As you approach Stuttgart, the A8 Autobahn takes a precipitous dip. A big, menacing sign warns you that the speed limit is reduced to a lousy fifty miles an hour, under the headline Gefahr Danger Pericolo.
I drove past that sign weekly for two years, intrigued. The road connects Munich and Vienna with Strasbourg and Paris. Why would the authorities write a sign in German, English and Italian, and neglect French?
OK, I'm kinda slow. But many fellow English speakers assume that when you see an Ungerman word in German, it's been borrowed from English. Though less prone to lexicographical thievery than our own tongue, German has stolen quite a bit from west of the Rhein.
This adds une complication for those of us whose mother tongue doesn't inflect—that is, doesn't change grammatical rules depending on whether a noun is masculine, feminine, or neither.
All other things being equal, German assigns a neutral gender to nouns borrowed from a foreign tongue; das Sushi, das Curry, das Handy, das Big Mac. On the other hand, if a word sports a gender at the source, then it carries over into into German. Latin words hopped directly over the Alps into scientific usage without a detour into English; that's why der Radius looks butch, but das Radium sounds like it's had the snip.
Tricky for those words which come via English rather than from it. A credit card arrived this week and the issuing firm urged me to download die American Express App, turning this petite slice of software into a woman. I hadn't thought about it until an online pal prompted me to ask why it should be so. Surely, the term app came straight out of Silicon Valley. It ought to be gender neutral.
But Silicon Valley is fond of Latinate terms, which English sucked up from Norman French. La application enters German as feminine, die Application. This shortens into the rather girly term, die App.
So it didn't surprise me to overhear two bemused people in the supermarket, wondering aloud in German, whether the product pictured above was das Pain, or der Pain. And if the latter, should it not be im Bäckerei?
My husband, who you may recall is Japanese, thought this was a stupid name for a hot sauce, too.
In the Meiji era, Japan imported many exotic foods, along with the words to describe them. Sensibly, they chose most of their new Western diet from France—let's be honest, if you could choose among global cuisines, would you choose any from the English-speaking world? To him, pain (パン) will always mean bread, no matter how much American marketers boast of the agony their condiments inflict.
When speaking German, you cannot be laissiez-faire about such things.