When I was an undergraduate student at Middlebury College back in the 60s, I majored in German and minored in French. To “minor” in a subject simply meant to take a given number of courses in it. To “major” in German meant to take a prescribed number of courses in the German Department over the four years, write a senior thesis on a German author’s works (to “major” in a language meant to study the literature of that language), and meet with the department head and other majors (there were only two of us German majors in my year) in a Senior Seminar, where he made sure we not only developed a reasonable mastery of the German language but also familiarized ourselves with the cultures of the German-speaking countries (what would you like to know about Liechtenstein?) as well. And if you want to see one of the consequences of majoring in German, consider the length of that last sentence. At one point I could have bored your socks off bringing you up to snuff on hydroelectric power in Czechoslovakia. (Hint: Austrian mountains.)
When I went to Munich for my junior year abroad people would ask me what I was studying at university. At first I had trouble answering the question. I kept fishing for a German translation of “major” until I realized in the German university system people didn’t have “majors” and “minors.” They did eventually, when the “comprehensive” system gained a foothold and people began copying the American system. But while I was there one studied with an emphasis on depth, in contrast to the American emphasis on breadth. If you “studied” French you pretty much focused, at least in your university courses and seminars, on French alone.
It became embarrassing to tell people I majored in German, because my German, while it was certainly “good enough for government work,” was embarrassingly lacking, from the point of Germans who studied German. It didn’t help to protest that they had had twelve plus years of German language and literature before zeroing in on a narrow band of German literature – early Romantic poetry, for example, or Goethe’s Italian period. I really should have found much to talk about with Germans who were exploring the richness of their native language and literature. But at 20, I was intimidated as hell and avoided them like the plague.
That year, 1960-61, was a watershed year for me. It was not only my first year outside the United States (I have since lived a third of my life in Germany or Japan), it was my first year in a big city, my first contact with museums, concerts and operas and people from the four corners of the planet. A heady experience which raised my expectations forever about how life should be lived.
What set me off on these reveries this morning was a memory jolt of my search for a way to explain to Germans what it meant to “major” in their language. (I'll get to that by and by.) It all started with an argument with a German friend who informed me what I was studying was “Germanistics”. No, I said. That has nothing to do with the Austrian Alps. She had used the word as if it were an English word, thus demonstrating that she knew as little about the American university system as I knew about the German one.
Back in my freshman year, when I made the decision to switch from a French major to a German major, I had a hard time explaining my reasoning to my German grandmother. I couldn't come out and just tell her I thought it would be easier, since I had had a head start. She would not have approved of the lazy way. "Deutsch!” she exclaimed. “Du sprichst schon deutsch!” (You already speak German!). Now here I was in Munich trying to tell university-educated people that I was studying deutsch and they didn't like it any better than my grandmother did. They were telling me, these deutsch-speaking students of deutsch, that I wasn’t studying deutsch at all, but “Germanistik”.
I was still knocking at that linguistic door years later when a German-speaking friend told me she had studied “Japanologie”. Not Japanistik? I asked. “No, we don’t say that.” My German had slipped considerably, and I hadn't a clue how one decided between an -ology and an -istics in German.
OK. So now tell me, why is a person who studies Anglistik an Anglist and not an Anglologe? And why is a person who studies Japanologie a Japanologe and not a Japanist?
Mysteries of the German language.
It’s nice to think of myself, in the privacy of my own room, as an amateur “Germanist” (it has to be said in German, with a hard g as in google and not in English, because there is no such thing in English as a “Germanist” (soft g as in genius) and it would make me sound like somebody in search of smaller nations to conquer, given the predispositions of the English-speaking peoples to think suspiciously about things German, at least those of my generation. Germanist, but not Germanologue (what would be the English equivalent of Germanolog, except that the word in German is Germanist. Are you following me?) What does Germanologue conjure up? Somebody with a nasty ideology of a master race, I suppose, consistent with the non-word Germanist.
I know, I know. It’s never right to think of the way words are formed in one language (morphology – and would that make you a Morphologue, by the way?) as the standard for forming words in another language. We have linguistics and politics, but a specialist (specialogue?) in linguistics is a linguist, and not a linguistician, while a person who engages in politics is a politician, and not a politicist. Go figure. Tis a bunch of puzzlements. You might say a -tician kind of person is one who engages professionally - you know, like statistician, mathematician, mortician... But that doesn't help with the -ist/-logue distinction. Is an ideologue somebody who majors in ideas? And are linguists, artists and dentists in the same camp as Islamists and other fundamentalists?
OK. I've gone on long enough. I'll stop here.
Time for a short quiz, though, before we close today.
If you were writing a bio statement for this lovely lady with the nice smile on the right here, born on November 22, 1981 in Guben, Brandenburg, how would you translate into German the following:
Studied Islamic Studies, Turkish Studies and Jewish Studies in Berlin and Istanbul.
Kurzbiografie: Geboren am 22.11.1981 in Guben (Brandenburg). Studium der Islamwissenschaft, Turkologie und Judaistik in Berlin und Istanbul.
Threw you a curve ball with the –wissenschaft bit, I know.
“Wissenschaft” is usually translated into English “science,” but to gloss its word parts (morphologizing again), it means “knowing – ship”
Wikipedia gives a more thorough explanation:
Wissenschaft is the German language term for any study or science that involves systematic research and teaching. Wissenschaft incorporates science, learning, knowledge, scholarship and implies that knowledge is a dynamic process discoverable for oneself, rather than something that is handed down.
Wissenschaft was the official ideology of German Universities during the 19th century. It emphasised the unity of teaching and individual research or discovery for the student. It suggests that education is a process of growing and becoming.
Naturwissenschaft (natural science) stands in contrast with Geisteswissenschaft (which I love to think of as “ghost science,” but actually is the word used to translate what we call the “social sciences” since “Geist” means not only ghost as in Holy Ghost, but spirit. And you will agree with me, I’m sure, that a good way to cultivate your spiritual side is to undertake the study of philosophy, history, or the social sciences, as well as arts and the classics.
Now what was I doing before this little excursio in absurdum?