Tag Archives: Yiddish

Harboring fools?

Last week the Hamburg harbor had its annual birthday celebration (for some photos, click here) and as a result there has been much talk of ships, sailing and cargo. In these discussions, a couple of words have stood out for me. The first is the word for tugboat – der Schlepper – because in English we can talk about moving things about by saying that we are “shlepping them.” This happens to be another example of the connection between Yiddish and German which both have the verb schleppen, meaning “to drag.” What I hadn’t realized until working on this post, however, is that there is an additional meaning of “schlepper” beyond the notion of someone who is doing the “schlepping.” Various sources gives the meanings as “fool,” “idiot” and something a bit like “slovenly” or “slacker” as well as “someone who wanders aimlessly” which feels like a distant but perhaps not totally unrelated notion (I see someone being dragged in several directions and as a result never ending up anywhere).

The second is the word die Schifffahrt – and no, your eyes don’t deceive you, in the spelling reform process this word was awarded a third “f” to ensure that its compound status was clear (see this page for a list of new triple letter words) – meaning “shipping” or “navigation,” and, when you are at a scenic location  like the Hamburg harbor, “boat trip.”

The third is the German word for “steamship” or “steamboat” – der Dampfer. This is a partial cognate as one of its other meanings is “damper” in the sense of the muting action on piano strings or in the figurative sense of “putting a damper on someone’s spirits.” But the image in my mind that helps me remember this word in its nautical sense relies on the relationship between der Dampfer and “damp” (which is actually translated either as feucht or klamm): I see a ship that is damp not solely from being afloat, but also from the condensation of the steam that is powering it.

Quite fabulously, according to the Guardian, the Guinness Book of World Records gives a combination of der Dampfer and die Schifffahrt together with a just few other words as the longest in German:
die Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft – “the association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services” – which although likely apocryphal didn’t bring up any of that red underlining WordPress uses to warn you of a misspelling!

I was also intrigued to find that der Dampfer appears in the idiom auf dem falschen Dampfer sein/sitzen – “to be barking up the wrong tree” or “to have gotten the wrong end of the stick” – something of which I’ve had no shortage of opportunities to do as I work on learning German!

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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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