by Brooks Riley
A long time ago, on a mountainside in Liechtenstein, I tuned my transistor radio to the Deutschlandfunk, one of neighboring Germany’s state radio stations whose broadcast range leaked into that tiny country. This is what I heard:
Hier ist der Deutschlandfunk, heute aus der Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.
It wasn’t the fact that the station was transmitting country music, a treat for the Virginia girl far from home. It was the announcer’s voice that enthralled me and the language it spoke. There was an elegance, a muted, dependable deep resonance, a flow of words with a rhythmic logic that made me long to be able to speak that way. It sounded noble, above the fray, measured and meaningful. I could imagine that voice reciting Shakespeare or Schiller or Rilke.
This was not the ‘Achtung!’ German most Americans know from movies about the Nazis, or newsreels of Hitler speeches, or parodies of authoritarian figures in uniform. And despite the subject at hand—a country music broadcast—the voice-over did not try to mimic the jovial downhome twang of the good-ole-boy announcer from my deep South. It could just as well have been narrating a classical music concert from an ‘opry’ closer to home.
I added German to my bucket list that day.
Language is like a door you didn’t know was there until you open it. You live in the spacious environment of your native tongue, believing that’s all there is to know about expressing anything you care to express. But then you open a door and go through it into a completely different terrain, a second parallel world where forms of humor, or affection, or sarcasm, or joy, or irritation or grief all have a magic otherness about them, as new pathways to articulating universal subjects are exposed. It’s impossible not to be changed by this expansion of one’s potential for communication.
I wasn’t entirely unaware of German. My father had taught me the rudiments of pronunciation so that we could sing Schubert and Schumann lieder together. And I’d picked up enough to know how to order lunch every day in Vaduz. But it would be another twenty years before I got serious about that item on my bucket list.
I didn’t want to study the language with all its stifling rules and regulations. I wanted to learn it my way, the way I’d learned French at the age of three, relying on the ear and the mirror neurons. I was now 45, no longer in possession of those spongey cells and synapses that crowd a child’s brain from infancy to adolescence. This way of learning a language would take longer now. It took two years.
When I think back on that time, it was like having a huge picture puzzle dumped on the floor in front of me. Some of the pieces were obvious and could be connected easily. Others stumped me for days or weeks, as the bits of syntax or grammatical oddities were moved around in search of sense. I watched TV indiscriminately, letting the language seep into my subconscious. My favorite show was Salzburg Heute (Salzburg Today), a nightly news broadcast that covered the local goings-on in Salzburg and the region, from Pongau to Pinzgau, from Flachgau to Lungau.
Just when I thought I was finally getting to the heart of the language, I’d suddenly be confronted with a local dialect. A highlight of Salzburg Heute was the ‘question of the day’ when a TV reporter would ask a man on the street his opinion about some current event. But if that man was a farmer from Pinzgau selling produce at the weekly open-air market, I didn’t understand a word. I vowed not to leave Salzburg until I’d cracked the country dialect too, a wise decision given that I would spend the next decades hearing Bairisch, a catch-all term for the many dialects of neighboring Bavaria, to which the Salzburg dialect belongs. Understanding that farmer was key to understanding other dialects and to accepting the reality that not all German is High German.
If there was a ‘me too’ movement in Upper Bavaria, it would be called ‘i a’ (pronounced ‘eee-aah’). It doesn’t get pithier than that: ‘i’ for ich, or ‘I’; and ‘a’ for auch, or ‘too’. I understand some Bairisch but cannot speak or write it. And there are many variations: I might understand the Bairisch spoken in the town where I live but be completely baffled by the Bairisch from a town twenty miles away. Germany is full of dialects, from Plattdeutsch in the North to Obersächsisch in the East. I love them all, those miniature picture puzzles that tax my neurons to this day.
One major advantage for learning a language by ear is how quickly one feels at home speaking it, getting attuned to the subtleties of tone, accent and inflection much sooner than if you landed there with a textbook. The last piece in my puzzle was the most difficult, the sentence structure, which differs from English and the Romance languages. Understanding that structure and having it come naturally were two different things. Once I was past this hurdle, I was home free, even if I still make mistakes from time to time.
With French, a language without stressed syllables, inflection is key to becoming a native speaker. (An American friend once told me that when I spoke it, I became a different person.) With German, inflection is less important than the natural rhythms in the flow of words.
German is famous for its extremely long words, mashed together out of several words. One typical example, die Rheinschiffkapitänsfrau, weighs in at a whopping 23 letters. But as unwieldy as that word may seem, it is surprisingly economical: no spaces, no prepositions, no apostrophes, only one article. The wife of the Rhine ship captain, or the Rhine ship captain’s wife, both seem more laborious than that neatly packaged single entity.
I like to use words like verbal Legos. The first word I ever constructed was der Weihnachtsschmerz, or ‘the pain of Christmas’, taking a cue from Weltschmerz, a word that has crept into the English dictionary. Recently, in a comment about dreams scored with music, I thought of Gesamttraumwerk in a nod to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
The controversial German orthography reform of 1996 (a joint effort of the four German-speaking countries) took a crowbar to the infinitives of certain compound verbs: ‘They intended to break apart the infinitive.’ Die hatten vor, den Infinitiv auseinanderzubrechen, which now reads Die hatten vor, den Infinitiv auseinander zu brechen. I still can’t warm to this new dictate, preferring to wedge my zu’s into a single compound verb instead of spacing it out.
Language reform won’t keep me awake at night. I’d rather share a good laugh with a neighbor or listen to schoolgirls on the bus discussing Schrödinger’s Cat. Heartwarming stuff.
Now that I live in two universes, commuting between them as the occasion arises, I have twice as many newspapers to read, many more documentaries to see, and experiences no single homeland could provide. Germany is not my Heimat (homeland) but neither is America. Home is wherever I open a door I didn’t even know was there and decide to walk through it. I recently added a new language to my bucket list: Korean. But that’s another story.