August 22, 2005

Why German Sounds Funny

Note from Daniel: I will be heading on vacation to Ottawa for the next week and will not be able to feed my cat or update the site. Fear not, though. My parents will take care of the Professor and I will start updating again August 28th.

A few years ago, I took a German class in Germany, and there was one other Anglophone in the class, Ian. Periodically, we would burst into laughter at one of the words, leaving the French and Spanish students puzzled and the German instructor annoyed. A year or so after that, I took a German class in Toronto, and the same thing happened. Occasionally, the class would burst into guffaws (later turning into stifled guffaws as the course drew on and the instructor grew more stern). This got me wondering what it was about German vocabulary that so many English speakers found amusing. It wasn't amusing in the same Beavis-and-Butthead way that the French word for "seal" or the Greek word for "flowing through" are. Rather, it was something peculiar about English that made so many German words sound amusing to Anglophone ears.

English has a peculiar historical origin. It started off as the language Anglo Saxon, virtually the same language that modern German began as. After the Norman invasion in 1066, a great deal of French mixed into the language. Later, when new words or neologisms were created, they were created from Latin and Greek roots. Over time, many of these Latin and Greek words invaded the common tongue (words such as "invaded"). This gives English four different language sources that affect the language in very different ways. Anglo Saxon and French provide the base language and Latin and Greek provide most of the neologisms.

As a result, English developed something rather unique in a language, two virtually completely distinct registers. By a register, I mean a set of vocabulary used for a particular purpose or a particular social setting. The higher register, consisting largely of Greek and Latin neologisms, is used in academic or sophisticated settings. For instance, in writing an academic paper, one is more likely to say, "The dominant Romans demoralised the conquered Gauls using intimidation techniques" than "The Roman bosses scared the Gauls by beating them up". The converse is also true. The lower register, consisting largely of Anglo Saxon and a few French words, is used in casual social situations. At a sports bar, one is more likely to say, "You really talk a lot when you're drunk", than "You are positively loquacious having imbibed such a copious quantity of intoxicants".

Using these different registers, we are able to express different intentions and even emotions. For instance, if we want to be serious, we raise our register. It shows that the fun is over, and it's time to be serious now. Conversely, if we want to set someone at ease, we lower our register, switching to Anglo-Saxon-derived words. It's a sign of relaxation. When something from one social setting is taken and suddenly thrust in to a setting where it is inappropriate, it can be a source of humour. One thing I've noted is the way that academics sometimes suddenly drop their register when they hit the punchline of their joke. It can be funny to say, "In effect, Malvolio was a big loser" at the end of a complex academic argument. What is funny is that all that complex Latinized argumentation can be reduced to a simple Anglo Saxon insult. Similarly, in casual settings, to suddenly raise the register can be amusing, especially when an Anglo Saxon and Latinized adjective are combined. I may make a joke saying my Dairy Queen ice cream cone is an example of "swirly effervescence". Effervescence is a high-register word, appropriate to seriousness and not ice cream cones. The hyperbole or exaggeration is supplied by the register shift and provides the joke.

German, on the other hand, did not form its neologisms out of Greek and Latin. Rather, German formed its neologisms out of German itself. This is the source of the humour. The roots of the German high register, that is, the roots from which German builds it academic and sophisticated language, is the same roots from which English builds its low register. As I argued above, when something from a low register is used to describe something sophisticated, humour ensues. This is precisely what Anglophones hear when they learn new words in German. Sophisticated concepts are being presented in what appear to be unsophisticated terms. It is as though the sophisticated concept is being made fun of by deliberately using unsophisticated language.

Here are two examples. Let's take the English word "hydrogen". Everyone knows that chemical elements are serious business, so it is made from a Greek root. It is made from hyder, "water", and gennao, meaning "creates". The German word for hydrogen is Wasserstoff, which means exactly what it looks like it means, "water stuff". No self-respecting chemical element would ever be called "water stuff" unless it were duly translated into Greek. As such, calling hydrogen Wasserstoff is funny. Another amusing case I encountered a few weeks ago was the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Immaculate comes from the Latin prefix in- or "not" and the participle maculatus or "stained". However, the word for "Immaculate" in German is Unbefleckte, which, once one has learned a little German grammar, literally means someone who has no flecks on her. In English, the word "fleck" is a very low register word and would never be used to describe important theological concepts. As such, the term Unbefleckte provides humour by describing solemn concepts in what sounds like flippant vocabulary.

German is not funny per se, but it can often sound so to Anglophones. The cause of this is that English uses the same linguistic roots for its low register as German does for its high register. When sophisticated or solemn concepts are described with the same roots as colloquial English, it can often provide humour. This may provide frustration to German instructors, but helps English students to understand the sophisticated possibilities of their language's German roots.


Kyle said...

Hah, that was a fantastic article. Unfortunately now I will never write again, as I will constantly be wondering which register I'm conversing in. Which sucks.

Thanks and have a great vacation!

PB said...

Can't help it, if an adult person laughs when they hear a foreign language, the first thing that comes to my mind is "What're you, five year-old"? If you learn German from the very basics, you would get the picture of why Germans use words, how they compose new words from existing ones etc.

Air of Winter said...

Hi. Interesting point. You've made me realize that one of the reasons I get into so few heated exchanges during debate is that I usually write in the upper register, and the more controversial the issue I'm addressing, the closer dust-dry my tone is. An identical comment in the lower register would, not infrequently, inspire my opponent to try to punch my lights out. :)

Daedalus said...

I've often wondered why German sounded humorous to me. This is interesting, thanks.

The Private intellectual. said...

To a certain extent I would agree with your excellent article. However, it is also possible that English-speakers laugh at the German language because of a more basic understanding of their own language.

For example, when an English person is learning the basics of driving, they are going to be taught the verb Fahrten and its derivatives. Anyone would automatically try and stifle a guffaw over this. Or, when learning to order a bottle of wine, one is taught that the bottle is a Flasche which, in English, has a very different meaning indeed.

Sometimes the reasons underlying humour are very basic indeed, and one need only look at the juxtaposition of meaning to comprehend the joke.

Kate said...

That was a very interesting article. Makes a lot of sense, really. I think it applies to many other languages besides German, too. But I have often wondered why German is so literal, now I know.

gary said...

That's intriguing.

One of the things that always amuses me about German is the number of words that appear to be stolen directly from English (e.g. Das Rollerblading).

Ash Sere said...

What a smart dissolution.

Daniel said...

I'm glad most of you enjoyed this post. It's really fun to write about experiences learning other languages.

MeisenKaiser said...

Das ist einen güten Artiklen! :-)
Ferry intrißtink!

Oll said...

Wasserstoff doesnt mean water stuff
Wasserzeug means water stuff
stoff can be translated with:cloth ,drapery ,fabric ,material,matter,rag,stock,stuff,substance,tissue ,subject matter
what u understand from the word stuff is mainly Zeug

i wonder why u laugh about german
yea u said cause its low vocabulary
do u think that german is primitiv or what?
or why is it so funny?

Sean said...

English uses the word 'diarrhoea', but German uses the much more logical - yet mildly comical - 'Durchfall', which literally means 'through-fall'.

I like the way German forms neologisms. It makes it easier to learn - and even make up - more complex words, while retaining its Germanic roots.

It's hard to believe that English is still a Germanic language sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I agree, this is a really interesting article. In learning German I've often found it amusing how literal some expressions are, or how obvious their meanings. A favorite is the Ascension of Christ: Christi Himmelfahrt, which is doubly funny. For one, fahrt always makes people snicker. And two, it's so literal, like "trip to the sky".

To "oll" I would have to say doch. Stoff can most definitely mean stuff in this sense. I understand Zeug to mean "thing," ie something more concrete or countable.

TootsNYC said...

i wonder why u laugh about german
yea u said cause its low vocabulary
do u think that german is primitiv or what?

He doesn't mean "high" vs. "low" as in "good" vs. "bad"--he means "formal" vs. "informal."

And laughing at the form of the verb "fahren" that comes out "fahrt" is the Beavis & Butthead humor that Dan said he and his cohort member in Germany were NOT laughing at.

Wasserstoff may mean "water material" instead of "water stuff" (but I would argue that "stoff" is too very akin to "stuff," just as "stuff" is a synomym for material: "the stuff that dreams are made on"--in fact, the first meaning for "stuff" is "materials, supplies or equipment used in various activities")

but it's still funnier than "hydrogen."

And I'm sorry, i've always chuckled at "die Geldzuruckgebensknopf" written by the coin return on the cigarette machine's photo in my elementary German book--in the first place, it takes up the whole width of the machine!

in the second, it's funny--all those words to say "coin return"--the money back giving button.

I'm sure there are things in English that make Germans smile or chuckle or laugh.

Just because something is amusing doesn't mean you scorn it or think ill of it. In fact, it *may* make you laugh a little at your OWN language, or your own prejudices and assumptions.

That is true, the switch from "fancy talk" to "nuts-and-bolts language."

Alexey said...

thank you for this interesting article. That is exactly the same story with Ukranian and Russian. While high-register(and low-register btw) Russian language has borrowed many words from other languages, mainly with French, German, Latin and Greek roots, Ukrainian stayed relatively pure from borrowings.
That is the reason why Ukranian sounds a lot funny to Russians - many words are derived from the roots belonging to low-register.
Also often high-registed Ukranian words are formed using suffices belonging to low-register in Russian. For instance, Ukranian "prime-minister", sounds like "small and ridiculous prime-minister" to Russians.

Alexander Uhl said...

Hi there,

I am a German living temporarily in Chicago, IL. I must admit that I really love this article. I would subscribe to it for the most part, and it did inspire me to a new entry to my own blog. If you are interested, please read here:

Kind regards,

Anonymous said...

Very nice article. I'm from Spain and have learned German for many years too. I also find words like "Wasserstoff" or "Unbefleckte" funny. The Spanish word for hydrogen is "hidrógeno" and for Inmaculate "Inmaculado/a".

I agree with "TootsNYC":"Just because something is amusing doesn't mean you scorn it or think ill of it." I as well find Spanish sometimes amusing, the way we translate many foreign words into Spanish, e.g. New York is Nueva York or Jules Verne is Julio Verne.

Anonymous said...

Danke für den Artikel. Ich habe mich schon oft gefragt, wie unsere Sprache wohl in fremden Ohren klingt. Ich hatte gefürchtet, sie klingt hart und abweisend. Schön, dass sie eher lustig klingt. Und den Grund dafür finde ich auch gut analysiert!
Übrigens habe ich absolut nichts dagegen, wenn man über meine Sprache lacht. Ich finde es natürlich über manche Wörter zu lachen und nicht kindisch! Das geht uns Deutschen doch umgekehrt mit dem Englischen genauso!

Anonymous said...

By the way: “die Geldzuruckgebensknopf” in proper German is “der Geldrückgabeknopf” … might be still funny, I don’t know since I hear this word quite often in my Mothertongue.

Allison said...

I really liked this article. I happen to really like the German language but that doesn't stop me from being oddly amused by words at times (though I don't always know why exactly).
I feel like sometimes the laughter is misinterpretted as disrespect towards a language even when no disrespect is intended. I remember that one of my favorite French phrases was "J'en ai" because to me it sounds like a (silly) pronunciation of the name Johnny (John-aay) that I've heard in English and that just makes it more fun for me.
I think that growing up learning English has also laid a strong foundation for some words that I continually associate with more foul-sounding speech. When I find some humor in the word Fahrten, I don't think it says as much about the language I'm learning as it does about the language I've grown up learning because it's the English word it sounds similar to that I'm reminded of. Also, to be fair, there are times that I find ENGLISH words funny as well so it's hardly just an attempt to put down another language as somehow inferior.

Anonymous said...

I`ve nearly wetted my pants, reading about the "Waterstuff" and that even though german is my mothertounge. Hilarious and well explaained article, keep up the good work and thanks for the laughter =)

Anonymous said...

Nice article and thoughts. It makes me think about the funny (but very charming!) effect of e.g. Dutch to Germans, which is also a West Germanic language.

I would not absolutely agree with the general statement that the German language stayed pure. Of course it absorbed many loanwords from French, Ancient Greek or Latin - although these will not always be recognizable for English speakers and you might discuss which developments are more "strange"(e.g., while nearly all Germanic languages adopted the Latin word "fenestra", the English "window" is quite unique).

I personally love the possibility of creating `authentic´ and inventive compounding words in German. "Christi Himmelfahrt" is a good example, "Zeitgeist" or "Kindergarten" are other popular ones.

Alex MS said...

As a native speaker it's very exciting to get to know another point of view. Although your article precisely demonstrates the great influence of Latin for the English language and is very informative, I'm afraid to disappoint you in some ways (I don't feel offended, it's just entertaining).

Words like "Wasserstoff" in contrast to other languages (en.: hydrogen, fr.:hydrogène, es: hidrogéneo) are special and unique. In other languages it's always the same boring latin derivate... ;) By the way: the chemical term is "Hydrogenium", so German perhaps is more complex than other languages. Nearly everytime there are two words, but not everyone knows the special latin term

en: eloquent
de: beredsam/eloquent

en: photo
de: Lichtbild/Foto

The German words might sound simple, as if they were taken from a low register, but mostly there are latin/french synonyms.

A point I love about German is the amazing variety of possibilities to articulate ourselves. To us there is a difference between the movement away from a speaker or towards a speaker:
To me it was cute and simple just to say "to go" (in or out).

Alex MS said...

One point I have to add is:

Germans sound funny, if they pronounce the "th" like "se". Or the intonation like "necxt stattion..."

Anglophonic people in contrast should avoid french borrowings/words, as if they were English. I have guffaw, if someone goes "GOW-TIAAAEEYYY" instead of "Gaultier".

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

You forgot "Lastwagen" (truck) which if pronounciated in German sounds like "lust wagen" (lust wagon).

Unknown said...

That's a really excellent article, very interesting. I'm English and speak German, albeit badly. I love German, it's a beautiful language but equally, it can be laugh out loud funny too, for the same reasons.
It's not denigrating the language as some of the more illiterate comments above suggest (I think so anyway, I'm not good at text speak) nor showing a lack of understanding of my own language. It's precisely as you explained. What is new to me is an appreciation of why Germans find it so unamusing when I occasionally snigger at a sensible and logical German word.
The joy of English is usually being able to say one thing, five different ways so perhaps German just reflects one of the funnier variations of English. Not in a laugh at kind of way but in a warm and fuzzy Gemuetlichkeit kind of way!

miya said...

I really liked to read that article, too. I am German and I never thought of the way we tend to create our "higher level words" out of "lower level" ones.

But with the word Wasserstoff you got something wrong. It isn't translated into "water stuff" but into "water compound", thus the "compound of water". As hydrogen is a main part of the water molecule and is found in this bond the most I think the name is rather fitting.

As for "Unbefleckte"... well... in German, you wouldn't use that in a casual conversation, its quite a square word, but I can see why you thinks its funny.

Another reason why especially the Anglophones may laugh about these German ways (when the French and Spanish also have their fancy Greek and Latin words) might be that German and English have a lot of similarities and you can understand our words better or rather are used to another meaning.

Anonymous said...

I am just trying to learn German as an English speaker. And I speak Spanish already as a 2nd language. I try and lsiten to a bunch of tanzchlager and other German music (yes even Falco) to improve my German. It always strikes me as funny when they sing about Farten auf playa in Mallorca.

moc001 said...

Here is an interesting song in German, about english words!