Photo Friday: Circular
Wordless Wednesday

I Can't Put Into Words How Much I Don't Care.

English litters words around other languages like a sloppy dustman, and German catches its fair share.  Most are adopted just to sound cool, or as we say in German, cool.  High speed trains are Inter-City Expresses, or ICE, rather than Zwischenstadt Schnellzuge.   Music is downgeloadet rather than heruntergeladen.  And everyone thinks that's OK.

It happens the other way around, too. 

For example, English speakers use the German word über (usually spelled incorrectly as uber) to mean dismissively superior.  I have read, for example, a screed that described Oktoberfest as an über-kegger.  Somehow, the latinate English alternatives like ultra, mega, or to the max don't convey the same nuance.

Usually, because English borrows so shamelessly from other languages, it acts as a clearing house from which many others can borrow. 

Japanese has borrowed the English word happy to suggest a youthfulness that is innocent and carefree. Between cram school, enforced respect for elders, and a stress upon duty, the idea of a carefree youth is rather exotic in Japan.  Of course, the word happy traces its roots back to the word hap, meaning by chance or luck. We see this also in the word haphazard.

Germans, sensibly, have borrowed the English word ticket. The traditional way to describe a ticket in German refers to the material on which it is printed. A paper airline ticket is a Flugschein, whereas a cardboard train ticket is a Bahnkarte.  Nowadays, you can board a plane with a bar-code on your Blackberry screen, and many Scheinen live as zeroes and ones on a server.   Borrowing the word Ticket to refer to them all solves a problem for which German, thanks to its fetish for accuracy, had no immediate answer.

Which brings me to the point.  Sitting in a business meeting this week, I discovered that a new word has leaked from English into German.  The word is whatever.

Apparently, phrases which use the constuction egal welche don't quite sum up the utter indifference of a casually tossed-off whatever. 

It's a pretty un-German concept. The very idea of leaving an outcome to chance, or surrendering control...well, chaos must follow!  Does the language reflect cultural bias, structurally?  Many English speakers who learn German lament the demand for strong verbs, rather than just lots of non-commital is and has.  It's tempting to read a cultural bias into this.

It's tempting to think so in Japanese, too.  A culture which makes a fetish of perfect detail sometimes has trouble just throwing up its collective hands and saying so what?  These signs in Azabu and Toranomon amused me every day, on the way to work.   They resort to English in order to express whimsical carelessness.  Because, dammit, English is so good at it.


Degrees of indifference

You may think that's a pretty crude generalisation about language and culture. Yeah, whatever.

comments powered by Disqus