On Language

Today I found the English bookstore. Amazingly the store, Saint George’s, is only four blocks from my apartment. It’s a used bookstore, mostly, and the selection is frankly astounding. Anglo-Berliners clearly have varied and fascinating tastes, and the books they consign at Saint George’s are a testament to this.

I am relieved. The lack of English books, of English culture, was wearing down on me. The TV in my apartment does get two English channels, true, but they are BBC News and CNN. Nothing but half-hour loops of depressing news stories about suicide bombers and football (aka. soccer).

Truth is there are a lot of anglophiles in Berlin. At this point I’m not adept at noticing them because they look just like everyone else (of course) but occasionally in a bar or club I’ll hear a sudden chatter in a British accept like a bolt from the blue. You can survive in Berlin without learning German. You only need a few key words like kaffee (coffee), bier (beer), bitte (please), and entshuldigung (“I’m sorry”).

If, however, you choose to live here and don’t bother learning German you are a real Arschloch. What’s the point of living somewhere exotic when you can’t immerse yourself in the culture? When you can’t really communicate with the people? The fact that most young Berliners know very good English and are polite enough to speak to you in it is a wonderful thing, but after a while you feel guilty for expecting them to speak a foreign language in their home country. So, I learn.

At this point I am soaking up the words like a sponge, but the grammar completely eludes me. For many reasons, German is a difficult language. (For one, all words are gendered like French except they have three genders: male, female, and neuter. And the gendering is not at all logical. The word for boy, Junge, is male. The word for girl, Mädchen, is not female but neuter. It only gets stranger from there.) I am going to start taking some evening classes.

In the meantime, here are some words I’ve learned in no particular order:

  • schön – beautiful
  • straße – street
  • Panier-mehl – what you cover schnitzel with (breadcrumbs)
  • verkehr – traffic
  • Krankenhaus – hospital (lit. sick-house)
  • links – left
  • rechts – right
  • käse – cheese

More words later…