The Beauty of German

Another guest post from LearnWithOliver.com user Robert Dupuis about the beauty of German. Enjoy! 🙂

When I began studying German I was simply overwhelmed. Accustomed as I was to lightly inflected languages such as English, French and Spanish, heavily inflected German was comparable to quicksand ― constantly in motion. There are six indefinite articles ― ein, eines, einer, einem, einen and eine ― and six definite articles ― der, das, die, den, dem and des ― which are declined differently according to the nuclear, gender, and case of their nouns. Add to them a few short words that begin with ein- and whole passel of short d- words, and I felt lost. It’s therefore essential that you, if you’re determined to master German, learn the articles upside-down and maybe even backwards, especially since the declension of adjectives depends on which articles they follow and the grammatical role of the nouns they modify. Find a table of declensions on Internet, print it out, and affix it to a wall that you often see. That is Step Number One.

Step Number Two is learn the word order. Most German main clauses begin with the subject followed by the verb, as in English, but then things get crazy quickly. What follows may seem backwards because it is backwards, at least to us Anglophones. While we would say “Erik is coming home on the train today,” a German would say “Erik is coming today on the train home.” Time-manner-place, TMP. So much for main clauses. In subordinate clauses the verb no longer comes in the second place but is sent packing to clause’s very end. The words that introduce most subordinate clauses are während, bis, als, wenn, da, weil, ob, obwohl, and dass. Put a list of them on the oft-seen wall too.

Step Number Three: Pay close attention to noun genders, otherwise using the articles correctly will be impossible and reading a guessing game. There are masculine, feminine and neuter nouns, some endings of which tell you the gender. Those that end in –keit, –heit, -schaft and –ung, for example, are invariably feminine, -ler, -ner and –ismus masculine, and –lein and –chen neuter, but there are many others whose genders simply have to be memorized. To help me do this I put everything in one of three locations: the masculine Platz (“square”), the feminine Straße (“street”), or the neuter Stadion (“stadium”). In the stadium I put only neuter objects: horse, car, baby, room, water, book, rope, bed, house, girl, etc. I’ve even created a surreal mental painting: The horse, ridden by the baby, is rope-towing the stuck-in-water car, driven by the girl. In this room too is a bed in which a deer with huge antlers and a yawning hippopotamus lie side by side. Through the window by the bed is seen the roof of the neighbor’s house and the inside of the curving stadium beyond it. The horse, by the way, is reading a book entitled Horse Sense splayed open on a portable podium extending from its chest. The nouns, all neuter, in order of mention are Pferd, Baby, Seil, Wasser, Auto, Mädchen, Zimmer, Bett, Reh, Geweih, Nilpferd, Fenster, Dach, Nachbarn, Haus, Stadium, Buch, Gefühl, Podium, Brustkorb. I’ve filled the street with feminine nouns and the plaza beyond it with neuter nouns. “Personalizing“ otherwise dry information using this or similar devices is very useful in language learning.

Am I saying that taking the above three steps will make learning German easy? No, not at all. German, at least in my opinion, is a very complicated language ― perhaps the most complicated. But to me it’s worth the effort. Why? With the exception of Dutch there is nothing similar, and Dutch is so much easier that its similarity to German may be less apparent than its differences. It’s much less inflected ― highly inflected languages such as German, Russian and Greek tend to be more syntactically flexible, therefore more specific and expressive. But there are two features of German that lighten the load, and one of the two make it creative and playful. The first is the capitalization of all nouns. Before you know a language fairly well, a text seems like a sea of swelling words, correct? What’s this? What’s that? Ai, just look at that thing over there!! Reaching the text’s end may seem as difficult as swimming from New York to Lisbon. In German, however, the nouns stand out and up like concrete pillars that make it much easier for you to identify the other elements in the sentence. And since the location of verbs is predictable, you can put them (the nuts) together with the nouns (the bolts) to get the gist. Noun capitalization is so handy that I recommend you do the same to your nouns in whatever language you use. I honestly think that world peace would come shortly.

Noun capitalization is proof that the sadist who invented German kissed puppies.

The other feature that makes German special is compound words. We have them in English too ― football, underground, without, hedgehog and undercut are examples ― but, perhaps because they aren’t capitalized, they lack the punch of those in German and are much less numerous. Many compound words are shorter than their translations. Verschlimmbesserung may at eighteen letters seem long, but compared to its translation is wonderfully short: “an intended improvement that makes things worse.” Good luck finding them in the dictionary since many of them seem to be and undoubtedly are made up on the spot by the Puppykisser or his Wordartistbuddies. Analogous to how explained jokes never provoke laughter, you either “get” compound words or you don’t ― if you don’t, it’s off to the dictionary for a Wildwordchase. Translation, however, consists of much more than denotation; connotation is usually untranslatable and phonetics always is: Sitzpinkler is comic while “a man who sits when he pees” is Dictionaryflat. Here’s one that might come in handy if you ever land a job in a German insane asylum: Unterhosenbügler ― “a man who irons his underwear.”

German is especially attractive in that it’s a great intellectual challenge. All languages are of course, but German is high up on the list. To use it very well will require a huge amount of blood, sweat and tears. At times that day of fluency may seem impossibly distant, but don’t give up. Remember that the longest journey begins with one step so, not only with language learning but with everything you set out to do, toss out the self-doubts and just keep walking. Just keep walking. Just keep walking…

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