Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Tools of the trade - keeping understanding at arms length

Another letter from some official or department.  Time to put on my emotional armor, sharpen my eyes and grab a dictionary for 'Beamtes Deutsch'.  This is the official language of formal communication.  It seems obscure and difficult to understand - because it is.

Why is this language of the 'official' so inaccessible?  You could argue that it is just an issue of power, of compulsion through overwhelming vocabulary and complex sentence construction.  You would be right.  But only partly.

I always compare German through the lens of my native language usage.  For me, the gap between written and spoken English is narrower than for the average speaker.  I was always terribly wordy, and had to work hard as a teacher to bring my speech down to 'easy listening' mode.  In comparison to written and spoken German, English is a walk in the park.

Why?  It is partly a question of grammar.  Written German expects different grammar in several regards:

a) German requires a new tense for the past.  It is called the 'Präteritum' - you know it in English through changing from 'I have gone to the park' to 'I went to the park' ie, am going, have gone, went.  Here, 'went' is the past tense form used, typical also in spoken English.  However in German, the Präteritum is mainly used in writing, and not in spoken everyday language.  So, new words to learn.

b) The connecting words used for relating phrases to each other.  There are approximately a million sub categories, and I won't make your eyes bleed by listing them here.  Some are pronouns, others are built off prepositions, some invert the following word order, others don't... in the written, you might find a subject achieves completion, four phrases down the way.  Excellent.

c) By far the winner for inaccessibility is... something called the 'Nominalstil'.  Normal sentences require verbs to drive the sentence towards meaning.  In this other way, verbs can be taken out the back, bashed into submission, and heavied by the nouns in the sentence.  Here is a tasty tidbit to sample:
    ---- A German invented onion soup by accident. (Verb dependent sentence, is a complete sentence).
------- The accidentially invented onion soup by a German... (see, the verb is subordinated to describing the soup, and the sentence is crying out for a helping verb to put it out of its misery). 

d) Add to that the use of cases (categories which place the noun into direct relation to how it is being used, depending on number of people, ownership plus adjectives needing to match)...

...and there you have it, a mind numbing array of written language features you don't hear in the everyday.

For what it is worth, I think the cultural value of preciseness ironically subverts the value of accuracy, as a lack of clarity ensues.

Oh well, back to the books.  Exam next month.


Annabelle Humanes said...

You make me feel better about not understanding those forms!

Rachael said...

I am getting better at understanding only because I need to learn formal written German. It feels like I'm cracking a code!

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