let them eat cake

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.

9 Comments on “let them eat cake

  1. I studied french in school (we only had french or spanish to choose from). I had always heard that German was so difficult. Now, many many (many) years later, I am taking German classes for fun, and I feel like half the time I’m thinking “how logical, I love it” and the other half I’m a bit overwhelmed by the complexity. But so far I love it, and I hope to keep studying. Letely my favorite phrase has been “bitte buchstabieren” … because it sounds so fun to say in a sing-songy way …

  2. I can agree with you about the aesthetics of German word formation (which is, of course, common to all germanic languages, English included), but for someone who is not familiar with the vocabulary, using a dictionary to decipher some (most) compound words is extraordinarily frustrating (where does one constituent begin and the next end?).

    I’m not sure about German, but I know many such languages employ changes to constituent words (and even add sounds) which so defy regularization that texts seem to have given up on the effort, and admit that one simply needs to become fluent to understand how a correct compound should be constructed (see Swedish, which I would not which to be accused of maligning, as it is truly a wonderful tongue).

  3. My favorite word at the moment, for some unexplainable reason, is ‘particularly’, also ‘momentum’. Maybe it’s because they sound funny when you roll them around in your mouth. I’ve always loved the English language. In Finnish my favorite word is ‘pihlaja’, which is a tree in the Sorbus family, also ‘omena’, an apple.

  4. In Japanese, the word for “the taste of mother’s cooking” is “ofukuro no aji,” which literally means “the (honorable) taste of the bag”. It struck me as odd, until someone explained to me that the “bag” in question is the womb, which in turn stands for the mother (a good example of synecdoche).

    Actually, when I explain it like this, it still sounds pretty odd. Suffice it to say, “ofukuro” is an affectionate way of referring to one’s mother in Japanese, even if a literal translation into English would sound pretty insulting.

  5. Whoa. I came here to say that I have always loved Schmetterling and then another woman named Jill said that same thing…

    Have I ever told you about the inchoative infix? In Latin, the infix “sc” suggests that a word is neither here nor there but in the process of becoming. Words with this infix include: adolescence (not child, not adult, but in between), nascent, acquiesce, convalesce, and so many more. So I don’t have a favorite word, per se, but love love LOVE the inchoative infix and every word that has it.

  6. i just learned, in quebecoise-french kids could say ayoye when something hurts (like aua in german or english ouch). sounds for me like pirate-language!

  7. Jen: Good luck with your German!

    jhm: Well, yes, of course if you aren’t familiar with the language at all, deciphering compounds isn’t going to be any easier than deciphering anything else. But in German you really can combine just about any two words without worrying about any sort of weird irrigularity getting in your way. Many compounds, like Mutterkuchen, are ones that I find beautiful in retrospect, but don’t neccesarily lend themselves to figuring out without a dictionary. But maybe others are just two very simple words glued together. Again, if you are not at all familiar with the language, of course deciphering even these will be hard. But when you have a certain base vocabulary, the compounds do make things much easier because you will recognize the two words within it. Mülleimer (trash can). Wunschring (wish ring). Kinderbuch (children’s book). Just to name a few examples. You really don’t need to grasp any complex rules in order to build words like these, and the language allows for the invention of compounds not already established.

    Sara: In English, I’ve always really liked the word cupcake. No idea why. It doesn’t even sound remotely poetic or anything.

    Jill: Yeah Schmetterling!

    Jason: That sounds pretty awesome. I mean, directly translation, perhaps a little weird, but that would be missing the point. That is just the sort of word stuff that I love.

    Jill H: Ha! Crazy right? I don’t think you have ever told me about the inchoative infix, but it sounds frickin awesome. I am a particular fan of the prefix “er” in German. It’s not always the case, but in a bunch of cases it takes a verb and makes it “so much that that action leads to death.” Like “trinken” means to drink, while “ertrinken” means to drown. Love that.

    Anton: Heh. That does sound like pirate language. Awesome.

  8. Actually, it’s
    Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajüten-schlüsselloch. 🙂

    That said, I’m very, VERY glad I didn’t have to learn German as a second language. I always thought it must be hell to remember all the endings.

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