Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Frau Doktor Doctor hier"

Editor's note: Since this post was first published, I have added material to the last paragraph. It's true what they say, that when you write something it is never really finished, but this time I think I'm happy with the result.

I managed to discipline myself to bring only two physical books for this month-long research trip. (There’s no telling how many I have in part or in whole on my laptop, of course.) One of the two is an award-winning collection of essays by biologist Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), The Lives of a Cell (1974). I came across a reference to him in my work, probably in teaching prep, and decided these essays, originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine, would make a nice bit of light reading on the tram or before bed. Although I wonder what new scientific knowledge has been gained in the intervening forty years, I nevertheless find his musings interesting. He writes about the implications of non-human biology for our understandings of human biology and society. The other night I read a chapter about language and music. He contends that all kinds of animals, from beetles to fish to birds to whales, not only communicate necessary information—“thrush here”—but also make noises for the pleasure of it—in other words, music. This got me to thinking about the noises we humans make to communicate with one another, specifically our various languages and dialects. 

My father once told me that when I had reached the point that I could look at a fork and think “der Gabel,” instead of first having to translate the thing into an English word and then into the German word, then I had really learned German. For simple objects I have since reached that point. For more complicated concepts, I still have to think carefully how to get from thought to speech most directly and yet with the vocabulary I possess. It’s definitely easier to say things that I’ve repeated over and over: my name, where I’m from, what I’m doing in Germany. And yet I enjoy the few chances I have for real conversation with Germans. (The archive is a pretty quiet place; the papers don’t talk back, you know.) Listening to a conversation this past week when I joined my old Bible study in Dresden to finish the Sermon on the Mount (die Bergpredigt) I was marveling at how there is an entire people that makes a certain set of sounds different from my native tongue, and they all agree these sounds mean those things, and when I make them, they understand I mean them too. (Mostly.) 

I am happy to note that my spoken German at least hasn’t gotten any worse since the last time I was in the country. Since I use it almost every day at home, my reading German is pretty good, a 4 on a scale of 5. But I have few opportunities to practice speaking at home, so that skill still hovers around a 3, depending on the situation and how nervous I am. Unsurprisingly, my ability to express myself clearly is almost always directly proportional to my confidence about what I need (to say). (The exception is the past subjunctive, such that although in English I know exactly what I mean, in German I have to figure out which of the verbs in the pile at the end of the sentence to conjugate and how. I remember one Bible study at which I was trying to express what King David should have expected, and the sentence came out all durcheinander.) 

Although my broad American accent gives me away when I speak, when Germans cannot understand me, the fault usually lies in my word choice; however, when I cannot understand them, it is more often because of their accent! I’m spending most of this month in Saxony, which is notorious for the difficulty in understanding its native pronunciation. Especially my first trip here, in 2006, I had a hard time. For example, the archivist who helped me at the Hygiene Museum—a true font of knowledge about that institution—was going on and on about something. I thought she said “Schue” (shoes) but then I realized she meant “Schule” (school)!

I am less likely to encounter a true Saxon accent while I’m working than I am outside the archive. One of the members of my old Bible study and several of the working-class members of my old church have it. I’m sure there are scholarly articles and books on the subject, but from my own pedestrian observation, I note the change of the sound “ei” (aye) into “ai” (ay) and the dropping of the end sounds “ch” and “cht.” So “oh nein” becomes “oh nay” (oh no) and “keine Ahnung” becomes “kay-nuh Ahnung” (no idea). My favorite saying in Sächsisch is “I(ch) vais au’ nee,” or in Hochdeutsch “Ich weiβ auch nicht” (I don’t know either). Most of my German friends seem also to have borrowed from southern Germany/Austria the phrase “ein bissel” for “ein biβchen” (a little).

One of the suppositions Thomas makes is that animals (including humans) make music because of Harold Morowitz’s (1927- ) theory that the universe has an organizing function that counteracts entropy and that allowed living creatures to come into existence. This contravenes the theory that the universe is expanding under the influence of entropy; but that’s okay. DH would probably say that there are some things that are worth expressing—even existential sentiments—that cannot be communicated in spoken or written language that the language(s) of music can express. Well, my medium is the written/spoken word. Thanks for reading these musings of mine. Maybe you can imagine me speaking the words aloud. They're the shapes and sounds I make to indicate "Frau Doktor Doctor hier." As to where "here" is, I'm still writing those posts. Stay tuned!

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