Black Cat

Going not gentle into that middle age.

Verbal Precision — Virtue or Vice?

Filed under: Expat,Language — 14 February 2007 @ 7:36 pm

Thomas asks some interesting questions in his comment to my post on This Delightful German Language. “Does the structure of the language influence the structure of the thoughts? When German is such a complicated language can there be any easy thinking for Germans, or are Germans inherently more trained to complex abstract models?”

One of the things I noticed when I was first learning the German language was that Germans tend to prefer using just the right word to express something. They want their meaning to be clear and they want to be sure that they understand what someone else is conveying. Germans frequently give me puzzled looks when I try to discuss various topics, and they propose words to clarify what I’m trying to convey. Uh, the real problem here is that I need a lot more practice using my German, in order that my spoken vocabulary becomes large enough for sharing information. But my German friends seem to like me anyway. And their patient tolerance of my inadequate usage of their language is one of the reasons I like them, too!

Americans tend to prefer imprecise language, I think because they are more interested in creating an emotional “bonding experience” and less interested in conveying actual content. This is a gross exaggeration, of course, as there are lots of Americans who do care about conveying content. And, of course, Germans are quite capable of using “empty” small-talk to create a pleasant social experience. To stereotype and oversimplify cultural differences, it seems to me that Germans care about the factual details. Americans care about the social atmosphere.

I have lived for many years in both America and Germany, and I believe that these generalizations have a fair amount of validity.

Verbs are a case in point. In American English, we simply put things somewhere. In German, people expect more information about how those things are put into position. In the following examples, the German verb is in blue and the corresponding English verb is in red.

I put the baby in the crib.
Ich lege das Baby auf das Kinderbett. (legen = to lay something horizontally on a surface)

I put the pillow on the sofa.
Ich setze das Kissen auf das Sofa. (setzen = to set (sit) something on a surface)

I put the sports trophy on the shelf.
Ich stehe das Siegeszeichen auf das Regalbrett. (stehen = to stand something vertically on a surface)

I put the turkey into the oven.
Ich stecke den Truthan in den Ofen. (stecken = to stick something into a container)

The closest you can come to an all purpose word for put is stellen. But generally, you try to be precise about your German putting. You lay (legen) horizontal things like books and babies on surfaces. You stand (stehen) vertical things like lamps and sports trophies on surfaces. You set (setzen) things on chairs, even when those things are not people. You stick (stecken) things into boxes and ovens. Obviously these verbs exist in English, since I have just used them, but in America we tend to pride ourselves on being vague. One verb fits all. Put.

For another example, in America, we simply go places. Germans want to know how you are going to get there.

I’m going to the bus stop.
Ich gehe zur Bushaltestelle. (gehen = to walk)

I’m going to Hamburg.
Ich fahre nach Hamburg. (fahren = to drive or ride in a vehicle)

I’m going to France.
Ich reise nach Frankreich. (reisen = to travel some distance for a period of time)

I’m going to Australia.
Ich fliege nach Australien. (fliegen = to fly on an airplane)

The correct verb conveys useful information. Americans who are just learning German tend to assume that they can use gehen whenever they mean to go. But if you say “ich gehe nach Hamburg” (I’m going to Hamburg) when you live 30 kilometers from that downtown, your German friend will try to imagine you walking there and, knowing what a couch potato* you are, they will laugh.

It seems to me that if you strive for precision in your communication, you can, if you wish, include a lot of other things along with it, such as feelings, humor, etc. If you leave out the precision, then an important part of the communication is missing. You are saying that the details are not important: let’s not deal with ideas that we can argue about or learn from or disagree with, let’s keep things vague enough so that we can concentrate on comradery.

Consequently, Germans tend to be uncomfortable with American communications (verbal and written) — “don’t they realize that they aren’t saying anything?” Americans tend to be uncomfortable with German communications — “don’t they realize that they’re being rude?”

To return to Thomas’ original question, I don’t think that the structures of the languages themselves are responsible for this cultural difference in communication styles. Germans are quite capable of using their language for expressing humor and emotion and sarcasm and meaningless small-talk. Americans can express very precise meanings and subtlety and abstract analyses in English. It’s just that, culturally, Americans seem to pride themselves on fuzzy expressions with lack of content, and, culturally, Germans pride themselves on delivering information.

I heard frequently in America, from childhood on, that I was using “big words”. This was never meant as a compliment. Even in professional work environments, I learned that no one was interested in listening to me search for just the right word to convey my precise meaning. They made it quite clear that they didn’t care. No one ever called me a pedant** to my face, because most people wouldn’t have even known what the word meant (it’s considered a “big word”). But I did care about the things that a pedant would care about. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I feel more at home here in Germany than I did in America.

Small-talk is important, but so is the sharing of ideas. My current German vocabulary is woefully inadequate to convey all that I would like to contribute to a conversation, but the fact that my German conversation-mates do care about content is an incentive for me to work harder on increasing my speaking vocabulary.

*couch potato: MSN Encarta: lazy television viewer: an inactive person who spends too much time sitting watching television

**pedant: MSN Encarta: 1. somebody too concerned with rules and details: somebody who unduly emphasizes unimportant details and rules; 2. somebody who shows off knowledge: somebody who displays his or her knowledge ostentatiously

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1 Comment »

  1. Housewife:

    Wonderfully written!

    I’m a first generation American with a German refugee father.

    We kids understand German but of us only one speaks like a Berliner and the rest of us “speak like peasants”. Yes, I’ve been told that.

    German is precise and there are rules. The rules of the language cannot be altered and they are there for a reason, the reason is none of your business.

    “Nicht, you’ll understand when you’re older.”

    Well, I’m older now and I understand that Germans of my father’s generation are rigid. That’s all I understand.

    I often think I’m too much of a rule breaker to embrace the German side of me. But then I realize that my pantry is in alphabetical order and the closets in every room have the lightest clothes on the left and the darkest on the right. Perhaps just a little German stayed with this American girl.

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