Tag Archives: Vocabulary

The Language of the Holidays

Tis the season of festive lights, warm spiced wine and Christmas markets galore. In an earlier post, I sketched out a typical holiday celebration here in the land of three Christmas days (well, two-and-a-half).

As a tip of the Santa hat to the season, this time around I will introduce the language of the holidays in search of clues for how the German  language puts its singular stamp on the festive vernacular.

plaetzchen
Christmas Cookies–or Plaetzchen–are taken VERY seriously in Germany. This bad boy has almost 300 pages of recipes.
  1. Plaetzchen

    Anecdotally, I know that Christmas cookie baking is as robust a tradition in the States as it is in Germany. I have seen the scrumptious photos on my social media newsfeeds (stop it, by the way–my waistline grows an inch with every view). Which is why it is a bit curious to me that the American English language hasn’t bestowed these special treats with their own name, as the Germans have.
    I learned very early in my time here that “Plaetzchen” is the name for the hundreds of varieties of Christmas cookies that start appearing at holiday parties throughout the country this time of year. How did I learn? The same way I learned many an important word back in the early days here–I heard a friend use it (in this case, she asked if she should bring some “Plaetzchen” to a Christmas get-together I was organizing), was too afraid to lose face by asking what it meant, cooly played it off as if I already knew (surely it meant plates, which I already had plenty of) and–ruefully, so very ruefully–learned too late what I had turned away. Oh, the humanity. I’M SO SORRY JUTTA!

    vanillekipferln
    My own little Dr. Oetker, making his great-grandmother proud by baking his first-ever batch of Oma Julie’s Vanilla Crescents (“Vanille Kipferln”), a family favorite.
  2. Bescherung

    No need to bless me, I did not just sneeze. Rather, I cyber-articulated the very special word used to mean the act of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. As I mentioned last Christmas, the Bescherung takes place on what Americans call Christmas Eve.
    Fun Fact #1: “Gift” means “poison” in German. Please, no gift-giving here. Germans are swell folks.
    Fun Fact #2: “Eine schoene Bescherung!” is an ironic expression that translates to “a fine mess!”, or, as my dad might say, “a fine how-do-you-do!”

    gluehwein
    No holiday / winter season is complete without Gluehwein, best enjoyed in a dedicated mug and–of course–freshly-baked Plaetzchen.

    3. Gluehwein

    On a winter trip to Austria years (and years and years) ago, my underaged self somehow managed to nip a sip of this very traditional cozy winter drink at a Christmas Market. My taste for fine libations being unevolved as they were at the time, I thought it was disgusting. In fact, the steaming, sweet wine-y taste became a thing of lore, so nasty it was, and I was glad to have thousands of safe transatlantic miles between myself and “that stuff”. Ha!
    For perhaps the specific purpose of schooling me to appreciate Gluehwein (which has nothing to do with glue, rest assured), the universe blew me across the ocean a decade later for a more permanent stay–smack dab in the middle of German wine country, no less. Now, of course, I savor the stuff and how it warms me from the inside out.
    Ah, the mysterious ways of the world.

    4. Silvester

    Let’s take a stab at how many Americans know what this refers to, with the clues that you can already eliminate a certain Boxer-playing Italian-American actor as well as a Warner Brothers cartoon character. Anyone…anyone….?
    Now I’ll ask Germans a similar question: though you obviously know the holiday this refers to,  do you know WHY it is called this? Anyone….anyone…..?

    Time to break out the bubbly and claim your place at Times Square or the Brandenburg Gate…New Year’s Eve is upon us. As to the origin of the curious nomenclature embraced by Germany as well as several other European nations, I will quote Wikipedia directly, as there are big words and several numbers involved, and I’ve already had my first Gluehwein:
    Silvester (also spelled sylvester, szilveszter, or sylwester) is the day of the Feast of Pope Sylvester I, a saint who served as Pope of the Catholic Church from 314 to 335 and oversaw both the First Council of Nicaea and Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion to Christianity.[1] The feast day is held on the anniversary of Sylvester’s death, 31 December, a date that, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, has coincided with New Year’s Eve.”

    new-year-sparkler
    Silvester (New Year’s Eve) in Germany means a multitude of private firework displays, sparklers  in one hand and sparkly in the other, and raucous revelry. Just don’t plan on driving anytime soon after the stroke of midnight–thick smoke renders visibility to near zero.

    As we head down the home stretch of the Advent season and of the year 2016, wherever in the world you are, I wish you peace, prosperity and many Plaetzchen.

    If you want to avoid turning away delicious baked treats– and other language-barrier induced snafus–start 2017 off with an English Language course. And if you’re in the States, make this the year to learn a new langauge or freshen up what you learned in high school…it’s good brain training!

    adventskranz

Six examples of culture defining language

Time magazine recently featured an article about a young woman’s culture shock after a dramatic relocation. In the book recounting her defection from North to South Korea, „In Order to Live: a Young Girl’s Journey to Freedom“, Yeonmi Park describes the expected—and unexpected—challenges of adjusting to her new, adopted culture.

In one passage, she recalls, „… I was 15 years old with the equivalent of a second grade education, and I didn’t even possess the language to express concepts such as liberty, individuality, or love for anything other than the Leader.“

She spent her first months in South Korea devouring any book she got her hands on: „I found that as my vocabulary became richer my thoughts were getting deeper, my vision wider, and my emotions less shallow. [emphasis added] I could literally feel my brain coming to life, as if new pathways were firing up in places that had been dark and barren.“

Park’s experience underscores—among many other things– how tightly anchored language syntax is to socio-cultural norms, even when in her case the basic language, Korean, was the same in her original and adopted home countries.

Language, whether it is vocabulary, grammar or gender-assignment of inanimate objects, gives away clues about what a culture values, how it views a concept (for example, in the Japanese language, the word „crisis“ is represented by two symbols–“danger „ and „opportunity“), and how information in a partucular scenario is interpreted.

blur-old-antique-book-medium

Today, I’ll have a look at the vocabulary element, honing in on differences in business cultural norms between the U.S. and Germany as reflected in the American English and German languages. Although the culture gap between the two countries is not nearly as dramatic as the one Park described, there is still plenty of cultural subtext bubbling under many vocabulary words that lead not only to translation challenges but also cultural misunderstandings.

On the flip side, looking at these words more closely offers an opportunity to gain insight into your counterpart’s culturally-influenced way of thinking. Below are six business-related words in German and / or English that invite a closer look into their culturally-rooted message:

1. „Feierabend“: The Germans incorporate the concept of celebration („feiern“) and evening („Abend“) to designate the end of the working day. My German-English translation dictionary (dict.leo.org, by the way) offers the American English eqivalent: quitting time.

Here we see pretty starkly the German value of „work to live“; the end of the working day is expressed in terms of anticipation of the best part to come, the part where you get to go home and enjoy life. In American English, „quitting“ seems slightly suggestive of giving up; it is oriented toward the working portion of the day with no indication of what the rest of the day holds. It aligns pretty cleanly with the American tendency to follow a more „live to work“ ethos.

2. „Kollege / Kollegin“ (male and female colleague, respectively), „Arzt / Ärztin“ (doctor, again gender differentiated), „Chef / Chefin“ (boss, same pattern as those before), etc.: In fairness to Germans, they are not the only ones to do this; many European languages embed grammatical gender distinctions. Though there is a movement afoot to introduce gender neutral language , anecdotally I can say such a change will take a long time to be accepted, let alone internalized. In typical German fashion of wanting to have as many facts about something (or someone) as possible in order to know exactly what to expect up front, many people I have (informally, as always) polled have expressed their wish to keep this language element exactly as it is, danke schön.

3. KW („Kalenderwoche“, translates to calendar week): Yes, I know the year has 52 weeks. I do. And yet, after 15 years here I still can’t train the brain to internalize the concept that KW 34 is (or was in 2015) the week of August 17-24. True to the German business value of efficiency, the KW is very logical and tidy, gathering up seven days and packaging them into one simple, measurable unit. Don’t bother trying to use this system to arrange personal meet-ups; once they have left the office, Germans appear to shed their orientation to this unit of time measurement.

4. krank geschrieben: While many Americans power stoically through cold and flu season sniffing and sneezing at their desks, their German counterparts are likely to be „krank geschrieben“ (sick, as attested by a doctor’s note). German law requires a doctor’s attest by the third day of a work absence due to illness, and German employees avail themselves readily of the opportunity this affords them to recover from their ailment. The paid sick leave allottment in Germany is six weeks (at full salary) and is separate from vacation allotment. Americans „call in sick“ on rare occasion, but the process is less formalized as there is no federal law governing paid sick leave (or vacation days, for that matter).

5. „Happy“, „Excited“, „Thrilled“, „Awesome“: all have direct translations into German. The catch here is that they are rarely words a German would toss around in a business context; they are generally considered to be much too effusive; Germans still tend to toe a stricter line—at least linguistically– between personal and professional. „Happy“ would likely be expressed as „Zufrieden“ (satisfied). And, hey, if you get a „Sehr Zufrieden“ (very satisfied), well, you may have just gotten a standing O.

6. „At-Will Employment“: the German translation dictionary offers no equivalent on the initial hitlist; after scrolling down to the dicussion forum section, one user offered „Jederzeit kündbares Arbeitsverhältnis“ (work relationship that can be ended at any time). More robust employee protection laws in Germany render such a term unnecessary. In contrast to the USA, where employers and employees alike tend to view at-will employment as positive (it allows maximum flexibility for both sides should the need arise), Germans place a premium on employment stability. After successfully fulfilling a 3-6 month „Probezeit“, a German employee can generally count on his/her position being secure.

Don’t let yourself be caught off guard by concepts that cannot be neatly defined in translation dictionaries; before beginning your international business endeavor, invest in an intercultural awareness training to gain deeper understanding of the culture behind the language of your potential business partner. The deeper your understanding, the higher your chances of success with the cooperation.