Hilfe, ich bin im Kult gefangen!

Am two thirds of the way through a 3-week summer intensive "German for Reading Knowledge" course that meets for 3 hours daily (and bright and early–by summer standards–at 9:30) and assigns a corresponding amount of homework each night. As the title says (hopefully correctly), I’m feeling like a prisoner in a cult these days.  It’s great to get an academic requirement that would otherwise be a distraction out of the way quickly, but boy does an intensive course like this take over your life.

For a change, I’m finding my Danish exceedingly useful. Many words are nearly the same, or can easily be guessed once you’ve figured out how words translate between the two languages (e.g., "foreign" is udlandsk and ausländisch in Danish and German respectively;  "of course" is selvfølgelig and selbstvorständlich; ad infinitum). They both have that Teutonic penchant for mischievously tossing about one-syllable modal particles denoting mood and other shades of meaning generally conveyed in English by additional clauses (e.g., doch and dog, auch and også, …,  in German and Danish).  And both languages tend to use subject-verb word order that can sound archaic and even Shakespearean to English speakers now.

Even with these advantages, I have enough to worry about with all these dang Latin-like case endings and composite verbs that do somersaults throughout the sentence depending on tense. In German, there are fairly involved rules for the endings of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, articles and even conjunctions.   Each of these parts of speech ends in a combination of "-e", "-en", "-er", "-s", "-es", "-n", or "-m" depending on what it is doing and whom its neighbors happen to be. English retains some vestiges of its forgotten past as an inflected language (a/an,  who/whom/whose/which, he/him/his, the/this/that/these/those, …), but is thankfully far simpler in this respect today. As for verbs, imagine if manyEnglish verbs worked thus: "The invaders the defenses of the castle soon will overwhelm";  "The invaders the defenses of the castle have bewhelmed over;" and "The invaders now are  the defenses of the castle whelming over."  Same verb with same meaning aside from tense in all 3 sentences.  Finally, there’s the well known confusing German reluctance to share a sentence’s verb with the listener until the bitter end (e.g., Ich habe jetzt eine fantastische Geschichte gelest.  "I just a fantastic story read." Come to think of it, this reminds me a bit of Urdu.)   

I don’t want to think how much time those without any previous exposure
to the language are putting into figuring  this stuff out, simutaneously looking up every word as they grapple with unfamiliar sentence structure and grammar.  Of course, they could have it worse. At least they’re coming from English, which is in the same linguistic family. You have to give credit to the hardy souls working their way through a Der Spiegel article in a Goethe Institute class in, say, Beijing.

Every now and again, though, I do get caught up by a proverbial Faux Ami ("falsch Freund"?) resulting from illusory Danish cognates, as when I perplexed my teacher the other day by very confidently translating Sohlengänger as "solitary" while reading aloud in class. It actually means "plantigrade" in English  (whatever that means). Everyone else had presumably automatically looked it up in the glossary, but thinking the meaning obvious from context and linguistic resonances I winged and got it wrong. (If you’re wondering why we’d be learning such obscure vocab, our text concerned the welfare of the bear, a beloved and nearly extinct animal in Germany.)

In any case, it’s nice to be taking a language that comes easily for a change, especially after a year of battling…er…studying Arabic.

Will soon be starting my first course in Farsi, which I hear it a lot easier than Arabic.

  • http://revoltinthedesert.blogspot.com Lawrence of Arabia

    i still have my copy of “german for reading knowledge”, though, sadly, my german has gone unused for several years now and my facility is diminishing rapidly.
    best of luck with your languages (i can’t believe you are doing two in one summer). you have a great deal of sympathy from those who have gone down that road before you.

  • http://hangingodes.wordpress.com Abu Muhammad

    Do you know Urdu, Svend?

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Salaams, LoA and AM
    Yeah, two courses (and news languages) is a lot. It kinda steals your summer. I’m on an assistantship the terms of which require that I take a 9 credit load over the summer if I want to take anything at all. I don’t have to take courses, but if I want to avoid paying through the nose per credit, I have to do at least 9.
    I wish, Abu Muhammad. I always say that I’m like a kutta (dog), but a *Pakistani* kutta. I only understand commands (Bhatti bandt karo. [Turn off the light.] Bas karo. [Cut that out.] Chelo nahao. [Go take a bath.] Namaz parley. [Pray.] Panni do. [Give me water.] Etc.)
    Whether I always *obey* is another story.

  • http://hangingodes.wordpress.com Abu Muhammad


  • http://dezhen.wordpress.com/ dawood

    I have an old Uni friend who is of German descent (from Luxembourg) and he married a Norwegian and lives in Norway now. He found German exceedingly useful in that situation as well!

  • UmmZaid

    Salaam ‘Alaikum
    //e.g., “foreign” is udlandsk and ausländisch in Danish and German respectively;//
    This has nothing to do with your post, really, but didn’t English speakers used to call foreigners “outlanders?” (Like that ridiculous soppy romantic time travel series of books with the same name?)

  • http://otherlives.blogspot.com Nancy

    Well, we certainly don’t call foreigners “outlanders” anymore. That would be outlandish!
    Your description of German grammar has me bewhelmed over. :-) I studied it recreationally in college for a year, but I can neither read nor converse in it now. I was enamored by the sound of it, but all those declensions, man. They made me tired. Good luck with it! I kind of envy you – I wish I had an excuse to devote that much time to the study of a language, any language.
    Like a Pakistani dog – that made me laugh!