Jack Gladney’s German lessons

May 3, 2023

With a film adaptation out, and Airborne Toxic Events occurring in reality, it seemed a good time to revisit White Noise, Don DeLillo’s great seriocomic novel of the mid-1980s. Its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies preoccupied by an upcoming conference, because he doesn’t speak German.

Gladney begins taking private German lessons, recounting the experience in his wry, anxious voice. Spoiler note: little of what follows has any real bearing on the plot, and it’s not a particularly plot-driven book, but you may prefer to back out if you haven’t read White Noise and might soon.

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German-speaking-proficiency shame

February 2, 2015

The last novel I read, Ivan Turgenev’s Liza (Everyman’s Library edition, translated by W.R.S. Ralston) has a counterintuitive comment on how proficiency in different European languages was held in Russian society, or at least a certain part of it, at the time of the story’s telling:

The young Vladimir Nikolaevich spoke excellent French, good English, and bad German. That is just as it should be. Properly brought-up people should of course be ashamed to speak German really well; but to throw out a German word now and then, and generally on facetious topics – that is allowable; “c’est même très chic,” as the Petersburg Parisians say.

That these preferences are more a matter of etiquette than anything merely practical is shown by the next line, where Nikolaevich is praised for having learned, by age fifteen, “how to enter any drawing-room whatsoever without becoming nervous, how to move about it in an agreeable manner, and how to take his leave exactly at the right moment.”

Imagine the faux pas of slightly mistiming one’s departure from the room while speaking good German. Drawing room, incidentally, has nothing etymologically to do with drawing – it’s short for withdrawing room, which is the older name: a room to withdraw to. But I’m all for drawing there anyway.

Language rules of the Third Reich

April 8, 2014

Last week I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, and thought the following passage would be of interest to readers of Sentence first since it deals specifically with the euphemisms and language rules (Sprachregelungen) used by the Third Reich.

In Arendt’s text the following comprises a single paragraph, but I’ve introduced a few breaks to make it easier to read here:

All correspondence referring to the matter [Final Solution] was subject to rigid “language rules,” and, except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as “extermination,” “liquidation,” or “killing” occur. The prescribed code names for killing were “final solution,” “evacuation” (Aussiedlung), and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung); deportation – unless it involved Jews directed to Theresienstadt, the “old people’s ghetto” for privileged Jews, in which case it was called “change of residence” – received the names of “resettlement” (Umsiedlung) and “labor in the East” (Arbeitseinsatz im Osten), the point of these latter names being that Jews were indeed often temporarily resettled in ghettos and that a certain percentage of them were temporarily used for labor.

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Spelling leitmotif

June 2, 2010

The anglicised German word leitmotif (or leitmotiv) has two main meanings: a dominant and recurring theme, such as one finds in a novel; or a melodic phrase associated with a person, thing, idea, sentiment, or situation, and characteristic thereof. It comes from the German leit- (lead, leading, i.e. guiding) + motiv (motif, theme, from French motif). The German plural is Leitmotive (German nouns take capital letters); the English is leitmotifs or leitmotivs.

In an introduction by Nikolay Andreyev to Tolstoy’s Master and Man (Dent & Sons, Everyman’s Library, 1982), I came across an unusual spelling: leitmotives (possibly hyphenated):

My first guess was that it was a misspelling — an understandable one from a non-native English speaker — but then I wondered if it was a rare variant form. I knew that leitmotifs could also be spelled leitmotivs (German v is generally unvoiced and pronounced as f),* so I wanted to give the writer and publishers the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the term had been more anglicised than I thought. A look online brought up a letters page from The Musical Times, 1 February 1928. See the second letter, from J. A. Westrup, and the reply by Mr. Calvocoressi, for a brief discussion about spelling.

Westrup, appealing to Fowler, contends that leitmotive “is no word at all”. Calvocoressi counters that Leitmotif “quite obviously . . . is becoming anglicised”, but in the next paragraph he says that the word “means a motive whose recurrence and other functions are always governed by an association of some kind”. Which is all very well, except that he writes motive where I would write motif. The OED includes motive as a variant spelling of motif, but it’s one I’ve seen only rarely (except when I go looking).

Later in the aforementioned introduction, the same strange spelling appears:

Here, not only have we motif spelled motive, but tendentiousness is spelled tendenciousness — another unusual variant. In any case, there’s no pleasing everyone: as the lines at the bottom of this page show, even Leitmotif has its critics:

* Edited to include “generally”, following Sean’s helpful comment (see below).

Oversalted with foreign words

May 31, 2010

The Economist reported last week on what it called “the vain battle to promote German”. It quotes the founders of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (Fruitbearing Society), a literary group almost 400 years old, who centuries ago described the German language as “watered-down and oversalted” with foreign words. This old and common complaint has been taken up again by the New Fruitbearing Society, founded in 2007.

The degree to which foreign words “water down” or “salt” a language is subjective, and even the foreignness of a word can be debatable. Simeon Potter has written about the English language’s “highly technical efficiency in word-formation which enabled it . . . to absorb new elements and from these elements to shape new compounds”. This very efficiency troubled some traditionalists, who by default preferred words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Robert Burchfield called the quest for Saxonisms* “an unrealizable nationalistic dream”.

English is an unusual case, not least for the cultural power it has wielded through historical circumstance. But for all its force as the international lingua franca, it is far from monolithic. Its singular name is convenient but misleading: despite the popularity of simplified international forms such as “Basic English” and “Globish” (or the popularity of the idea of them), there are countless varieties of English, all taking their own unpredictable paths and becoming, in many cases, mutually unintelligible to varying degrees.

The boundaries between languages can be as much administrative and political as linguistic. In the so-called battle between languages, ground is always being gained here and lost there; their statuses and relationships never stabilise. Words seep from one language into another, sometimes remaining as they are (e.g. Gestalt, Zeitgeist), being translated as a calque (e.g. homesickness is calqued on Heimweh), or suffering what Burchfield described as “the indignity of being absorbed into the syllabic and other patterns of the receiving language”.

If languages survive through a process analogous to natural selection, it’s probably as complicated as it is in biology — and perhaps even less predictable, being human-centred. We can see related and ancestral forms in the morphology of words we use just as in the morphology of plants and animals we see. Anthony Burgess, in Language Made Plain, wrote that there is “fascination in looking for the family face under the whiskers”; that invasion and academia had given English “the surface appearance of a Romance language”, but that it remained “very much a Germanic dialect”.

This is unlikely to console the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, whose grievance is understandable but who would do well to prepare for disappointment. I’m all for languages retaining native words and expressions, but there are limits to how much influence — not to mention control — any person, lobby group or statutory body has over anyone else’s usage. L’Académie française is a telling example. Moreover, causes like this tend to attract purism and scapegoating, neither of which squares with the practical promotion of a language.


* Saxonism: “a name for the attempt to raise the proportion borne by the originally & etymologically English words in our speech to those that come from alien sources” (H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage).

[Image adapted from here.]