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Sprechen Sie Onion Fish?

If it is any consolation for anyone struggling with German grammar, you’re not the only one, says Susanne Pleines

“The German language is a dozen fragments of words flung into an octagonal cylinder – take a good look at them before you begin to turn the machine, for you will never see them in their simplicity again.” (Mark Twain)

I know, I know. Most Brits who ever attempted to learn German at school gave up with a deep sigh as soon as der/die/das and the four cases reared their ugly heads. Weighed down by grammar books of more than 600 pages and despairing at the thought of word monsters like the infamous Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef).

Yet in 2012 more than 200,000 students all over the world voluntarily returned to the classrooms of the Goethe Institute to learn the language of Schiller, Lessing, Heine, Droste-Hülshoff, Grass and Böll. For years, they immerse themselves in split verbs and compounds and cram subjunctives into their heads.

And then, one fine day, they think they’re ready for their first outing, their first foray into the land of their linguistic dreams! There’s only one small problem. As soon as they set foot in Germany, people speak in incomprehensible accents and mangled conversations like

Hast du U-Bahn?

Hab Bus!

Bin ich auch Bus.

(Have you tube? I have bus! I am bus, too)

It may be of some consolation to know that Germans have problems with their own language, too. A fact happily exploited in the famous column Zwiebelfisch (literally ‘onion fish’) in Germany’s leading newsmagazine Der Spiegel. What’s the difference between anscheinend (seemingly) and scheinbar (apparently)?  When to use als or wie?  The column knows the answer to these and many, many more pressing questions.

If your brain hurts after all of this or you just cannot take any more, you can always cheat a little and follow in the footsteps of US President John F. Kennedy who spoke ‘perfect German’ with the help of a cheat sheet. During his visit in June 1963, he saw West Berlin as a “sim-BOWL fear dee GANTSA VELT” and famously declared “Ish bin ein Bearleener!”


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