German language

Laptops and lederhosen: Reißverschlussverfahren, a word on German driving

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What does the 'zipper feed-in driving method', German culture and language have in common? Expat Michael Owens seeks to answer that question.

Language is a window and a conduit into a culture. Other aspects of people's culture tell us a lot, but language often tells us the most.

In today’s Europe, which is dominated by unions and homogeneity to a degree, language is one of the last vestiges where distinctions can still be drawn. In Europe – where the written word has long been cherished, refined and, most importantly, preserved – the language of a region is clung to like a life raft on a tempestuous sea of bureaucracy brought from Brussels.

The French language, with its eloquence, romantic connotations and steadfastness against globalisation or influence from other tongues, remains one of the world’s great (and pure) languages. Just ask them.

Italian – animated, passionate, loud, yet melodic – reminds one of the rhythm of life and just how catholic Italy and Europe really are. The joke here in Germany is, “How do you get an Italian to be silent?” Answer, “Cut off his hands.”

English, especially the American variant, is a language of practicality and imperialism, used by the world for commerce and entertainment. The internet, Hollywood and the Kardashians ensure that American English will be enjoyed for years to come. “The business of America is business,” said Calvin Coolidge, and that sums it up succinctly.

The Bavarians, and their northern brethren the Germans, are a complicated bunch. Beyond their tax codes — which make up about 50 percent of the world’s tax codes — and a plethora of rules for everything, the language of these seemingly organised people is anything but that. They would have you believe otherwise, as they complain incessantly about the difficult nuances of English. Quietly I agree with their assessments on English but would never give them the satisfaction.

A great example of a simple little word in German is Reißverschlussverfahren. Ok, not that simple but a typical word nonetheless. It is what’s known as a compound word. That’s the easy part.

Understanding the rules of the road
 in Germany can be an ecstatic

What does it mean? The direct translation is ‘zipper feed-in method’. Does that help you? If you’re from the States, probably not, so I’ll continue. It’s the method, dictated by law, in which cars have to merge together on an expressway or highway. One from the left and then one from the right.

Road sign language in Germany

The name of this in German is 'Fahrbahn Verengung-Einordnen-lassen-

Actually in Germany it’s ‘rechts vor links’, so they begin on the right. The whole process reminds one of a zipper of cars and is a beautiful thing to behold when done correctly by everyone, and it speeds up the process of merging by 1.72488 percent. That’s a fact from the Max Planck Institute.

Understanding road sign in Germany

They even paint the roads to show the drivers
that a 'Fahrbahn Verengung-Einordnen-lassen-
Reißverschlusssystem' is in order.

I estimate that I have driven about 200,000 miles (320,000km) in my life – a great majority of those miles on Florida's roads. Granted, Florida is always competing with some other state for having the least safest roads in America, but it's because many of the drivers come from somewhere else, so they say. Really, Floridians are just terrible drivers.

Still, in America, I’ve never heard of such a rule, though I can’t rule out the possibility it exists. I can rule out, however, that if such a rule exists in Florida it is not obeyed. In Florida, if either the car or the driver is attractive, but not too attractive, they get in. Here in Germany, such rule does exist and is nearly always obeyed. Sorry for the digression.

A closer look at translating Reißverschlussverfahren

A Reißverschluss would literally be translated into a ‘travelling lock or fastener’, or a zipper. But even looking at how to say the word, without its meaning, it is still difficult to navigate. The ‘ß’ is a double ‘s’, not to be confused with the less traditional ‘ss’, which is also a double ‘s’. There was a move 20 years ago in the German speaking world to turn the 'ß' into ‘ss’, so that it could be understood on computers and not look like beta (β) or lactam antibiotic (β). But as most new things in Germany, the modernising and standardising of German never completely took hold.

Fittingly, since this is the German language after all, there are volumes of books on how to say the ß, and when and where to use it. It is, of course, neither feminine or masculine so it can be enjoyed and cursed equally by everyone.

Verfahren means method, that much is clear. But how do you speak this? Well, a ‘v’ in German is pronounced like an ‘f’ in English (and the German ‘f’, too). Why? No one can say with any certainty. Now, if we added something as innocuous as a ‘sich’ before the verfahren, then the whole thing means ‘get muddled’, which is where we are and has made me sick. The word Reißverschlussverfahren, much like the driving rule, is a complicated thing to a newcomer.

Understanding road sign in Germany

It’s also important not to merge too early, or
the percentage of saved time would go down

Perhaps you may be asking yourself, with a wonderful organised rule such as Reißverschlussverfahren for driving, might it translate (pun intended) into other aspects of Germans’ lives? Perhaps in a bakery or on the street? Might a logical, tidy German use the zipper feed-in method at the front door of a department store or disembarking an airplane? Nope. Germans are still waiting for a rule to be written that legally binds them to the idea, and the politicians are waiting for the report from the Max Planck Institute. Off the road, it’s still every man for himself.


Reprinted with permission from Laptops and Lederhosen.

Laptops and Lederhosen

Michael V Owens’ parents instilled wanderlust in him at an early age. After 30 sweltering summers, in 2000 he left the US for Munich to experience the four seasons. He sees himself becoming Germanised – with a deep affinity for all things Bavarian – and loves the ideas of order and tidiness, although their execution has been much harder to grasp. He can often be found doing very German things, rain or shine, like hiking, biking, jogging and reading. Find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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