Tuesday, February 13, 2007

German and those who speak it

A few days ago at my daughter's German-American preschool, I was looking at a bilingual display about values and principles and noticed how many of these abstract concepts are expressed by self-descriptive compound words. "Empathy" is Mitgefühl, or "with-feeling"; "cooperation" is Zusammenarbeit, "together-working", and "(self-)confidence" is Selbstvertrauen, literally "self-trust". My favorite was "independence", which is Selbstständigkeit, or "self-steadiness."

The German language is rife with such compound and self-descriptive words, so much so that a high school classmate of mine once dared to guess "der Kleinepunkt" as the translation of "detail" on a vocabulary quiz. (It's wrong--the word is Einzelheit---but the teacher was quite amused and impressed, as was I.) And one could argue that the English words are also compound and self-descriptive, albeit with the Greek and Latin roots instead. For example, "cooperation" comes from the Latin prefix co- meaning "with" or "together", and operari, meaning "to work". It's really the same as Zusammenarbeit.

I would argue, however, that having these concepts defined internally within the same language makes the abstract more, well, concrete. There's nothing hidden in the roots of another language, no room for obfuscation or euphemism. "Suicide", with its meaning safely tucked away in its Latin components, has a harmonious sound that belies its tragedy. But Selbstmord..."self-death" is right there for the youngest child to comprehend. Could this completeness and directness of the German language be one reason why the Germans have developed a reputation for being down-to-earth and blunt even to the point of tactlessness? Could the accessibility of abstract words have contributed to the success of the German people in such recondite topics as physics and philosophy?

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