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Frank Koerner

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A Real Gymnasium Workout
by Frank Koerner   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, April 21, 2007
Posted: Tuesday, November 21, 2006

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This article is germane to the similarities between English and German......

 (Originally published in German Life; June/July 2001)


            A story is told about Otto von Bismarck, who unified the fragmented German nation in 1870. After the unification, he was to make his first public speech to the newly constituted German Parliament. A noted, wealthy, American heiress and German-ophile, journeyed by ocean steamer and train from America to Berlin to hear the first words of the first German chancellor. She brought a translator with her. On the scheduled day, the lady and her translator sat in the public gallery as Bismarck rose to the podium and began to speak. Bismarck spoke eloquently for quite a length of time in flowery rhetoric. The translator said nothing. Bismarck continued. The translator remained mute. The concerned American leaned towards her translator and inquisitively whispered, “What is he saying?” The translator replied, “I don’t know. He didn’t get to the verbs yet.”


            Language scholars expound upon how closely German and English are related. We accept their learned premises without challenge. Then one day, we might have to be able to allow a German sentence to exist that contains a dependent clause, whose result will involve six consecutive verbs at sentence’s end.  [Dann müßten wir eines Tages einen deutschen Satz, der mit einem Nebensatz ausgestattet ist und dessen Ergebnis mit sechs aufeinanderfolgenden Verben am Ende des Satzes verbunden sein wird, stehen lassen können.]


            Yes, German and English are related. However, as the offspring of German speaking, immigrant parents, I can safely state that sometimes the connection is obscure. I grew up hearing both German and English. I found there were four categories of words into which vocabulary can be placed. First, there are those words that are clearly spelled differently in the two languages. For example, “Gelegenheit” isn’t even close to “opportunity”. Second, are those words that are spelled identically and pronounced almost identically in both languages clearly indicating their closeness in meaning. Words such as arm, butter, and finger are of this type. Third, are those words that are spelled identically or similarly, but pronounced differently, thereby muddying the waters, although the words have the same meaning in both languages. Words such as Marmalade (marmalade), Republikaner (republican), and Dokumentation (documentation) are in this group. Hearing words of this type growing up, I was never quite sure if the words were German or were my parents’ own germanization of the English words. Finally, there are the words that are spelled similarly and pronounced similarly, but mean something ENTIRELY DIFFERENT in the two languages. Words such as bekommen (sounds like “become” or “becoming”, but means “get” or “receive”), eventuell (sounds like “eventual”, but means “if possible”), and vor (sounds like “for”, but means “ago” as in “two weeks ago” are in this final, perplexing group.


            Two further examples of the word genre of the final group are the German words “Gymnasium” (pronounced gimh-nahz-i-um) and “Real” (pronounced ray-ahl), as in Realschule, meaning Real School. The Gymnasium in the Germanic world is an institution of classical higher learning that begins at the fifth grade level and ends with the award of the Abitur (roughly an Associate of Arts degree). You can be sure there are no basketball hoops in a Gymnasium. German and English are certainly related. However, sometimes it would appear as if they are very distant cousins, who are barely on speaking terms.


 Copyright © 2007 by Frank Koerner  

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