Language & Such

Pfingsten May 26, 2015
Today, Tuesday, was the get-back-to-work day after a three-day weekend. The occasion was Pentecost, which is called Pfingsten in German. Pronounce the P and the F together (like a tire losing air) followed by a word that rhymes with "Kingston." My computer's built-in dictionary gives me an intriguing derivation:
mittelhochdeutsch pfingesten, eigentlich Dativ Plural, wohl über gotisch (Kirchensprache) paíntēkustē < griechisch pentēkostḗ (hēméra) = der 50. (Tag nach Ostern), zu: pénte (pémpe) = fünf
Middle High German pfingsten, actually dative plural, via Gothic (church language) paíntēkustē < Greek pentēkostḗ (hēméra) = the 50th (day after Easter), to pénte (pémpe) = fünf (five)
The English word Pentecost is similar to the Greek. I'm fascinated to see the present-day German word includes a transmutation from the root "pente" to "fünf", keeping the P at the front. I've always thought it was an odd word.

Reading further I see that Pentecost, a word scarcely mentioned in my protestant upbringing in the USA, refers to the 50th day after Easter and appears to be the day the apostles were filled with the holy spirit. In any case, the day did not merit holiday treatment where I came from. Here in Germany, the same as Easter, there are actually two days: Pfinstsonntag and Pfingstmontag. I have been unable to determine the reason for having a second day--perhaps it's to make sure you get a day off from work when the holiday falls on a Sunday by definition. What I find, instead of reasons why, is a list of attempts to abolish the Monday holiday (by employer associations, for example).

And the holiday-naysayers have a point. The month of May is filled with legal holidays in Germany. May 1st (a Friday this year) is labor day and was rounded into a three-day weekend. The other holidays slide around depending on the timing of Easter in a given year. This year Easter was pretty early (April 5th), so the follow-on holidays have all hit in May. Christihimmelfahrt (Christ's ascension) was May 14th, which became a four-day weekend (for school kids). And then came Pfingsten May 24th-25th.

By long-standing tradition, we are now in the Pfingstferien: a two-week school vacation. We had two weeks off at Easter and then the elongated weekends in early May. My daughter can count an exhausting 13 days in school for the entire month. I call this season the "Swiss cheese" part of the year, when normal routines get huge holes. The metaphor doesn't work around here, though. First of all, the vacations are highly anticipated and planned (you can take a nice trip in two weeks). Second, all the Swiss cheese you see here is dense and hole-less, nothing like the sliced cheese we're so used to on sandwiches in the USA.

In case anyone is concerned about all this time off from school, don't worry. Miriam will head back for the final weeks of June and most of July. She will suffer the mind-numbing not-quite-the-end-of-school-but-too-late-to-do-anything-really weeks before she starts her six-week summer vacation. That's right. She'll be back in school on September 14th, looking forward to fall break, Christmas vacation, Faschings vacation, and the whole Easter cycle again.

Krass April 25, 2015
One of the words that seemed to have emerged into common German parlance sometime between 1995 and 2010, while I was back in the States, is the adjective "krass". There's an English parallel in the word "crass", but the German word is applied with a wider range of meaning, whereas the English word remains negative. "Crass" might describe poor taste or "bad" language or gestures like nose-picking in public. When I began to hear people say, "Das ist krass!" as an exclamation of amazement or praise, I realized the German word went in multiple directions.

The casting show craze is a case in point. Last night was the end of this year's "The Voice Kids" on German TV. I watch the show with my daughter sometimes, half horrified and half impressed. Here's typical high praise from the coaches: "Das war absolut krass!" Or they might really get going and toss out phrases like: "hammermäßig krass!" and "krass, krass, krass!" Not surprisingly, both words comes from the Latin word "crassus", which means "thick, coarse, solid". The extended use in Germany is attributed to usage by the young generation.

This past week I had an opportunity to see something that indeed was "krass"--on numerous levels. On April 21 I attended the Rameau opera Platée at the Staatstheater Stuttgart. Have a look at the photos to get a sense of the imagery: a cross-dressing lead character, 1970's disco style chorus, hanging blue bulbs for a mesmerizing rain, dildos, heterosexual but mostly homosexual liaisons, and the disco ball that spun high above the audience from the opera house ceiling. A great deal of busy activity occurred during the long stretches of Baroque dance music. For example, a character ran a feather duster around the stage, in time to the music, during one interlude. Perhaps the lasting picture of the evening, and the one that most expresses my understanding of the word "krass" was the god Bacchus. A non-singing extra appeared at the back of the raked stage and slowly emerged from a mist. Head wound in grape vines, broad bare shoulders, and pendulous breasts that stretched to the waist of a grape-vined bikini bottom. She walked calmly around the stage, pushing away the chorus members' hands as they sought the wine of Bacchus. Her face moved from blandness to occasional impishness. Her body was massive. The whole show was "krass" (and delightful and exquisitely sung); Bacchus was "hammermäßig krass."

Easter season April 18, 2014
In Germany, we notice Easter not just by the arrival of colorful eggs and chocolates in the form of bunnies. True to a long Christian history, both Catholic and Protestant, the whole country takes additional holidays to commemorate the season. The Friday before Easter (Karfreitag) and the Monday after Easter (Ostermontag) are national holidays. Schools like my daughter's take a two-week vacation at Easter, chasing the holiday as it follows the cycles of the moon to land at different times each year. This year's Easter on April 20th feels medium to me. In a matter of eight weeks, there will be another two-week holiday for Pfingsten (Pentecost). In between, we'll have a four-day weekend over the First of May (Germany's Tag der Arbeit or Labor Day). At the end of May there's another long weekend for Christihimmelfahrt (Christ's Ascension). Calendar-wise, Germany is entrenched in rhythms of its dominant religion. We joke that we have entered the part of the school year when it practically doesn't make sense to go at all--there are so many gaps.

Restaurants, public transit, and gas stations remain open, but shopping is essentially shut down in Germany on national holidays. That can make it a little tense when you need to make sure you have food on hand for a four-day Easter weekend stretch (with Saturday commerce in between, like coming up for a breath of air and going back to swim underwater).

The terminology for Lent/Fastenzeit and Easter/Ostern is quite similar in English and German, with a few exceptions. I've made links to wikipedia articles for each term, some of which explain the origin of the names satisfactorily.

Fastenzeit (fasting time)  |  Lent (from German "Lenz"=spring)

Karwoche (Week of sorrow)  |  Holy Week
Gründonnerstag (Green Thursday)  |  Maundy Thursday
Karfreitag (Friday of sorrow)  |  Good Friday
Karsamstag (Saturday of sorrow)  |  Holy Saturday
Ostersonntag  |  Easter Sunday
Ostermontag (Easter Monday)

Opfer December 21, 2012
As I lay in bed this morning, listening to the radio and slowly waking up, I heard the newscaster mention today's planned moment of silence for the dead schoolchildren, teachers, and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary. She said (I paraphrase), "Der Opfer von Newtown wird gedacht." I puzzled it through, as I sometimes must do, to tease apart the German. The word "Opfer, das" means victim. To get to "der Opfer", you'd need a plural used either in the dative or the genitive. It's a group of them, so plural makes sense. The past participle "gedacht" could come from "denken", meaning "to think". But how does it connect to that up-front object? I needed my native speaker husband and a cup of coffee to see it clearly, in part because the genitive is hard to feel as a non-native speaker. It's the case German's classify with "wessen" (instead of "wer", "wen", or "wem", if that means anything to you). And it's not "wessen denken" but "wessen gedenken". "Gedenken" means "to remember". (Of) the victims of Newtown will be remembered. That's what it breaks down to.

Of course, I knew that meaning without figuring out those picky details. What else could it mean? More interesting, I realized, is the word "Opfer", which means both "victim" and "sacrifice". One reference indicates an etymological relation to "Oblate" (the wafer used in communion to represent the sacrificed body of Christ). External violence is often part of the "victim" context. Sacrifice carries old-sounding ideas of burnt offerings or acts of intentional personal loss (a sacrifice bunt in baseball).

I've been confused by the idea of sacrifice before. A friend said the words, "So much sacrifice" after my son died. I had trouble seeing his death to cancer as sacrifice. I saw him as a victim, and I had in no way willingly given him up. In a situation like the shootings in Connecticut, though, I can begin to see the losses as sacrifices. Some died that day, keeping others alive. Some must willingly have sacrificed themselves, walking into fire or attempting to block others. They were all victims. They were all sacrificed. But upon what altar?

With the passage of time, maybe with an event like this shooting, I can see ways that Simon's death to neuroblastoma has supported other children who survive. He did his part in medical trials. But, more significantly, he occupies a place on the unlucky side of the survival statistics. Picture a bunch of neuroblastoma kids on a seesaw. The unlucky side is the heavy one. Yet there are children alive up on the light end of the beam--improbable but worthy survivors.

Quatsch! January 10, 2012
Walking home from the bakery today, I encountered a threesome: two small children in hats and coats each behind a scooter and a woman leaning over one of them, helping with the pushing. Our paths neared, and I was impressed to see them clumping together to let me pass, seemingly without instruction from the adult. That's pretty young to have unprompted sidewalk-sharing awareness (compare: the middle schoolers I have accompanied on field trips).

While in earshot, I heard one of the children saying "Oma and Opa," perhaps in reference to an older couple some distance away. To which the woman, presumably the child's mother, replied, "Quatsch!" (pronounced kvatch, rhymes with "watch").

The expression means something like "Nonsense!" But it comes out more harshly, to my ear. It's the sort of sound I wouldn't necessarily direct at a little kid, even if the child had just made some outlandish claim. I've heard the word used quite neutrally: for example, when the allotted time doesn't match the task, someone might say, "Das ist Quatsch!" Like the mother I observed this afternoon, the speaker does not appear to intend rudeness, even if that is what my cultural bias leads me to sense.

Duden's Online dictionary says the expression derives from the verb "quatschen," which means to talk copiously and foolishly. Probably to a native speaker, it doesn't have the slap-on-the-face percussiveness that I perceive.

I feel similarly jarred by the word "Scheiße!" in current parlance. All kinds of people in all kinds of settings will classify all kinds of things this way. Which leads me to think that the word is not a direct equivalent of English's "Shit!" Maybe it's the percussiveness again, with the German word in this case being the softer sounding and more "palatable" of the two. I'd say it's more like English's "Crap!" in terms of ubiquity and general acceptability.

German speakers often snatch an expression from English, mid-conversation, such as "Ladies and Gentleman, darf ich Sie bitten…" And they mix things up quite casually. A common expression of surprise or disgust is "Ach, du Scheiße!" (literally, Oh, you shit!) I know of no direct English version of that, but it feels a bit like "Oh, my god!" Amusingly, they often make the substitution of "Ach, du Shit!" Reminds me of the strange Utah practice of people saying, "Oh, my heck!" as a sort of clean, deity-free version of this remark. But then you get the former and the non-Mormons who stake out new territory by exclaiming: "Oh, my hell!" As a non-Utahn, I've never been able to decide which version is more bizarre.

Wein, Weib und Gesang - (amid) Wine, (as a) Wife, and (in) Song March 31, 2011
An old saying, re-applied and personalized. Wine, Women and Song ("Wein, Weib, und Gesang") is an old German saying for (a man's) pleasures in life. "Weib" is an outdated word for "woman" (related to the English word "wife") and in current parlance sounds crass. The saying, if somewhat sarcastically applied, resonates with where and how I find myself these days: I live in a German town surrounded by vineyards; I'm here because I'm a wife and my husband works here; and I have a life-long relationship with singing.

German nouns that end in "-nis" November 22, 2010
Pursuant to my November 15, 2010 post "Erfolgserlebnis" I've begun an inventory of German nouns that end with "-nis" and their gender. I'd appreciate additional examples. Also, if anyone knows of a good reference (on line or in print) about German prefixes and suffixes, please use the comment section below to let me know!

feminine words ("die")
die Bewandtnis (reason, explanation; related verb: unclear)
die Befugnis (authority; related verb: unclear)
die Erlaubnis (permission; related verb: erlauben (to allow))
die Finsternis (darkness; related verb: none; adjective: finster (dark))
die Kenntnis (knowledge; related verb: kennen (to know))

neuter words ("das")
das Erlebnis (experience; related verb: erleben (to experience))
das Verständnis (understanding; related verb: verstehen (to understand))
das Ergebnis (result; related verb: ergeben (to result))

Delight in Detail September 29, 2010
Reading Tuesday's Heilbronner Stimme (28 September 2010), I encountered a review of Verdi's opera Luisa Miller in a new production at the Staatsoper in Stuttgart. The enthusiastic reviewer characterized director Markus Dietz as showing subtle "Detailfreude" - joy or delight in detail. The German language allows for the ramming together of words to convey concepts with distinct impact. Somehow the English stringing together of nouns diluted with prepositions yields a less compelling result. We can't say "detailjoy" or even "detail joy," can we? Perhaps that's why we need our verbs so much in English to strengthen our writing. I'm remembering the Volkswagen ad campaign that touted "Fahrvergnügen" - driving satisfaction. No wonder they said it in German.

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