21 January 2006

German Language

Die Ewige Frage

To calque or not to calque; that is the question. And lest you think we're in the Language Lavatory, deciding whether the seal between the tub and the wall needs attention, let's set matters straight: the calque we're talking about is the one that otherwise goes by the name of loan translation: an expression introduced into one language by translating it from another. A couple months ago we visited this topic and promised (or would you say, threatened?) to return to it with a German focus later. The tonic of colder weather has brought out the Teutonic in us, and we now ready to rise from our sitz bath and take on the task.

So Gross, So Wunderbar

Modern German has a peculiar relationship to English. While German rightly claims English as belonging to its language family, English has been so influenced - Germans might say adulterated - with Latinate vocabulary (from Latin and French) that it has lost acquaintance with many German roots that appeared in earlier English words. This leaves different options for the modern speaker when borrowing from German: you can translate the word outright (in other words, calque it), or you can simply borrow it: use the German word untranslated. The gray and problematic area lies in between, with German words that have a kind of half-life in English, circulating unnoticed in certain quarters while having the power to stop conversation in others.

Let's look at the first group first: successful calques from German in English that are so well-established you'd never know that their origins were Over There. German over the centuries has provide rich pickings for loan translations to English: such words enable us to enjoy the rigors of German thinking, without the handicap of impossible pronunciation and spelling! The very term loan translation is an example: who knew that it started out life as Lehnübersetzung? If you turn on the German display in the Visual Thesaurus, we can zoom in on a couple more of these successful German calques. Take antibody for example: a calque of German Antikörper. Some other calques from German, which you will have to break into their constituent parts to see the origins of, are guest worker, wintergreen, and superman.

Just Go Native

The other end of the spectrum is German words that survive intact in English: sometimes with identical meaning to the German, and sometimes slightly changed. Ersatz is an example. English speakers tend to use it mainly as a pejorative adjective, denoting an artificial and inferior substitute. In German, it just means substitute, which you'll get a glimpse of in this word picture from the related verb, ersetzen. Other words fully naturalized in English from German are hamster, kindergarten, poltergeist, realpolitik, and wanderlust. Several German food names live in English as well, some of them modestly changed in denotation from the original: muesli, pretzel, sauerkraut, and zwieback are examples, and for any food name ending in wurst, you can point the sausage at German.

Nicht hier, nicht dort

We come now to that difficult gray area: cases where English has a native equivalent or near-equivalent to the German but also a history of direct German borrowing, and you must plumb the depths of angst (or perhaps, merely anxiety), in order to choose: go for the homespun English word and sound ordinary, or risk the German, with its fraught pronunciation, and the possibility that your word, once delivered, will either fly over the heads of your listeners or simply deal them an unexpected sucker punch.

You can, for example, expound your world view without fanfare or trepidation, but if you decide to declaim about your Weltanschauung - well, that's a different story! Consider carefully who your listeners are before taking this step: if your old Aunt Clara or your hip-hop niece Ashley are in the room, don't go there! If you bomb, you'll get a lot of "Huh?"s or embarrassed silence. But if get away with it - presumably in an audience of folks just as bright as you are - why, it's almost as good as having a copy of the New York Review of Books on your coffee table! There are several other such cases, for which the Loungeurs, after due reflection and numerous gedankenexperiments, have devised the following consensus views:

Form: It's such an all-purpose word in English, as its word picture suggests. Because of that, one longs for an elegant variation from time to time. However, caution is urged before substituting the German Gestalt. You should not, for example, try it on your parents or your date, unless all of you are PhDs, or have spent years in Jungian therapy.

Gloating: if the average educational attainment of your audience is bachelor's degree or better, go for the German Schadenfreude; especially if you wish to suggest that the behavior or feeling in question is a character trait rather than a passing phenom.

Housewife: The unaccountable loss of dignity this word has suffered is not helped by the German Hausfrau, which simply makes her sound older and dumpier. Better to go with homemaker instead.

Leader: Better to stick with the English here, unless it is your intention to make permanent enemies and cause strife, in which case you can resort to German Führer.

Turmoil: English supplies many ready alternatives, but if literary brownie points are your main objective, pop for Sturm und Drang; it suggests suffering of a much more refined nature.

Wonderful: The well-known German equivalent, wunderbar, enjoys some currency in English but hardly ever makes it as a straightforward substitute. Better not to plug it in unless you intend to convey a meaning ranging somewhere between not really all that great and sucky. As long as we're on wonder compounds, German wunderkind makes a nice stand-in for either boy wonder or golden boy.

World-weariness: The German Weltschmerz is really much snappier but suffers from being relatively uncirculated in English. Use with caution! May evoke accusations of snobbery.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia has an interesting article on German loanwords, many of which sit comfortably on the loan/calque fence in English.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:German_loanwords (Good for straightforward loans).

You might also want to brush up the after prime-time end of your German vocabulary with Uta's Funky German-English list:


Finally, if you've long been searching for those obscure German-to-English equivalents that don't make it into dictionaries, browse this:


Writing in the Margins
Don't just Dream or Talk about it - WRITE IT! @


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