As some of you know (especially if you’ve visited the “About Me” page) I am German by birth, though I moved to Canada when I was fifteen. And while I’ve now been away from Zhe Fazherland for three and a half decades, I can safely say “You can take the boy out of Germany, but you can’t take Germany out of the Boy.“
As a nation, we are of course renowned for our Perfectionist Engineering, our Scientific Genius, and our Hardcore Philosophical Thought. What we’re somewhat less famous for is our Amazing Sense of Humor. But despite German Humor’s general lack of global renown, the simple fact is that we’ve quietly influenced the world’s comedians for generations. One needs only look at Sigmund Freud and his Cigar to see where Groucho Marx (no relation to Karl) got his material from.
I’ll get back to the humor part in a minute. For the moment, however, I’d like to focus on the German language, and on what makes it such an ideal medium to foster the precise thought-processes required for scientific and engineering success, or to arouse the profound cogitations of intellectual giants such as Einstein, Goethe, and Leibniz.
To begin with, one needs to understand High German’s basic composition, which is not unlike a Meccano Set¹. As a means of communication the language is basically constructed from a limited assortment of linguistic components, which may be combined and then recombined to define, describe, and express an infinite number of situations, states, and items, in the shape of progressively more mind-boggling compound words.
The perfect example of this Compound Nature is probably the word:
Yes, that is all one word. Erstwhile the longest one in the German Dictionary², it defines the “Law governing supervision and transfer of the informational content of Beef Labels“, and it breaks down as follows when transliterated into English and de-compounded.
This is the single most extreme example of the runaway juggernaut that is German word compounding. It is also a solid illustration of where the German language will go once it falls into the hands of bureaucrats. However, as a language German is not actually any less perplexing at the everyday level. In fact, if anything, things get somewhat strange and surreal, with words such as “Glühbirne” (lit. Glow Pear = Light Bulb), “Handschuhe” (lit. Hand Shoes = Gloves), and “Staubsauger” (lit. Dust Sucker = Vacuum Cleaner) being commonplace landmarks in the German linguistic landscape.
One can only imagine the discussion which led Germans to the term Dust Sucker, after the vacuum cleaner first arrived on the Nation’s shores:
“Vhot is zhat infernal racket?”
“It iss von off zhose new kleaning maschines J Edgar Hoover infented.”
“Vhot iss it called?”
“Ve do not haff a name for zhis maschine yet.”
“Vhy iss it making so much noize?”
“Zhat vould be zhe Vakuum Pumpe, sucking zhe dust from my carpet.”
“So zhis maschine kleans zhe floor by kreating a Vakuum to suck zhe dust from zhe carpet?
“Zhen ve shall call it zhe Dust Sucker.”
“Vhot an exzellent idea.”
As a Non-German-Thinker it is of course utterly impossible for you to follow the Intellectual Germanic Train of Reason which ultimately led us to “Dust Sucker“. A singular exception here is the legendary American musician Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart →→→).
To the ordinary Anglo-linguistic human being, however, the term “Dust Sucker” is far too literal to make any kind of sense. “Vakuum Reiniger” (Vacuum Cleaner) is much more immediately descriptive to the English imagination, thus negating the need for synapses to engage in any further derivative linguistic engineering of superfluous terminology that serves no other purpose than to describe the item’s physical actions.
Germans have no Imagination³
If you’re still here I’ll assume you’ve been paying attention. Given the examples above, you’ve probably realized that as a nation Germans are nothing if not literal-minded. This is attested to by the fact that our language has no word for “Imagination“.
German has a number of words, primarily centered around “Fantasie”, which somewhat skirt the general concept of Imagination without ever hitting the actual Bulls-Eye, but there’s no native word that actually conveys the full English meaning of “Imagination”. What’s more, mere Fantasy, as every German adult knows, serves no real practical purpose. And if it’s not in some way practical, it basically serves no actual purpose at all for the average German.
We are a ‘Nation of Doers’ who expect our language to tell us the purpose of any particular item, so we can then go do our thing with it. We don’t mess around, and all of us are acutely aware that it’s physically impossible to clean a vacuum, since there’s by definition nothing in a vacuum worth cleaning. Ergo, the English moniker for this item is just an extremely silly label for what is effectively an immensely practical everyday device, designed to suck dust off your floor.
This singularly Germanic mindset of “Literal Practicality” is an important factor that’s generally overlooked by English speakers trying to wrestle the German language, or wondering where some of its stranger words originate.
With these facts firmly in mind, and speaking as a native, it is my contention that the German language has deliberately ‘evolved‘ to efficiently make the most use of its existing Germanic components, without having to go through the tedious and messy process of ‘Fant’sie-ing-up‘ entirely different and mostly Latin-derived terms when naming new stuff.
Further, due to its fundamentally literal nature, German’s preoccupation with naming new stuff using existing stuff is so pronounced that the word “Stuff” (Zeug) itself is used as a descriptor in countless words.
- Grünzeug – lit. Green Stuff = Salad/Vegetables/Greenery
- Fahrzeug – lit. Drive Stuff = Vehicle
- Feuerzeug – lit. Fire Stuff = Lighter
- Flugzeug – lit. Flight Stuff = Aeroplane⁴
- Schlagzeug – lit. Beat Stuff = Drum Kit
- Werkzeug – lit. Work Stuff = Tool
The rule of thumb here is “Take the word Stuff and append it to whatever the action performed by a particular article is.” As I said previously, Germany’s Literal/Practical attitude is “Tell me what it does so I can go do it.” By and large we don’t tend to excessively worry about long-term consequences before we take action. Once we decide to do something, we simply invade Poland and play it by ear.
One notable exception to this rule is the word “Grünzeug“, which can basically be used to label any type of vegetation. This is because Germany is primarily a Nation of Meat Eaters who treat all plant matter with equal contempt.
But despite our innate literalness, we don’t always get it right. For instance, take the word “Fingerhut” (lit. Finger Hat = Thimble) which is possibly the grossest misnomer in the German language. Why anyone would call this item a Finger Hat, when it is plainly a “Fingerhelm” (lit. Finger Helmet), defies even my most determined attempts at applying Germanic Language Logic to the naming of this ancient and simple sewing accessory.
To Put it Simply…
The occasional misnomer nothwithstanding, there really is nothing simple at all about our language, and this includes the word “Put”, which has no fewer than twenty-six German equivalents (26!).
When dealing with your “Work Stuffs”, at the end of the day you can’t simply put them back in your “Work Stuff Crate” (Werkzeugkiste – See how this works?). No indeed… As a German ‘you’re linguistically forced‘ to be terminologically specific about how you’re returning your tools to their toolbox.
German, then, is in effect a language that manages to simplify many Nouns to the point of Village Idiocy before proceeding to become a complete Nazi about complicating its Verbs to the point of sowing utter chaos among all unfortunate Non-Germans trying to comprehend ‘The Master Language‘.
Add to this mix the Latin Grammar we’ve opted for, and what you end up with is a language so needlessly over-complicated, mastering it with any degree of real competence requires considerable cranial effort. This basically forces even the average German into having to actively and thoroughly contemplate what they’re about to say or think.
It also prompts those Germans with more advanced intellectual capacities to wonder extensively about Stuff, such as “Why is there so much ‘Green Stuff’ but no ‘Red or Blue Stuff’ at all?” or “Why the hell is there not a simpler way to return my ‘Work Stuff’ back to the damn ‘Work Stuff Crate’ so I can just get the hell on with my life and go have a beer?” or “Dust Sucker? Seriously? Who comes up with this stuff?“
And once you’ve figured all that out it’s just a tiny little step to E=MC²…
which is why Germany boasts such a massive number of Intellectual Powerhouses. 😉
Who says Germans don’t have a Sense of Humor?
¹ For all you Non-Brits out there, Meccano is a children’s model construction system invented at the turn of the 20th Century by a deranged Liverpudlian in order to weaponize budding Evil Geniuses between the ages of 6 and 12. Consisting of a couple of dozen reusable types of metal strips, plates, angle girders, wheels, axles and gears, and plastic parts interconnectable using nuts, bolts, and grub screws, it’s ideal for constructing everything from Trebuchets to Spring-loaded Man Traps.
² The word was removed from the German Dictionary back in 2013, after the EU decided that checks for BSE were no longer necessary in European abattoirs, therefore making the law itself obsolete. With hindsight, it’s entirely possible that the EU did this just to put an end to German Compound Word Silliness*.
* Now, in 2018, UK Prime Minister Theresa May is living proof of the dangers of Mad Cows’ Disease… so maybe the EU’s motives were pure to begin with.
³ Since I first wrote this piece a number of folks have challenged me about the claim that German has no word for “Imagination”. Citing such words as “Vorstellungskraft” (lit. Presentation Force) or “Einbildungskraft” (lit. Vanity/Conceit Force), they contend that equate to “Imagination.” However, none of these words fully manage convey the sheer creative essence of the English word, so my statement stands, despite the complaints to the contrary. I guess my German friends just cannot imagine being wrong. 😉
⁴ A Flugzeug is very specifically an Aeroplane. Helicopters are referred to as Hubschrauber (lit. Stroke Screwer**)
** Just… Don’t…