Xenophobe's® Guides: Language

Xenophobe's® Guides: German language

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Intimidated by mile-long German words? Be brave, and you will uncover a whole world of unique possibilities...

Xenophobe's® Guides: A book series that highlights the unique character and behaviour of different nations with insight and humour.

German is a remarkably flexible language, and one in which new words are easy to make up. You simply take two, three, or pretty well any number of existing ones, and stick them alltogetherabitlikethis. This doesn’t just make a nice new word, it introduces a whole new concept, perhaps explaining why the German psyche is so fearfully complicated. For instance, in a park the notice Astbruchgefahr registers in one swift glance that you are within the orbit of ‘branch-dropping-off-danger’.

An alternative to this is to take a string of words, chop out all the bits you don’t care for, and glue the remainder together. This is a popular way of coping with the names of government departments and so forth – hence Stasi from Staatssicherheitsdienst (the State Security Service of the GDR).

The German printed page is startling at first. The words are so long. A newspaper article may consist of just four or five words, yet take up two columns. The same is true of sentences and paragraphs. Look at a book by Thomas Mann. A thousand pages divided into half a dozen paragraphs.

Unsurprisingly, the inventive German tongue has given rise to many ideas and notions contained in one word, which are unmatched in other languages. For example:

Weltschmerz – It’s a freezing February night, the central heating has packed up, your team is facing relegation, you’ve just been handed your redundancy notice and arrive home to find that the dog has been sick on the sofa. What you feel is Weltschmerz.

Zeitgeist – Nothing less than the Spirit of the Age, and the cue for no end of sighing and looking world-weary.

– The sum total of difficulties a nation encounters in struggling to come to terms with a dodgy past. Who but the Germans would have a word for it?

For more, read The Xenophobe's Guide to the Germans.

Reproduced from Xenophobe's Guide to the German by kind permission of Xenophobe's® Guides.


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