When I started learning German in high school, I, like so many others who have delved into the language of the Vaterland, encountered scores of people who would make a face and ask me, “Why would you want to learn German? It’s just such an…ugly language. Everything sounds so mean.”
Fast forward ten years. While I don’t claim to be even close to fluent, my German is passable in just about any situation, save complex medical or technical ones. I’ve kept up with my German, even though I now live in Japan, for many reasons, but the overarching one is this: I am head over heels in love with this language.
Of course, a great deal of the reason why I love German so much is because I view four of the best months of my life (when I studied abroad in Köln) as intrinsically entwined with the language. I can count the negative experiences I’ve had in Germany on one hand. The positive memories I associate with the country and its tongue number far too many to easily count.
Part of my love of German lies within its logic. It is a language of rules, of staying within the lines. Learn a grammar rule, and you’re pretty much set. And while its structure might not be simple (Seriously, why do we need five different words for ‘the’?), there’s a beauty in all that neat, orderly tidiness. Someone once told me that I approach language from a ‘mathematical’ perspective, that I like my words to follow all the rules and that I dislike any sense of disorder. If that’s the case, then it’s no surprise German’s the language I’ve grown to love.
While I might be a stickler for a language with regular grammar, my real love affair with German lies in the words themselves. Naturally, every language has its words that cannot be properly translated into English. In Japanese, my favorite word is 木漏れ日, which means “the way sunlight filters through foliage.” In French, there’s l’esprit de l’escalier, which describes when you think of the absolute perfect thing to say after walking away from a situation.
In German, though, I’ve found those untranslatable words even better. With so many of them, there’s this inherent, subtle sense of sadness that I absolutely love, though perhaps that says more about me as a person than German as a language. Naturally, Schadenfreude, or the pleasure you take from seeing others’ misfortune, comes to mind first. (And I’m sorry, my conservative friends, but I have been feeling an awful lot of gleeful Schadenfreude in the post-election liberal euphoria, what with sites like didmittromneywin.com and whitepeoplemourningromney.tumblr.com.) Honestly, though, there are so many more fantastic German words.
There’s Torschlusspanik, which literally translates to “gate-closing panic,” and means the dread that, as you get older, the opportunities you’re afforded decrease. Forget a quarter- or mid-life crisis. Give me a few years and I’m going to suffer from a full-fledged Torschlusspanik attack.
And if “gate-closing panic” gets you down, you’ve got Kummerspeck, or the weight you gain from overeating from sorrow or heartbreak, to put you at ease. It literally translates to “grief bacon,” which you when you think about it, is the absolute perfect term. In English, sure, we’ve got the phrase “comfort eating,” but doesn’t “grief bacon” just hit the nail on the head so much more perfectly?
Then there’s Fernweh, one of my personal favorites. If you’re lazy, you could just translate it as “wanderlust,” but it’s really so much more than that. Instead, it’s a painful, yearning homesickness for places you’ve never even been before.
And there’s Gemütlichkeit, the feeling of being perfectly, cozily, comfortably at home…and Drachenfutter, the gift a husband needs to buy when he’s pissed off his wife…and fremdschämen, the act of feeling shame or embarrassment for another person…the list goes on and on.
So, yes, I love German for its untranslatable words, but every foreign language has those. Maybe it’s the sounds I love most of all. Call me crazy, but I could sit and listen to a native German speaker all day long. Others will say that Italian or Spanish or French is more pleasing, but I have grown to find German, with its back-of-the-throat “ch” and prolonged umlauted verbs, truly beautiful.
Perhaps because German, admittedly, isn’t a beautiful language in the classic sense, it makes declarations like “Ich liebe dich” all the more earnest. Tell me you love me – or really, give me any sort of compliment at all – in French, and sure, I’ll believe it because it sounds like you’re complimenting me. In German, though, I have to look beyond the sounds of the words to the speaker themselves. I can’t just rely on the words because they sound stereotypically beautiful. German has made me keener, more adept at reading people.
And if someone tells me “Ich liebe dich” and I don’t believe them? Then I’ve always got my sense of Fernweh calling me away to somewhere where I can get over it.