Friday, 13 September 2013

A Mocking Bird

It is election season in Germany. On the 22nd of  September 2013people can vote for a new chancellor or choose to keep Angela Merkel in the current position. The posters of the various parties have been decorating the cities and towns for months. Most are very dull: a picture with a name and the party affiliation.
However, in my hometown Stralsund one image stuck out: a stork tapping one wing to its forehead with a headline saying “Let’s show Nazis that they are nuts!” (In German: “Nazis einen Vogel zeigen!”) The creators of the posters are not a political party but by an organisation that was created some years ago as a reaction to the Nazi fashion label Thor Steinar. The name of the organisation, Storch Heinar, rhymes with the original while referring to a bird (the stork) that is used to mock both the Steinar-fashion of Nazis and their ideology. The stork is skinny, tries to patch up its black feathers with white paint, and is wearing the Hitler moustache and a military helmet. Most importantly though, it stands out! Already in 2008, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Storch Heinar (click here for the article). Since then the organization has won a lawsuit, which Thor Steinar initiated against Storch-founder Mathias Brodkorb*, and has been actively reporting on the closures of Steinar stores, successful campaigns against right-wing demonstrations, mobilizing many sympathizers along the way.
The stork serves as a mocking-bird that combines a linguistic pun, a visual discussion of Nazi imagery and symbols, and a political agenda. I’ve been travelling through many cities in the Northeastern part of Germany, but I unfortunately only saw the stork in Stralsund and on the island of Rügen. Other cities in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania featured numerous posters by right-wing parties like Die Republikaner, Alternative MV or the NPD (National Party of Germany). Yes, the large parties (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Green Party and Liberals) were also present, having not much to say on their posters. In contrast, the posters of the Republikaner speak to the disinterestedness with German politics in the general public, displaying images of naked bottoms in the colours of the big parties and asking “Which a...hole will you be voting for?” No agenda posted here either.
The Stork is not a party and at least in some communities this has been a reason to call for taking down the posters. True, the stork cannot be elected on the 22nd of September – but not voting at all means more votes for the far right. And so the main message is: go and vote and as long as it is not for the Nazis, it does not matter. The posters of the big parties seem to confirm that at least that part of the argument is correct.

*Brodkorb is now a delegate for the Social Democrats at the Landtag in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Trouser support – a case for social services?

Raising children with an American husband in the UK can be quite a linguistic challenge. For the most part, English people understand Americans and nod kindly when they hear the word “diapers” for “nappies” or “laundry” for “the washing”. Of course, we learnt quickly that it is advisable to use the word “trousers” rather than “pants” when referring to outer leg wear. Having lived in the US and the UK, I am used to adapting my language. Hence I thought it was quite amusing how my husband learnt to do the same.

Here is a scene from the local Mothercare where my husband once went shopping for our 2year old daughter:
 “Excuse me, do you have any suspenders?”
 “For whom do you want to buy these?”
 “For my daughter here.”
 “Yes, suspenders.” My  husband now moved his arms away from his chest as if suspending straps.
“Oh, you mean braces!”

My husband was crushed when he finally understood what the lady thought he had wanted to buy. We were both relieved that she did not immediately contact the police or social services and that he was not mistaken as a fetishist or worse.
In American English, braces are devices you put in your mouth to have your teeth corrected. Apparently this is also the case in British English. However, here braces are also used to hold your trousers in place. Suspenders on the other hand are garters in American English, i.e. devices to keep your stockings from falling down, which for a 2year old child would indeed have been a curious purchase.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists both suspenders and braces as “One of a pair of straps of leather or webbing used to support the trousers” next to the other meanings of how both suspenders and braces hold things (teeth or stockings) in place. For suspenders, it is added that the meaning “to support the trousers” is American. Since we had learnt this through practice, this set of definition was not too surprising. Going through the list of meanings for braces, however, I also found this: “A leathern thong which slides up and down the cord of a drum, and is used to regulate the tension of the skins, and thus the pitch of the note.” The term “thong” caught my attention here because it opens a whole new dimension of meanings, depending whether you are in the UK or in Australia. Maybe it was a good thing that we were only looking for “a pair of straps” to hold up trousers rather than “thongs” for a toddler (in a shoe store).

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

What translators and coasters have in common

German is just fascinating! 

Look at what happens when we exchange the prefix in: Übersetzer (which means both translator and somebody who ferries you over, although literally it is "to sit above").

Über- means “over, above” and is sometimes even used in English to express a superlative. The opposite of “über” is "unter" - and indeed there is also one word where Unter is used with respect to language: subtitles are Untertitel.

But an Untersetzer is a coaster. Always. 

An Übersetzer might use an Untersetzer – but the reverse is rarely the case. An Übersetzer must dransetzen (give it his all) everything to get the right message across (über) and if he does, he might end up as the total Überflieger! Flying above! But that requires stamina – Durchsetzungskraft or the power to “sit” (read “push”) through. Can I draufsetzen (add) one more? Or was the play with setzen and what the various prefixes do überzeugend (convincing)? 

Monday, 17 June 2013

A “Gartenhose” is not a “garden hose” – or is it?

Recently my 5-year old daughter explained to my German speaking mum how she had helped in the garden: “Und dann hab ich die Blumen mit der Gartenhose gegossen.” That caused some confusion because she had literally said: “And then I watered the plants with the garden trousers.” We quickly clarified that a Gartenhose are gardening trousers, and that the word for garden hose is Gartenschlauch.

Then I started wondering whether there might be a connection between the two words. In German, we speak of “Röhren-Jeans“ or “Röhrenhose” (tube jeans or tube trousers) to describe very tight fitting trousers. Maybe the distance between hose and Hose is not as removed as it seems at first sight?

I checked the Oxford English Dictionary and indeed: the old meaning of hose was trousers! The contemporary English meaning of hosepipe was derived from that, presumably because of the shape of both trousers and tubes. This means that the contemporary German use of the word is the archaic English term.

I doubt though that this is an indication for my 5-year old becoming a historical linguist. However, I did not only learn that there is a connection between two words I would never have connected before, but also that I can access the OED for free by simply using my local library card

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The longest German word is gone

And? Is it a loss that we don't have the Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz anymore? 
Honestly, before the word was in the news, I had never heard of it before. A legal term that would not be used in everyday German. So - no - I don't think it will be missed. It only made the news because it was long, not because of its meaning. 
Stylistically it is always more elegant to be concise and the rules that were recently distributed on Facebook were a nice ironic summary of  that idea. 

Soooo - since the term was created as a regulation against mad cow disease and this does not seem to be an issue any more, the word can go. But who knows what legalese the horse meat scandal produced in Germany. Surely the labelling of beef still needs to be monitored?