Language Issues

I can’t decide. Is German a rich language full of imagery, or one with a weak vocabulary that fails to provide adequate scope for expression?

The latest linguistic curiosity I have come across is the German word for glove. You know, those things you cover your hands with when it gets cold in winter. Not to be confused with mittens. And vastly different from a baseball glove.

My wife, who is trying to encourage my language acquisition by using German nouns around the house, was looking for her gloves the other day. (She doesn’t try verbs because then I wouldn’t understand anything.) Seeing that she was searching for something I asked what it was. “Handschuhe,” was the reply.

I could figure that out, but I laughed at the response. Because a literal translation of that word is not “gloves” but “hand shoes.” That seemed somewhat silly to me. I would expect you to use hand shoes if you were walking on your hands. Why couldn’t they have a separate word rather than this flimsy invention? Though it is memorable – after today you’ll always remember the German word for “glove.”

At least they have a separate word for glove. There are other times when a single word can have two meanings, and you figure out which it is from the context. (And yes, I know English does that sometimes also – but not as often as German, or so it seems to me.)

The first of such words that comes to my mind is “Himmel,” the German word for “sky,” which is also German for “Heaven.” The theologian in me says this might be an historical misunderstanding of the nature of God and His residence. If so though, why hasn’t the language evolved beyond that. We know God doesn’t live in the sky, don’t we?

As an outsider and a language learner (trying anyway) I find these things a little frustrating. Anyone who grew up with the language doesn’t see it that way.

It does make me wonder what aspects of English drive those learning it crazy. As a native speaker I probably wouldn’t understand.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting post. I really like German as everything seems to make complete sense, for example the handschuhe. They don’t seem to waste a lot of words describing exactly the same thing as in English, it’s either good or bad. No inbetweens usually. Must be easier to learn than English mustn’t it? Not sure.

    1. I learned English as a child, so I can’t compare. But I have a lot of refugee friends here who have learned English (I gather YouTube is a great help) and are studying German. It seems to be unanimous that German isn’t has hard as Arabic or Chinese/Japanese, but pretty much harder than anything else. Germans don’t believe that because every two-year-old here can speak the language.

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