Fünf Minuten Nothingness


This morning I witnessed a linguistic sensation. I knew about its existence, had heard about it, had spotted some of it in the light of day, but I always assumed that people will use it in moderation like chocolate or weed. Since this morning, a crisp morning with blue skies, a little conversation I overheard has been casting a long shadow over my belief in mankind, and I do not know how long it will take to crawl out of it.

At the table next to me in a cafe in Berlin-Mitte (I don’t want to mention its name to prevent it from becoming overrun by hordes of sensationalists) three people pummeled, mutilated, mangled, and quartered the most delicate tool of human communication: language. That they acted openly for everyone to see and hear was not sensational (most people were absorbed in their smartphones anyhow) but that they succeded in eliminating the actual purpose of language – namely to make oneself understood by other people – and instead, turning it into a bombastic, sparkling tool of pretense.

They were two men and one woman of friendly demeanor and the age of around thirty. To answer a question that students of mine have been asking since they heard the news: Yes, they were German. I am one hundred per cent sure.

They discussed what appeared to be some sort of a project, very likely a project “irgendwas mit Medien” as the saying goes. I had the impression that they were aquainted with each other but had come together for the first time to collaborate.

I couldn’t help but listen, and I could not believe my ears. I grabbed my pen and wrote it down – word for word as I heard it.

Wir müssen die relationships halten, ne?

Ja, aber zur gleichen Zeit muss das product all out.”

All out, right. Wir müssen buzz createn, das ist das Wichtigste …”

… und zu den events gehen”

Das ist obvious.”

One of them typed on his laptop computer and said, “ihr shared jetzt meinen access.”

Dann können wir besser research machen.”

Das ist nice. Und wird für uns affordable.”

Nodding, smiling.

Ich habe N.N. (I will not reveal the name. B.H.) getweeted und ihr communicated, dass wir das Projekt greenlighten. Sie hat mich geretweeted. Sie follows mir jetzt auf Instagram.”

Unlike English which I consider a democratic language (even liars speak clearly and intelligibly) the German language itself, its vocabulary, the structure of sentences, and the grammar can not only be used to create clear messages and tell the truth, but also to hide intentions, to separate social classes or generations from another, to dominatate, and to exercize power. Bureaucrats use the passive voice (werden + participle) to replace all living beings in a sentence with bloodless nouns. Kids create new words and phrases as a secret code to shut out adults from their communication. (Most recently the verb “merkeln” has appeared. By converting the chancellor’s name to a verb, kids found a word for “waiting out problems.”) Politicians and journalists often dress a meaningless statement in lavish wording.

For many in this culture, the German language is a means to show what is seen as the backbone of self-esteem, namely knowledge. You must demonstrate that you know something or die. Curiosity will lower your rank among your friends and colleagues. To ask a question is considered a sign of weakness, to answer a question nobody has asked a sign of strength. If you think you must say something you do not know – and many people feel the urge to do so – put on the language as a mask, flash words nobody dares to ask you about, or have the audacity to say words nobody will question.

Take kreativ. For some time, people who work in advertising, the Internet industry or the media are called die Kreativen, people who are creative, or better, who love to see themselves as creative as oppose to, lets say, a baker who makes their bread for breakfast or a factory worker who assembles their laptop computer. (Meanwhile, artists or musicians are not the first people anymore that come to one’s mind when the word Kreativer is mentioned.) There is a Kreativbranche, a Kreativszene and a Kreativjugend. Behavorial experts engage in Kreativ Coaching. You can buy supplies for handicraft in a Kreativladen. In order to be recognized as a member of the tribe you have to label yourself as a Kreativer – to act, dress, and eventually speak like one, like the three people next to me.

With every phrase they hurled at each other, their enthusiasm grew. The more anglicisms they pumped into their sentences, the stronger they felt the physical sensation of sitting in a cafe in Palo Alto, the ultimate goal of everyone who does irgendwas mit Medien. Their project however sits somewhere in Berlin like a millstone, grounded by a gigantic bubble of nothingness.

Homework: Please read the dialogue again and replace the parts in italic with German words and phrases.

In German opera no portrayal of a man who uses fancy words to boast and brag is funnier than the role of Bürgermeister Van Bett in Albert Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann. Next week we will take a closer look at this aria.

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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