By Martin Steinmetz

29 August 2014 - 10:17

'It's hard to miss this colourful, well-groomed tribe of trendy urbanites.' Photo (c) farhad pocha, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'It's hard to miss this colourful, well-groomed tribe of trendy urbanites.' Photo ©

farhad pocha, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

German has a reputation for long words and difficult grammar. But far from being prosaic, it’s actually a language for writers, thinkers and hipsters, writes Martin Steinmetz. In the fourth of our series on the ten languages identified as most important to the UK over the next 20 years, he explains why life isn’t too short to learn German.

Let me confess: as someone who enjoys people-watching, I have a slight obsession with hipsters and their fashion style. In a city like Berlin, it's hard to miss this colourful, well-groomed tribe of trendy urbanites, which the Observer newspaper claims has already seen its heyday.

Honestly, I would cry crocodile tears (Krokodilstränen) if it turned out the hipster style was to vanish for good. One of the things I'd miss most are the canvas tote bags that carry slogans such as 'I read the book before it was the movie', ‘My Bauhaus is better than yours’ or ‘I’m cooler on the Internet’. These statements reveal retro-tinted thoughts that poke fun at our world in a post-modern kind of way.

‘Life’s too short to learn German’ is also a phrase I’ve spotted on one of those bags. It stuck with me. Although Berlin is a very open, international city where most expats can get by without speaking a great deal of German, I tried hard to get my head around this. I grew up speaking German at home, but learned English at school and went on to study journalism and English literature at a UK university. Weren’t the English-speaking expat hipsters I knew also fans of German bands like Kraftwerk, who sang about whizzing full-speed down the Autobahn (motorway)? Were they not hooked on the flowery language of the poet Rainer-Maria Rilke? And had they not claimed one of our most controversial philosophers, Nietzsche, as one of their own?

German is generally perceived to be the language of writers and thinkers (Dichter und Denker), so you’d think that hipsters and German would be a perfect match -- if it wasn’t for our fairly complex grammar and syntax rules. These rules pose a challenge (Herausforderung) to any language learner, and for some, learning German can even develop into a full-blown love-hate relationship, or Hassliebe. So much so, that most of my British mates have forgotten the German they were taught at school, except for a handful of sentences. One friend will ask any German he meets whether he can take his jacket off (Darf ich meine Jacke ausziehen, bitte?), followed by asking for a lighter (Kann ich dein Feuerzeug benutzen?). It’s very polite but not very useful in most situations – unless, of course, you are talking to a nudist who smokes.

Some will argue that my mother tongue has kept the grammatical complexity of Old English. And that’s true to some extent: enter the gendered noun, which was part of Old English but is still essential (wesentlich) to modern-day German. Because the two languages are more closely related than you’d think, there are a lot of nouns that sound the same in English and German, such as friend (der Freund), coast (die Küste) or hair (das Haar).

Please don’t forget the gendered articles, is my number one advice for anyone wanting to learn the language. Without knowing their gender you can’t decline nouns, adjectives or adverbs properly in a sentence. The nouns can also be very descriptive, as in Staubsauger (which means hoover, but literally translates as dust-sucker) or Schlafanzug (pyjamas, which means sleeping suit).

In fact, German is so strangely unique that its words have been adopted into other languages. Here are a few examples that were borrowed by the English language:

  • Zeitgeist, explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as the ‘defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time’
  • Schadenfreude, meaning ‘malicious enjoyment from the suffering of another’
  • Weltschmerz, which translates as world-weariness in the philosophical sense
  • Labskaus -- (a fishy dish)
  • über-cool -- very cool

In Germany, on top of many local dialects and accents, a hybrid language known as ‘Denglisch’ has emerged. ‘Public viewing’ (watching a football match on public screens outdoors), ‘messie’ (a person who hoards things at home) or ‘wellness’ (well-being) might sound quite cool and sophisticated to some German-speakers, but they aren't commonly used in English.

If you decide to give German a go, don’t worry. It will seem complicated at first, but you will soon discover that it really is a beautiful language that’s not as prosaic as many people think. And since it’s considered to be one of the top ten languages for international business, learning it might even pay off.

So is life really too short to learn German? Definitely: Nein.

Martin Steinmetz is not a hipster, but speaks German and English and is Communications Manager for the British Council in Germany. Download the full Languages for the Future report.

You might also be interested in: