Tuesday, February 27, 2018

No pleasure in keeping it to yourself

Look up the word “communicate” in an English-German dictionary and you’ll find a plethora of possibilities.  There is mitteilen, first of all, a word which, when glossed, means “to share with”.  Both in the verb form: mitteilen, and in the noun form eine Mitteilung machen = “to do a sharing-with.”

Then there is übermitteln, which is a bit harder to gloss. Mitteln is commonly used as a noun which corresponds to the English means, as in “the means to the end.”  “The end justifies the means” is rendered in German as “Der Zweck heiligt (= makes holy) die Mittel.” There is a verb mitteln, but it means either to average something, or “to take the mean” of something. So that’s a dead end. On the other hand, when used in compound words, like übermitteln, it is fairly productive. Literally “to means over” means “to convey meaning,” i.e. “to communicate.”

Then, you’ve got vermitteln, also as a possible translation of “to communicate.”  The ver-prefix is one of those German morphemes seemingly designed in hell to drive people who like things simple mad. It can convey what the English prefix mis- conveys, (verrechnen=miscalculate; verlesen=misread, etc.) It can also mean “to move beyond the boundaries of the stem word in some way”: sprechen = to speak; versprechen = to promise. Note that the ver- in versprechen can also convery the first ver-meaning: to do something wrong. So versprechen means both “to promise” and “to make a mistake in speaking” and if you can find a better example of the irrationality of language I’d like to know what it is.

But back to words for “communicate.” There is also verkehren.  Since Verkehr is the word for traffic, the word conveys the connotation of “being sociable”. Or to consort with somebody, keep company with them. And, of course, if you stick the word “sex” in front of it: Geschlechtsverkehr, you’ve got “sexual intercourse.” To “communicate sexually” in other words.

Then there is übertragen, a medical word, literally to carry over. As in “communicable disease” (übertragbare Krankheit).

Just as English has pairs of Latinate (via French) and Anglo-Saxon words: pork/swine, encounter/meet, question/ask, German has kundtun “to do knowledge” and kommunizieren as well as korrespondieren.

If you know Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, you may be familiar with the opening lines of the Ode to Joy”, where the chorus comes in and generally blows the socks off the audience with their shouts of Freude, Freude (joy, joy).  Now the official anthem of the European Union, the German lyrics begin Freude, schöner Götterfunken..."  It is rendered "Joy, beautiful spark of the gods" in English, where it sounds to English ears much less like a VW ad than the original German. The part that brings tears is the "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" (All men will become brothers) part.

Did you know the lyrics were written by Schiller?  

A friend of mine once had two pet goldfish, which he named “Frieda” and “Freude” (Peace and Joy) and insisted he could tell them apart, something I was always doubtful of.

And you know the German suffixes “-heit” and “-keit,” which make nouns out of adjectives.  Gesund = healthy; Gesundheit = health.  Sparsam = frugal; Sparsamkeit = frugality.

Well, you’re now ready for the German word of the day – a word I just heard on television that I don’t remember hearing before:


The joy of communicating.

One of the good words, don’t you think?


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