, die Fünfzigerjahre – “the expense, cost, expenditure” and the 1950s or “fifties.” The three translations of die Kosten are singular in English and have regular plural forms; decades appear only in the plural.

Diseasesdie Masern, die Pocken, die Röteln – “measles,” “smallpox,” “rubella.”  “Measles” serves as both the singular and the plural form; and “smallpox” and “rubella” exist only in the singular in English.

Otherdie Ferien, die Jeans – “vacation, holiday” and “jeans.” The former can be either singular or plural; the latter, like “glasses/spectacles” and “pants” appears only in the plural.

To end, here’s a poem (online source to see an English translation click here) that includes commentary on social class, friendly advice and a wish for deeper awareness of how we are seen by others – a wish that might not be shared by our conversation partners as we struggle to communicate with them in German!

To A Louse
by Robert Burns

[On seeing one on a lady’s bonnet, at church.]

Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’ faith! I fear, ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How dare ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else, and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith, in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rils, snug an’ tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right
‘Till ye’ve got on it,
The vera tapmost, tow’ring height
O’ Miss’s bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump and grey as ony grozet;
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty doze o’t,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flannen toy;
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’s fine Lunardi! fie!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin’!
Thae winks and finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin’!

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion!
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n devotion!

The Poetical Works Of Robert Burns
Copyright 1910
Ward, Lock, and Co., Ltd

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Frisch von der Leber weg sprechen

Manchmal ist es gefährlich eine Sprache zu kennen. Wie heute. Ich war in der Barmbek Dialog in Deutsch Gruppe. Eine Spanierin hat gesagt, dass sie Kellnerin ist. Sie arbeitet bei einem Restaurant in der Reeperbahn. Dieses Restaurant heißt Cojones. Nur ich hat gelacht. Natürlich, wollen die Leute zu wissen was witzig ist. «Ähm,» sage ich, «das Wort meint…ein Paar…Männer haben ein Paar.» Dann sage ich «auf Englisch, sagen wir balls oder bollocks.»  Noch ein Rätsel für fast alles. Dann eine Freundin von mir sage «Eier. Das männlich Geschlecht hat Eier.» Zwei or drei Mehere hat ein Aha-Erlebnis. Ich suche nächst das Bildwörterbuch das steht in unserem Zimmer. Wenn (und das ist die große Frage) man das Wort höflich sagt, man sagt “Hodensack.”

Ich habe ja diesen Ausdruck recherchiert und jetzt kenne ich ein paar (tut mir leid, Wortspiel beabsichtigt) neue Namen des Cojones außerdem “Eier,” nämlich:

“das Gehänge” – pendant
“die Glocken” – bells (ich muss vorsichtig sein, weil der Name eines Lieblingsapfel von mir auch Glocken ist)
“die Klöten” – purely slang
“der Sack” – pouchbag
“die Familienjuwelen” – family jewels as in English

Es war auch interessant, dass, wo wir sagen, blue balls, sagt man auf Deutsch beide “Bräutigamsschmerzen” – groom’s ache/pain – und “Kavaliersschmerzen” – gentleman’s ache/pain.

Und als ich nicht ein Gedicht widerstehen kann, ist hier ein Stuck auf Englisch für euch:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope,  An Essay on Criticism, 1709

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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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