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Except English

Except German

I came across this public service advertising sticker from the German state of Baden-Wüttemberg, which the home of the Black Forest.

It says: We can speak everything – except standard German.

Germany has a standard form of the language, Hochdeutsch, that is taught in school and ignored outside of the media. “High German” doesn’t appeal to Southerners.

When people talk about English being the standard language in the US, I would ask “Whose English?” because the language certainly isn’t standardized. If you take someone from the south side of Boston and drop them in a Louisiana parish, you’d better include a translator.

Like most things, language grows or it dies.

One of the biggest problems we face in intelligence gathering is the lack of bi-lingual Americans. The “enemy” doesn’t have to learn encryption because Americans can’t understand their language. Foreign language study should be a national security asset, not a reason to discriminate.

[Edit to correct translation.]


1 Michael { 06.05.06 at 7:17 pm }

I dunno, Bryan. Even as recently as the end of World War II, it would have been a valid claim. But since then, thanks to radio, television, and far greater incidence of travel, dialects all across the world have been dying off and languages standardizing.

There will still be regional variations, of course. But in today’s media world while you can still find a Badisch-Württemberger newspaper (or Alsatian, or Sicilian, or Cajun), it’s far more likely to be dying off from lack of subscribers–and even among those who read it, they probably also take a national daily, watch a national newscast, listen to non-local radio.

Apart from the Alsatian-in-Alsatian papers, and a very few people (mostly over retirement age who I heard speaking the dialect, everybody I interacted with in Colmar spoke perfect Parisian French. There were regional Alsatian papers printed in the same French as Le Monde, and often containing the same stories. They did have an Alsatian news program, but it only ran on Saturday evenings. The rest of the time (at least when I was watching it), the television programming was all national: I could see the same shows in Paris or in Nantes or in Nice or in Caen. And, of course, being within a loud shout of both the Bundesrepublik and Switzerland, I also got shows from both of those places. There was a distinct difference between what I’d hear coming out of Berlin and what I’d hear coming out of Zürich, but I’d expect that from two different countries.

2 Michael { 06.05.06 at 7:19 pm }

Also, I’m wondering if “können” in the sign isn’t better translated as “We speak” (from the idiom können deutsch, “knowing German”) instead of “we can do.”

3 andante { 06.05.06 at 8:31 pm }

Reaching back into the mists of time to my high school German, I second Michael on the können deutsch translation.

At least English is pretty standardized in writing, though pronunciations can differ markedly.

I like to think the driver in the approaching car understands “STOP” or “YIELD” or “ONE WAY”, regardless of how it’s pronounced. Immigrants should have some basic proficiency in English, but making it “standard” is about as sensible as the right wing’s other symbolic hot buttons.

4 Bryan { 06.05.06 at 8:42 pm }

Damn. lost my comment when correcting the translation. The “sprechen” is implied but dropped.

There are still very definite regional dialects in Germany, fueled more by the relatively short time Germany has been united and the association many have between Hochdeutsch and pushy Northerners.

In the Eifel we softened “ch” to “sh” and converted “ö” to a sound closer to “ur”. The local dialect was affected by being so close to the Luxembourg and Belgium border. The “county” I lived in, Bitburg-Prüm was part of Luxembourg for an extended period. The second wave of my ancestors came from this area when it was under Spanish/Hapsburg rule as part of the Netherlands. 1870 isn’t that long ago, and there are still regional radio/TV services.

When I lived in Frankfurt, the Hessians were disconcerted with my “hick dialect” rather than an American accent.

5 Bryan { 06.05.06 at 8:53 pm }

Andante, you dropped by while I was making the correction. I used the translation from the article that had the sticker without really reading it.

I “learned” German by living in Germany as a teenager rather than studying it. I did take a course in college, but that was to fulfill a requirement and a snap course since they didn’t get beyond what I already knew.

6 Mustang Bobby { 06.06.06 at 10:59 am }

I know very little German other than that the word for “exhaust pipe” is “auspuff,” which I think is perfect.

However, I do know enough Spanish to know that the regional dialect differences are striking. I first learned what’s called “South American Spanish” in high school, and then lived in Santa Fe and Albuquerque long enough to pick up the accent and Spanglish that is indigenous to that area. Moving to Miami, where you get mainly Cuban and Caribbean Spanish, it was a whole different world. The accents, speed, and slang is like the comparison you gave of Southie to Cajun, and I miss a lot.

On the up side, I can use certain words in New Mexican that go right past most people, so the occasional outburst of South Valley (Albuquerque) slang does no harm.

7 Bryan { 06.06.06 at 12:33 pm }

When I took Spanish in college, it was Castilian and almost worthless in understanding the Puerto Ricans I ran into on the job, or the Colombians I know. I’m a firm believer in the “marketplace” approach for pronunciation, get out there and listen to people who “live” in the language.

Michael needs the academic versions for research and my Russian has a military flavor, but for actually getting along in a language, there’s nothing like immersion.