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German Culture and More

Let us discuss the German culture in three chunks, language, people, and their holidays and vacations dates. Other cultural issues are discussed in Food and Drink especially German Wine and German Beer.

For a list of a few helpful words and phrases, see our page Words and Phrases. But for more general thoughts on the language, you are on the right page.

The Language: The German language is Germanic. This is probably no surprise to the average reader but it might surprise you that English is a Germanic language too. At least according to linguistic experts. Much of what is now England at one time in the dim light of history (ca. 500 CE to 1066 CE) was occupied and run by a group called Anglo-Saxons. More accurately they were the Angles and the Saxons. These are two different tribes that came from the north and northwest of what is now Germany and they spoke a version of Old Low German.

Anyway, as you probably know English is like a sponge soaking up words from Latin, French, German, Japanese, and any other language it bumps into. Well, German does too. Both languages are changing rapidly today. Each year we visit, I notice that German uses more English words in everyday vocabulary. I recently heard my sister-in-law use a common English swear word (the one that starts with “s”), and she only speaks German. The reason she chose that expletive is interesting. German has a very good s-word of its own that she knows well enough how to use but she feels the foreign word has a nicer and softer connotation in her language. Go figure.

German assimilates foreign words as fast or faster than English does. Maybe someday, linguistic experts will refer to German as an “Englic” language (unfortunately, they will probably use the term “Anglican” but it is not as fun as my word). Generally, Germans are somewhat put aback by how their language is changing. Especially how it is absorbing English words. They call the resulting mishmash of languages Denglish. They discuss implementing laws that require strict use of traditional German like the French have done but that discussion never gets far.

Germans are a progressive bunch and they do not want to be slowed down by traditionalists. There is a faction that makes fun of using foreign words as if they were real German. A few years ago they criticized the chairman of DB, the almost privatized German Train System. He introduced words like Service Point, Ticket, etc. German, of course, has its own descriptive words for those terms. Another classic Denglish word is the computer term for downloading a file, in German that verb is file-downloaden. Who uses Datei herunterladen these days?

Long Words: Germans are prone to combine terms that contain two or more words in English into one German word. Sure, we do that in English too, like guidebook and mountainside, for example. But in German, words can go on forever. Mark Twain said of the German language that, "German words are so long they have perspective." According to Wikipedia, one of the longest German words is Rinderkennzeichnungsundrindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz which means simply, Cattle Marking and Beef Labeling Supervision Duties Delegation Law.

It is certainly true that German has some extremely long words. In our language, these words are more like terms. Lets start simple. In English we say "train station." In German that term becomes one word Bahnhof; a combination of one of the words for train, Bahn, and the word for a large building, Hof. Similarly, a bicycle becomes a Fahrrad; a traveling wheel. Now the next step, the word Übernachtungsmöglichkeit, for example, directly translated is overnighting possibility (like a hotel or similar).

Verb Conjugation: On that Mark Twain says, "If a cat gets ahold of a German irregular verb, goodbye cat!" Twain is the guy who also commented on one of Germany's foremost composers by saying, "Wagner’s music is better than it sounds."

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Nouns: By the way, it might be edifying to point out that in German, all nouns are capitalized. It is a good idea. It helps those of us who struggle with a second language separate those words that modify stuff (adjectives and adverbs) and do stuff (verbs) from the names for things (nouns). But still we wonder about the correctness of, "Er ist ein amerikanischer Bürger." compared to, "He is an American citizen." Different capitalization norms.

Plurals: In English, you have more than one way of making word plural. For example, we usually just add an "s" car/two cars, but sometimes we change a vowel as in one woman/two women. Germans use an "s" too, as in ein Auto/zwei Autos. But they also change vowels, for example, ein Bahnhof, zwei Bahnhöfe. The vowel change is done by adding the two dots (umlaut) to the "o."

Sometimes both languages use the same word for singular and plural, for example one sheep/two sheep and in German ein Zimmer/zwei Zimmer. Another example is English one girl/two girls becomes in German ein Mädchen/zwei Mädchen. And the English sheep example becomes Ein Schaf/zwei Schafe. Here the plural is made by adding an "e." They do this frequently, as in tree/trees which becomes ein Baum, zwei Bäume. Sometimes all you do is add an "n" like in the case of flower/flowers is eine Blume and zwei Blumen: And it gets complicater and complcater as you go - to paraphrase Alice in Wonderland.

Gender: A word about gender, which has nothing to do with sex. Nouns in German are either masculine, feminine or neuter. It confuses me no end why a table has a different gender than an automobile or a river. A woman (die Frau) is feminine and a man (der Man) is masculine. You might think that logical but why is a girl (das Mädchen) neuter when a boy (der Junge) is masculine (except for Bübchen, a very little boy). The names of rivers are normally feminine so it is die Necker and die Mosel for example. However, there are a couple of important exceptions; both the Main and Rhine rivers (der Main and der Rhein) are masculine. So the definite article becomes der, not die. Who knows why? Pronouns have the same gender as the nouns they refer to, which might confuse an English reader. But enough about gender for now.

Cognates and False Cognates: A cognate in one language is a similar word with a similar meaning in another language. A false cognate looks to the uninitiated like a cognate but is not. We use actual to mean something that really is. But in German aktuell means "current" in English. If you want to use a German word that means the same as the English actually try eigentlich. If you are interested in more of these, try About.Com's False Friends in German.*

I mentioned at the start that much of English came from an early form of German. One should be able to stare at a written German word and come to some understanding of its meaning in English. But you cannot always depend upon being able to study a word and break it down into parts that can be understood in English. Take the word Erdbeeren. That should be something to do with dirt (Erde is earth) and something to do with beer. Right? Except it means strawberries because Beeren is plural for berry while Bier is beer. Oh, well.

Descriptions of modern clothing frequently use a few English words. But an English-looking word may not be English at all but authentic Deutsch. Be careful in assuming that you know what these words mean because the meaning can easily change and so can the pronunciation. In fact, some English sounding words are actually German words that we English speakers have changed the pronunciation and meaning of when we borrowed the term from German. “Hosen” is not something women wear on their legs; it means “pants.” A “Slip” is panties but a “Schlips” is a necktie and a “Gürtel” is a belt and both genders wear Gürtel. Be careful about what you ask for – you might be embarrassed. That is all in the fun of travel after all.

Umlauts and s-sets:Some of the letters in German words and place names have umlauts (two little dots over the vowels a, o, and u). If your keyboard does not have these characters one is allowed to use an “e” following the vowel. For example, the name Günter becomes Guenter and Köln becomes Koeln. Or, you can use the insert symbol option from the menu to find the proper umlauted vowel.

The German language has a strange character that looks for all the world like a capital B. They put it right in the middle or on the end of words. A very strange place for a capital B indeed. Actually, English speakers call it an s-set ("ss" or more correctly pronounced "ts"). The character is "ß." A few years ago in 1996, the official keepers of the language decided to do away with it in every instance following a short sounding vowel. However, that idea went over like a lead balloon with the population. That said, the language will probably conform with the new rules in a generation or two. Today anyway iss (eat!) sometimes looks like . And, Gruss (greeting) is written with a "ß" and looks like Gruß since it follows a long vowel.  (do not say "grub" - you will not be understood). Again, if your keyboard does not have that character, simply use "ss."

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Interestingly, a reader points out that you cannot willy-nilly exchange a double s for an ß because some words are only spelled with a double s. She, the reader, gives the example of "Maße" (meaning "measures") that is pronounced with a long a juxtaposed with "Masse" (meaning "mass") that is pronounced with a short a. German is very confusing to a native English speaker. But then you can say that even English is confusing to a native English speaker. If you think I said that wrong by mistake, you would be incorrect? My British friends, Neil and Judith, point out that I do not speak English well to begin with. They say I speak like a colonist from the colonies.

That same reader from above points out that the "ß" was originally a printer's mark for the combination of "s" and "z" and that therefore its sound is more of a hissing sound than the buzzing sound of the soft "s" or double "s." She writes like a professional linguist so she is probably right. And my German speaking wife thinks so too.

Pronunciation: As a general rule in German, words you pronounce every letter the same each time you see them. Unfortunately, German also has words from other languages like English and French so occasionally you do not pronounce every letter. I have found that if a vowel has an umlaut, I have trouble pronouncing it. I also have trouble with R's and L's and the "ch" sound. Hey, if it was easy, all the translators would be unemployed.

You can find a few key words and phrases by clicking on this link. The list does not have everything you need, but almost. Add some numbers, left and right, and a few days of the week, and you are there.

The People: Germans are not, contrary to stereotypes, stubborn. They are just argumentative. Things have to be logical to them or they will argue about it until they understand your logic or reconcile themselves that you have no logic. Now that logic does not have to be based in physics or math, but it does have to fit with their view of what is the correct way to live. For example, they know instinctively that drafts cause colds and therefore drafts are bad. They only accept modern medicine’s finding that bugs cause colds with the part of their brain that has nothing to do with behavior. (I probably inherited that particular gene from my grandmother Schmidt.) They like ventilation in their homes, just not when they are in the room.

Another example is they have deduced that things that are too cold cause digestion problems. Therefore, you cannot find a glass of ice water in the whole of Germany (not that it is any easier in the rest of Europe). If you happen to come from Seattle and have a hankering for an iced latté, you will be surprised at what you get when you order an Eiskaffee in Germany. You will get coffee and ice cream (Eis is ice cream not ice). I must say Eiskaffee is a happy improvement over an iced latté. On the other hand, imagine the disappointment a German experiences when after ordering an ice coffee in latté-land (Seattle) and they get only coffee, milk, and ice cubes.

Germans are passionate about lifestyle and politics – an expensive combination from a societal perspective. They enjoy laws that encourage family values to a depth never dreamed of by American lawmakers. For example, many of the shops and stores close early Saturday and remain closed on Sunday so the workers can be with their families. This is not only inconvenient for the shoppers, but also expensive to the society in that there are fewer jobs in retailing. It is also common for other types of firms to close early on Fridays. Again, this gives the workers more time at home. Of course, the trade unions request many of these practices.

Germany is one of the most highly unionized countries in the western world. This fact is causing their labor cost to skyrocket. Fortunately, this high labor cost is held partially in check by their ability to keep their productivity high through ingenuity and technology. But using technology also reduces the number of laborers needed to accomplish a task. This and reunification has lead, in recent years, to high unemployment. They are only recently working their way out of economic recession. And the recent global financial crisis just delayed that return to productivity. Germany is the current powerhouse in Europe and they get to call many of the shots when it comes to economic laws in the Euro Zone.

The average German knows more about American politics than the average American. Moreover, they know about the politics in other countries in Europe. (The exception is Italy. Italians change governments so often, no one bothers to keep up - not even the Italians.) The German political system has at least five major political parties. Most Americans have trouble keeping up with two.

They also cherish a good time. After work, you will find many of them gathered in the local drinking establishment enjoying one another’s company. Song is to be broken into whenever you feel like it. Chances are others will join you in the song. They like gatherings of any kind. There are clubs for all types of activities like sports, singing, shooting, and "Kegeln" (a kind of bowling). "Stadtfests" (community festivals), for example, are always well attended. Another example of how some Germans cherish a good time is "Frühschoppen." Translated it means an early drink. A "shoppen" is an old-fashioned term for a "glas" (pint?) and Früh means early so it is like an "early pint." In some families, Frühschoppen is a Sunday tradition and the men gather at their favorite Kneipe (pub) after church for a convivial beer with their friends. Said another way, Sunday is for Frühschoppen but church comes first. If I had my way, I would substitute Frühschoppen for church and I am sure many do.

Speaking of church, Germans are mostly Christian but other religions are also evident. Looking at the Christians, they divide themselves about evenly between Catholic and Protestant. Remember, Germany is the homeland of Martin Luther. There are more Protestants in the north and more Catholics in the south but one cannot be categorical in this age of free movement of people. The German government is secular - although religious holidays are observed.

Holidays and Vacations: I once heard humorist Dave Barry (Miami Herald) commented that Europeans frequently get 53 weeks a year of vacation. I can tell you he is wrong; a year only has 52 weeks. Otherwise, ... ?

School summer vacation is another consideration. Many families plan vacation trips around the school breaks. German schools let out for only about 6 weeks during the summer. They also take a two-week break around Christmas and New Year's and a second two-week break around Easter. In the fall, they frequently take a one-week break that many classes use to take class trips. Most states (Bundesländer) coordinate their shorter breaks with other states so the whole country is not on the road, trying to find lodging at the same time. So, from state to state, the timing of the breaks will vary widely.

I give credit to substantial editing of this page to Petra Schuermann of German World On-line and the German World quarterly magazine.

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