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.


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