When you ask someone to list the most appealing languages, German is quite unlikely to be in that list. This is unfortunate. Perhaps it is not flowy and melodic like the romance languages nor as flexible as English, but there is an elegance in the perceived perversity.
Language as pure noise
Growing up, my Dad and I watched movies on the weekend together. It was a great bonding experience. Like many of us my Dad is fascinated with the movies of his youth and slightly before (how many people in their thirties now are into 80’s music/fashion/movies? Yes, my hand is up too.) This meant “old” movies. Before you wander off to read something with more explosions hear(read?) me out. The old movies had to rely on language and acting and had a lot of great jokes that do not rely on swearing at the camera for 5 minutes straight.
One of my favorites from that time with Dad is the Court Jester starring Danny Kaye (as an aside here, Angela Lansbury plays the beautiful young princess.) The basic idea is Robin Hood-esque. Forest outlaws against evil ruler in castle with a number of twists that for this post are irrelevant. There are tons of great language jokes in the film, but I want to show one scene in particular. Danny Kaye’s character is a bit of a buffoon but is a good actor. He is taking the role of a court jester to sneak into the castle and is stopped by guards. To prove that he is well traveled he shows his use of language. The character knows none of these languages and yet even in spilling out nonsense in the proper tones can convince the guard. It is hard to describe, so here is the scene from YouTube. The language bit starts at 0:50 if you are really impatient, though the first half has a point that I will come back to.
Even if he had not prefaced each of the snippets, I expect each of us would still be able to pick out which language he was “speaking“. There are certain sounds and patterns that a language takes that we recognize even if we (like the poor guard) understand nothing. Back to the idea of German and its form. In the film clip note how German is quite aggressive and for my ears seems to last longer than the other snippets even though he claims they all mean “let us go to the castle.” French contains a romantic kiss and Italian is more passionate like the German but with the romance language flair. These are the stereotypes that form the character of these languages.
German is a Marching Band
To my ears there is definitely an elegance to German, though dissimilar to the grace of the flowing romance tongues. German is more like a well trained marching band, for me specifically the drum corps. In my High School our football team was awful. Seriously, I remember seeing maybe two touchdowns during several years of watching. The band however was award winning, so it was more fun to watch the band at games than the game itself. If languages could be personified in the form of bands, then German is very definitely the marching band. The beauty is in the rhythm and the crisply executed movements. A couple of hundred people moving and stamping in unison led by the rhythmic aggressive banging of the drum. This is our staccato Germanic tirade.
To further this metaphor, French is an orchestra with a refined air and melodic sing-song. There is a bit of a bite in it as the conductor stares down his nose at the audience before concentrating on the music. Not to be too cliche here, but Italian then becomes an opera. The romantic orchestra is there as well, but the main focus is the pouring out of soul of the singer. (This vision is helped by the fact that so many operas are in Italian.) The melodic tones of the instruments blend and the tune is the thing.
English is clearly a jazz band to me. Anywhere from a single trumpet to a few guys with whatever instruments sitting together and jamming. Back to the video clip, the first half is a narrator that is almost over the top cheesy to me. I love it though, that ability to bend English and improvise. It takes the drumming from German and the trumpet from the orchestra. Even the stately cello is co-opted in the form of the bass. English is a mix of the two sources Germanic and Latinate.
We are somehow attuned to beauty being harmonic and melodic, whereas German is clearly not this type of music. It is rhythmic, sharp and crisp. The elegance comes in properly executed forms and flourishes, not in a melody. Too many flourishes ruins the choreography and although there is a tune, the drums and the bass beat of it all overwhelm the delicateness of that melody. So it comes off harsh if you are expecting an orchestra.
Perhaps that is just the sign of native fluency, but I can’t really bend German yet. It is my goal to be able to do “used car salesman” voice or almost over-the-top like that narrator in the Court Jester in German. I’ll get there eventually. Until then I will enjoy the marching rhythm that is the beautiful German language.
This post is part of the German Roundtable‘s January topic of language. Take a look at the other entries to this month.
I leave you with one last link to peruse. Mark Twain, the well traveled American writer, wrote a text about the Awful German Language that, if you understand any German at all, is one of the most hilarious things ever about the language. If you like his humor and way of writing like I do, it is worth the time to read through.