Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Getting Wordy

I don't have to remind you that I love words. Words of all sorts. Nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, English, German, Russian, whatever. Words are neat.

I'm learning a great deal about the Scottish version of the English language from reading Fiona's blog. Did you know that the Scots term for an armpit is oxter? There's some really unfortunate mental imagery there. And she was chuffed tae the nickers the other day. I really don't want to know about that one.

But the real reason I wanted to talk about words today is this article from the Financial Times, forwarded to me by my friend Katherine: The German Language Goes Long.

If you have ever studied German, you know that one of the grammatical oddities for which it is justly famous is its use of compound nouns to express new concepts...when you need to describe something new, you simply string enough nouns together to come up with the descriptive term you need. The classic example is Donaudampfschfffahrtskapitaen, which means "Danube steam ship captain." German is the only language I know of that needs abbreviations for the abbreviations.

The focus of the Financial Times article is on German's creation of new words to express various elements of the ongoing economic crisis. Some of those words are quite elegant, if impossible to translate exactly, such as Wohlstandsmuell, or "wealthy rubbish" - products and services that have little actual value. Even better is what we might translate as "law for the limitation of risk" - in German, you only need one (long) word: Risikobegrenzungsgesetz. Where we talk about the large number of baby boomers now approaching retirement, Germany has its Rentnerschwemme ("flood of retirees"). My favorite, though, is the German expression for what has been called in our news a "bad bank," a bank created solely to buy up junk securities as a way of bailing out greedy bankers and finally convincing them to do their damn jobs: ein staatliches Finanzmarktwertpapierverwahrungshaus (nationalized financial securities warehouse).

You don't see a word like that every day. Thank goodness.

Mark Twain once penned a famous essay titled The Awful German Language, which hysterically sent up the bizarrely-twisted grammar that has made German the bane of generations of students. If you have a few minutes, go ahead and read it - it's great fun, and you don't need a degree in Linguistics to enjoy it. If nothing else, it will convince you just to consult me if you have a question about German, rather than trying to study it yourself.

And just to finish making your linguistic day, what lovely Fiona refers to as an oxter is known in German as an Achsel. You never know when you'll be stuck for conversational material at a cocktail party and need to discuss your armpits with a foreigner.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

Look at the length of those German words!!! How do kids do dictation there?

Why not add to your list for armpits. In Malay, its "Ketiak". Say it in a staccato sort of way.

KKTSews said...

Putting on my linguist's hat, I'd suggest the Scots and German just may be closely related--at least in sharing armpits. :)
Glad you enjoyed the article. Sometimes the Germans are just too rational, aren't they?

Gilahi said...

Orson Bean did a routine in which he said that you could tell a lot about "a people" by their language. For instance, the English word "butterfly" is a nice enough word. In Spanish, it's "mariposa", which a lovely, lilting word. In French, "papillon". Just lovely. In Italian, the word is "farfalla", which simply evokes lovely images.

In German, it's "SCHMETTERLING".

Anonymous said...

KKTSews you are absolutely right. My son-in-law is a Scot from Glasgow, and when you don't understand what the heck he is saying, it sounds just like German. Additionally, I recall a Learning Channel program that examined the roots of European language and it specifically tied Old Scots and Old German together. They had some dude on that spoke old Scots, and he sounded more German than Bilbo does when he's showing off his considerable language skills. So you get life points for independently figuring out what 600 guys got PhD's for!

From Bilbo's anonymous commentator.

fiona said...

Thanks for the mention...I think?
The first 2-3 tears here in the US we were constantly asked if we were German then as time went by Irish and these days it's always Australian.
Explain please!

Twinkie said...

Ay ay ay! I think I'll stick to Spanish and English. Thank you.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Excellent post. Who'd want to do a speeling bee with German words?

A Quality Post.

Bilbo said...

Amanda - I wonder if I can turn a list of words for "armpit" into a doctoral dissertation?

Katherine - I loved the article, as did Agnes. We sometimes forget how ... interesting ... German can be.

Gilahi - I tell that joke in a great shaggy dog story, with the appropriate accents.

Anonymous - aye!

Fiona - stay tuned for another post coming up soon about accents...

Twinkie - every language has its oddities. I'm sure Spanish is no different!

Jean-Luc - thanks for the comment. Actually, German spelling isn't as hard as you might think, because words are spelled pretty much the way they sound, unlike English.

Mike said...

Finanzmarktwert papierverw ahrungshaus

I see a 'pay per view' in the middle. You sure this isn't a porn site?

wv - nodecrop - a bunch of newly grown nodes. Soon to be connected to the internet.