Deutsch verstehen!?! Ich auch nicht!

In Berlin, 3. Language, The Art of Travel by Gillian1 Comment

Carlos V of Spain supposedly once said, “Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, German to my horse.” Sexism aside, he touches upon a theme I’ve encountered often in my two years studying German: many cultures and people do not find German a particularly beautiful language. When I first tell people I take German, I often get the reaction along the lines of, “It’s so harsh/ugly/violent sounding.” I often get this reaction from native English-speakers, and, for the record, English and German linguistically land in the same language family, meaning they’re much more similar and similar sounding than you’d probably like to think. However, beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder; I can’t and am in no place to try to convince people to hear what I hear in German sounds–intricacy, preciseness, complexity. I can, on the other hand, make the argument that, like so many things in life, the true beauty of German has little to do with appearances and everything to do with its substance, meaning, and intention.

So many German words are really and truly untranslatable. They convey an essence that makes sense only in its original form, an idea that we can only try and wrap our minds around using our native language. I love that about German. I’ll start with some of the vocab on my next quiz:

Das Fernweh: noun, a feeling opposite to homesickness, a kind of travel-sickness. My nearly constant state of being, at least in New York. My Fernweh has quieted since arriving in Berlin, yet nags at me still. The country we know today as Germany only formed a little under 200 years ago. Before, it was comprised of several small kingdom-states, each with its own way of life very different from that of another kingdom. Germany as a country has so much to offer, from Düsseldorf to Bremen to Frankfurt, München, Hamburg, and I want to see as much of it as I can. The scars of Germany’s unification, division, and reunification are still very visible, and I intend to take care that they are seen. In a country like this one, also smack in the middle of a continent so diverse, how could you not experience Fernweh?

Der Treppenwitz: noun, that feeling when you leave a conversation with an attractive person or friend or when you leave a fight and in retrospect think of something better that you could/should/would have said but didn’t. Also my nearly constant state of being.

Nachvollziehen: verb, = understand + to empathize. In German’s most commonly used grammatical past tense, the main verb comes at the very end of the sentence. This structure necessitates something I as a native English-speaker often have trouble with: listening. You quite literally cannot tell what someone is trying to say in German unless you listen to them through the very end of their sentence. I have found all Germans (and German learners) to be incredible listeners, and it’s easy to trace this skill back to the source: language. I personally find this skill as both the greatest strength in German culture, and its greatest weakness. Germany prides itself in its intellectual tradition of philosophers, sociologists, psychologists–people and disciplines which require intense listening to others, and to oneself. I find it a weakness because Germans have not always given their gift of intense listening to the right people, and have, as we know, indeed entrusted it to the worst people. German has very few interjections, because, simple as it may sound, everything someone says is important to understanding what they are trying to say. Germans will not interrupt your story to say “cool!” “no way!” “seriously?!” or “wow that sucks/is awesome.” They remain quiet, intently listening, until you are finished speaking, and then they respond. They nachvollziehen.

Die Vergangenheitsbewältigung: noun, a reconciliation with the past. This word just might be my favorite, and not just because it’s a classic example of German’s love of Frankenstein zombie-ing different words together into one monster word (Vergangenheit, meaning past) + (bewältigung, meaning coping or overcoming) = Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Germany has an undeniably horrific past. It has notoriously taken the role of tormentor, and less notoriously been tormented. I do not intend to excuse any of this, and I am in no position to do so. I do, however, think that just by virtue of having a word for such a crucial concept in healing and learning from the past, Germany has taken another step closer to accomplishing such a feat. Can we say the same about the United States, with our brutal slave-owning past, with our savagery in the Vietnam War? Do we have a sense of Vergangenheitsbewältigung? I’m not so sure, but we do not have a word for it.

German is a difficult language. Thanks to its grammatical structure and noun declensions, you can sometimes form a sentence in as many as six or seven different ways (think: “I walked through the park last night” vs. “Last night I walked through the park” vs. “Through the park last night I walked,” etc. Except six or seven different ways that all make sense and sound not awkward). On top of its roller-coaster ride pronunciation, German requires listening to others and yourself. It requires you to think about what you are going to say as you say it. It requires an understanding I encounter in neither English nor Spanish, if only to begin to understand the untranslatable.

(Image: A mural next to where the iron curtain once stood by Mauerpark; Source: Gillian)


  1. Hi Gillian,
    I love your acknowledgement of the fact that English and German are very similar languages. I think it is safe to say that many Americans live in a sort of bubble, assuming people all over the world speak English and that American practices are common practices. Every time I hear things like this, it always draws my attention to the stereotype that Americans think they are the best. It is interesting, however, that you boil this down to language. I have never thought about what English sounds like to non-native English speakers. Is it as powerful a language as German, is it as poetic as French, is it as intriguing as Spanish? This is just something I have never considered, which I think illustrates me feeding into this stereotype of living in my US centric bubble. I have made a snap judgement about how each language I have encountered sounds and it’s really interesting to observe this concept from the outside, thinking in reverse to my language. I’m glad you brought this up, because I will definitely keep that concept in mind as I struggle to speak English as little as possible in Paris.

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