Thanks to my indefatigable polymath of a sister, I survived an intense five-week course in the study of reading German for research purposes, with pride and some knowledge intact. This course was necessary a) because I'm required by the Divinity School to pass reading exams in French and German, and b) because some of the scholarship I want to be able to explore is written in German.
(Before we go further, I'll answer two of the questions I've gotten most often. One is, "Wie geht's?," or some other German greeting people like to hurl at me, and to which I might or might not be able to respond. This is because learning to read a language and learning to speak it are related but distinctly separate skills -- a little ice skating and skiing: the former is an orderly progression that picks up speed as you gain competence, the other is a combination of skill, experience, luck and mad improvisation.
The other questions I get asked a lot are, "Why don't you just find an English translation of the German? Or use translation software?" The answer is, you don't want to rely on anyone else's experience or perspective to understand something when you can at least try to understand it yourself. Besides, with most translation software, you'll wind up sounding like Borat.)
Even though I have a German last name, and Austrian-Jewish ancestry, I was never at all interested in learning German. In fact, I admit to having been a little repulsed by the sound of it. I associated spoken German with old newsreel footage of Hitler, in one of his apoplectic-xenophobic fits, spewing spittle and hatred and arousing mobs to murderous frenzy. German was his weapon: it was guttural and harsh, sinister and surgical, undeniably angry. Even Rilke or Goethe, read in German, sounded to me like the narration of someone bearing a grudge.
The truth is, German is an incredibly precise and pristine language, and a very beautifully constructed one. It isn't simple, but it can express a whole range of emotions and relationships in a few words, or in subtle shifts of tense, that English can't match. We have to prattle on for about three sentences about some things for which German needs perhaps a single word. English has become a universal language partly because, aside from the spelling, there isn't much to learn, really: we don't use the subjunctive much, we don't have too many irregular verbs, we don't have formal relationships that require the use of an archaic pronoun. We say what we mean, which, usually, isn't much, or isn't very complicated.
Not so in German. I get the feeling that Kant would not have been Kant without German. That Moses Mendelssohn wouldn't have been a sturdy bridge across which Judaism could begin to pass into modernity. That the Enlightenment would've been little more than a really good salon. And -- sadly -- that the word "Blitzkrieg" would never have menaced the modern world that Germany helped create.
Seventy years ago today, Germany marched into Poland. Even today, the sight of umlauts, or classic German script, or even just ß, the Eszett (a sort of double "s"), makes me start looking over my shoulder and checking my coat for sudden armbands. And even today, the sound of the language -- which never menaced me in my lifetime, nor any of my family, all of whom had been stateside for at least half a century by the time German tanks roared into Poland -- even today it makes my forehead break out in little beads of sweat.
But the German language (as my sister explains -- see the link above) has great insights into human nature embedded in it. Take the word Geist, for example. As Annie says:
"In some contexts, it will be translated into English as “spirit;” in others, as “mind” or “intellect.” But in German, it encompasses both. They are not two different things. We need at least two words to approximate the German word — poorly. What does that mean? It means, I think, that in English we think of mind as a tool, mechanism, or process that assembles or manipulates parts of ideas, while spirit is sort of featureless and above all that. Mind is a factory, if an advanced one; spirit is a mist. But in German, you think with your spirit. Ideas are not something you assemble, they’re something you apprehend."
German's wondrous insights -- its tenses and declensions, its insights into human nature -- are indicative of how thought and language are double-helixed together, and together shape minds. Like any great strength, it can be greatly misapplied.
My father, knowing I spend most of my days studying religion, or religious scholarship, likes to goad me by saying that religion is the cause of most of the world's suffering. I try to tell him that mankind is the cause of most of the world's suffering. Religion's just an instrument. It's the old "Guns don't kill people -- people kill people" argument, I suppose. (I spin it a different way to my dad: I tell him that blaming religion for the world's ills is like blaming Abner Doubleday for steroid use). The same idea can be applied to the German language. It helped fuel a kind of nationalism that came very close to destroying the world (certainly the Jewish world, but also all of Europe); but from the 17th the early 20th century, the German language itself helped seed the exponential growth in science, philosophy, poetry, opera, and literature.
The word Geist says it all: in German, you think with an entity that is both Spirit and Mind. When you see the German language in calligraphy, you can practically feel its beauty; sense its feeling/thinking spirit.
May the beauty of Geist, the word and the idea, help the German language, and the rest of us, leap clear of the depths toward which the powerful can propel us.