When I was in the eighth grade, our class was told that the time had come to choose a foreign language. Our high school offered German, French, and Spanish, so we would spend a third of that year studying each one. That way, our teachers explained, we could make an informed decision about which language we wanted to spend the next couple of years studying in more depth. At the end of the year I decided for German.
There were a lot of reasons involved in my decision, but the most convincing was the one reason no one ever believed when I explained it to them: for me, German had been the easiest. Sure, Spanish had a reputation for being the easiest (for English native speakers anyway) and French had a reputation for being the prettiest. But there was something very logical about the way the German language worked that appealed to me, that made it click in my brain in a way that Spanish and French did not. It didn’t hurt that I liked the German teacher the best of the three either.
Of course, more detailed study of the German language eventually revealed a number of complexities and irritants (helloooo adjective endings) that would make it seem anything but easy. But to this day I am still struck by the simplicity of the logic behind many German words, particularly the compounds that I have previously described as being a lot like playing with Legos. For those of you who aren’t familiar with German grammar stylings I will sum it up for you: you can invent a new word by pasting two words together, and many standard words are compounds whose definitions a little bit of creative luck can reveal without cracking a dictionary. I loved it then, and even now I often find myself getting excited over the new compound words I meet on German pages. Brilliant! I grin to myself. It just makes so. much. sense!
Most German compounds are completely self explanatory. German’s notorious longest word—Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitin—means just what its components mean when translated directly (a Donau steam boat captain), and this is how the majority of compounds work. But there are others, many of which I have already described, whose combination reveals something more subtle and interesting, a perspective from which (I assume) someone must have seen the world when the word first came into use.
Which brings me to my new favorite word. Being prego, I’ve been learning new vocabulary left and right. Pregnancy just isn’t a topic that gets covered in a standard German class, useful though being able to talk about it might prove to be for many. Like any new specialty subject I have suddenly found myself needing to talk about, I’ve had to start from scratch with vocabulary. At the beginning I stutter a lot, my lack of knowledge leaving big holes in conversations where those words should be. At the beginning, a lot of conversations end with the words, “Oh never mind.” But then, bit by bit I look up the words that I find myself needing the most—a quick dictionary flip before a doctor’s appointment or a chat with my midwife—and things start getting easier.
During my pregnancy-related vocab-cramming, I came across a compound that sounded kind of funny. Mutterkuchen. (Literally, mother cake.) What could that be? It sounded like the fluffiest, most delicious cake your mother ever baked. I tried to guess at the meaning, though now I can no longer remember if I got it right. (If you want to take a guess yourself, do it before continuing to the next paragraph.)
When I finally looked it up and found out Mutterkuchen means “placenta” I laughed out loud—of course “mother’s cake” would refer to the part of a women’s body that feeds a baby while in utero. This is the part of German that I love, that still can make me grin and get me excited about grammar and language in general. Mutterkuchen instantly became my favorite German word, an honor previously held by the words Schnürsenkel (shoe lace) and Schmetterling (butterfly). Do you have a favorite word, whatever the language?
This post was originally published on Young Germany.