Language matters.

Tuesday, August 10th, 2004

Sorry about the lack of interesting updates, folks. I’ve been diligently trying to get my term paper done, so most of my waking hours have been devoted to thoughts of computer-assisted language learning (fascinating, I know). One funny thing is that I’ve learned more about language teaching while writing this paper than I did in the 10 weeks of classes I had on the subject last term. That’s somewhat ironic - and yet also fitting, I suppose, as the topic of my paper is self-instructed learning…

There have been a couple of things I wanted to blog about, most of them language-related. I was going to get irate at some of the comments left at the end of this BBC article about Britons not being able to speak foreign languages (or being "language barbarians", as the article puts it) - comments such as, "Why should we regard this as a problem if we are all finding it easy to manage?" or "Let’s stop giving ourselves a hard time about not speaking Flemish and be real about our history, heritage, and the supremacy of our language" (emphasis most emphatically mine). But the thought of tangling with "English supremacists" is just too taxing right now, so instead I’m going to divert my energies to something more constructive - like learning Welsh (a language with speakers who would have more than a few choice words to say about the "supremacy" of the English language).

On a less irate note, I like the idea of searching for the most beautiful word in the German language. Ohrwurm isn’t exactly beautiful, but it is a great word, and I had a couple of other favorites that I could have added to their list. Gemütlich is a classic, of course - it’s that untranslatable combination of comfy, cozy, warm, friendly, relaxed well-being that I live for. Fernweh is a wonderful word, too. If Heimweh means "homesickness", then I guess Fernweh literally means "farsickness". I’ve often seen it translated with yet another excellent German word: Wanderlust. It’s that feeling I get when I read travel guides, or when I think of the great vacations that I’ve had or the great vacations that I’d love to take. It’s that feeling of sand in my shoes, that itching to be out of the house and off having adventures in some far-flung corner of the world (preferably a corner with gemütliche restaurants and B&Bs).

I’m suffering from a good deal of Fernweh right now, in fact, but relief is in sight: in just about a week and a half, after I’ve finished the term paper and wrapped up the translation work and left the daily grind behind me, I will be sitting on a verandah in Key West, with the tropical breezes wafting over me and a cool mojito at my side. Assuming Mother Nature plays along, that is. (Can I put a mojito in my hurricane kit…?)



This whole search for the most beautiful word in German has a very English feel to it, I think. The obsession with hierarchic lists especially in the British pop press ("The 100 Best Albums Ever" or "The 20 Sexiest Singers Ever")has often puzzled me. There is a strong desire there to introduce an element of "objectivity" into an area that is defined by arguments and debates about taste. What I like about such lists is that they are so self-defeating, because they trigger just the sort of debate that they are meant to put an end to.

Of course, the most beautiful word in German will not be a word that loads of people like because of its sound, but it will have to signify a pleasant or somehow funny concept as well. Just to be different, therefore, I ask people to consider the beauty of the word "Pferd", for the sheer oomph of its sound. It has that combination of the plosive with the labio-dental fricative right at the start, which Northern Germans and English speakers alike find so incredibly hard to pronounce. And it signifies something you really can’t debate that well. There are very unpleasant concepts described by beautiful-sounding words, such as "Insulininsuffizienz", a word I very much regret not being able to use very often. But as far as beautiful concepts described in a pleasant sounding way go, I think I would list "Fernweh" among my favourites as well.

Posted by whopper


"Pferd" is a good word - it has a nice clunky sound, like a horse’s hoof on hard dirt. For funniness combined with accuracy, I would go for "Dudelsack", because the bagpipes really are a kind of "tootling bag".

Posted by Jessica


I know that it’s well-worn, and certainly not beautiful…but may I add "Reformstau"? "Stau" itself is a pretty great word…especially if you have ever experinced it!! It makes the little hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention.

Posted by Mutti


Hooray for "Reformstau"! In any discussion of the German language at the moment, this has got to be the most fitting, and therefore maybe even beautiful word. If that competition was still on, I would try to get as many people as possible to submit the word "Rechtschreibreform" as the most beautiful word in German, just to piss idiots like Kai Diekmann off. The editor-in-chief of "Bild" at the forefront of a campaign to save out mother tongue? I know it’s a sign of my geekyness (and of complete political irresponsibility) but I havent’t been so worked up about anything in the papers for months. I am being forced to defend the reform wholesale, while I would much rather discuss its weak points (composite words, loan words from foreign languages). And then knowing that the reform’s detractors are people who have been contributing to secondary illiteracy (and to quite a number of incidents of enraged mob violence) in this country for over 50 years, well, it’s hard to bear.

Posted by whopper


I’m not so sure about beautiful, but for sheer evocative power you cannot go past "kesselschlact". A horrible meaning, particularly if you imagine its past use in the German language, but I just love the word



My all time favourite….

Posted by Michael D.


Oh, yeah, Götterdämmerung! That one’s brilliant. I also like Streichholzschächtelchen, just because it’s great fun to say.

Posted by Jessica

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