German, English and Word Quirks

It’s funny. You can be familiar with something for years before you realize some of the major differences between it and what you are used to, and the hints that gives about the thought below and behind the thing. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in  architecture and art history German this spring that I realized that English eats words whole, while Germans translate them. I’d seen it before, but not to such an extent that it hit me like a two-by-four between the eyes. Kinda like fish not realizing they are wet.

While planning for this last run to Europe, I depended on German-language guide books and references. And they kept talking about the “Schiffhall” of a church, and “Seitenschiff.” Schiff is “ship” or boat, which made zero sense in the context of Romanesque or Gothic architecture. What did a “side ship” mean? One evening it dropped on my head like a ton of bricks and I wanted to slap myself for being so dense. In English, we refer to that part of the building as the nave (pronounced “nay-v”). But the Latin is “navis” (“nah-wis” or “nah-vis”), ablative singular case is “nave” and means . . . ship. The “side ships” are what I’d call side aisles, but are also side naves, parallel to the main space and separated by a row of columns. Because the interior of the space looks a bit like a boat turned upside down, it is the nave. English just took the word, while German translated it.

Once I saw that, it began appearing all over. Medical terms I knew got translated. Diabetes is “zukerkrankheit:” sugar disease (straight out of the Greek). And I’d encountered Mittelmeer, the Sea in the Middle, (Media-terra, or Mediterranean) before. But the words just began jumping out at me everywhere, probably because I was dealing with an area where Latin came straight into English.

Which raises an interesting question of why English grafts but German translates. The linguist John McWhorter theorizes that English is a pidgin, that is, a somewhat-artificial language created to bridge a gap between peoples for reasons of trade and other things. He sees it as going back to the Saxons and Britons, and uses English’s grammatical quirks as one line of evidence. I’d suggest that English’s habit of sucking words in whole is another bit of that. If you are trying to express something new, and the stranger’s word works perfectly well, why not use it as is? Especially for technical terms and special things that you need to be able to express across cultures and languages. Britain was, in effect, trilingual for several centuries, with P and Q Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and then Norman French spoken in various regions. So we end up with pig, pork, whisky/whiskey, church and kirk. Later we pull in technical terms like Paleolithic.

German-speakers usually say “Alt-steinzeit” instead. And “Jungsteinzeit,” “Schiffhalle,” and other things. German looks at the Latin, Greek, Slavic, and uses the meaning instead of the original word (with some exceptions, including place names). German is not a pidgin, but an older, more complex (in some ways) language. English coins new terms, German combines older ones in order to get the same meaning across. Sometimes the translation is more precise. English refers to the Pannonian Basin, which could bring to mind a type of sink or a fancy dish for the table. The German term only refers to a geologic depression, now filled with sediment. (And let me add that fluency in geology is very, very helpful for puzzling out this kind of thing. Ditto architecture and some historical stuff. You never know when esoteric hobbies will prove useful.)

I’m not going to say that this linguistic adoptionism shows that English-thinkers are more open to new ideas and more adaptable, or some such. It does make English more frustrating for people coming in from non Romance or Germanic languages, I suspect. German lets you learn the meaning along with the word, while English makes you learn a strange word that has nothing to do with the idea it is expressing, UNLESS you know the root language of the borrowed word. (Three cheers for four years of Latin). Nor will I say that English is “richer,” although we do have more shades of ways to say things without stringing words together. But it does fit the idea that German speakers are more literal and direct, going to the precise meaning and saying it plainly.

Unless you are Emmanuel Kant, but we won’t talk about that.