Liebe Leserinnen und Leser,
Heute versuchen wir die Frage “Was ist Deutsch?” zu beantworten. (Today we will try to answer the question “What is German?”). We will cover historical information as well as modern thoughts from several people–including myself. The magazine “Deutsch perfekt” put together an interesting article on the topic (September 2017) that I really wanted to discuss since many points are connected with the introductory points in my course, German Civilization. I will begin by discussing the article then I will share my thoughts and experiences on German culture compared to American culture.
Wir wissen schon woher der Name “Germanen” kommt (Julius Cäsar). (We already know where the name “Germans” is from.) Aber was steckt hinter dem Namen “deutsch”? (But what is behind the name “deutsch”?) Laut Deutsch perfekt “deutsch” bedeutet (according to Deutsch perfekt “deutsch” means):
- “Deutsch ist die Sprache, die zum Volk gehört.” (Deutsch is the language that belong to the Volk.)
- “Historisch gesehen, bedeutet “deutsch” nicht viel mehr als” ungefähr die gleiche Sprache zu sprechen.” (Historically, deutsch does not mean much more than speaking roughly the same language)
[At the time there wasn’t just one Germany–instead, there were hundreds of smaller lands. In 1800 the situation changed due to hate for Napoleon (and his occupation) and the many Germans united under national pride. ]
- Hat Deutsch perfekt Recht? Was steht unter “deutsch” im Duden? The Germany dictionary, Duden, confirms that “deutsch” carries the meaning of Volk.
- Short grammatical note: deutsch (adjective- “German”); (das) Deutsch (German language); Deutscher (German man); Deutsche (German woman); Deutsche (also plural- “Germans”); die Deutschen (the Germans). Unlike most other nationalities in German [der Amerikaner, die Amerikanerin “the American (man)”, “the American (woman)”], the words for German (female, male, plural) behave like adjectives, therefore their declination depends on the gender (or if it is plural) as well as whether they stand alone, with ein (a), or der (the).
By the way, Deutsch Perfekt is a great resource for language learners. Articles are written in a simpler fashion, vocabulary is listed in side notes and grammar is explained in a refreshing manner focusing on what’s most important with plenty of examples. You can subscribe to the monthly magazine digitally or in print and there is also an accompanying website. Check it out if you want to know more about German culture and language!
Back to our topic.. How does “Deutsch perfekt” define Germanness? First, I will include some of the main answers given in the article (many of which were repeated throughout). Then, I will share my summary and conclusion to the article. After we finish with the article, I will move on to my comparison of German and American culture. Title page of the article see below.
“The question is easy. The answer too: German is, that there is no easy way to answer. Why then is identity such an important topic for the Germans?”
The article continues with several photos see below:
Featured Answers to the Question “Was ist Deutsch?”:
- “Deutschland ist bunt.” (Germany is colorful.)
- “Dichter und Denker.” (Poets and thinkers.)
- “Ruhig und geordnet.” (quiet and orderly)- quiet streets; bold emotions aren’t shown in public; concentration within “in sich”
- “Nirgends gibt es so viele Vereine.” (Nowhere else are there so many clubs.)
- To think about the question (what is German?), but nothing really so strange that doesn’t exist somewhere else
- “Pünktlichkeit” (punctuality)
- “Zuverlässigkeit” (reliability)
- “Einwanderungsland” (Germany is a land of immigration.)- Every fifth person in Germany is an immigrant or the child of immigrant parents.
- “Regeln” (rules)
Summary and Discussion of the Article:
The article begins by stating that even German researchers and philosophers, who have analyzed what it means to be German, think that there is no definite answer, but that the question is nonetheless very important to Germans and they will always be curious as to how they are perceived for being German. Nietzsche wrote in 1886 the following: “Es kennzeichnet die Deutschen, dass bei ihnen die Frage “was ist deutsch?” niemals ausstribt.” (My rough translation: “Germans are marked German because the question “was ist deutsch?” will never die out among them.”) Another point that was stressed in the beginning of the article is that Germany is diverse.
Several people share their opinion about German culture–including foreigners and native Germans. Alida Bremer, a German-Croatian writer, states that punctuality and reliability are very clearly important. She also shares that Germans don’t have problems correcting others and that they love to follow the rules. Bremer has been living in Germany for more than 30 years, does translation as well as writing in German. Another point she mentions is that Germans sometimes seem unsure who they are. A psychologist and native German, Stephan Grünewald, does marketing research and believes that this uneasiness leads to productivity–i.e. that Germans want to be do something with purpose.
The article from Deutsch perfekt is a collection of opinions from writers, researchers and business people. Native Germans as well as foreigners, who have lived in Germany for many years, are included. History and modern culture is broken down in order to provide readers with a better glimpse into the meaning of “deutsch.” A variety of images are also used to make the article more vibrant. If I could sum up the article with just one or two of the points mentioned, I would say: “Deutsch” means many things, but what is very “deutsch” is the desire to know what it means.
I am an American exchange student living in Germany so what do I think are some of the potential meanings of “deutsch” in relation to American culture? Let’s explore some of the main points that come to mind below. Please do not think I am trying to offend you or anyone else. Obviously, these points will be relatively subjective. There are always positive and negative sides. I like both my native language and country as well as the German language and Germany. I hope that you will see that I am actually not trying to be so negative anyway. I have not had any special intercultural training other than the short discussions of German culture compared to other cultures in my orientation week here. Not to mention, I have taken several German language courses in the United States as well as in Germany. Therefore, I have picked up on most of these things through experience.
Some points that stood out from me from the discussion of German culture in my orientation course are as following: 1) Germans loving talking about German stereotypes and explaining how “true” or “not true” they are. 2) Some stereotypes mentioned include: having a clean, nice car; love of rules and insurances; hard shell- warm on inside; punctuality (but that’s true because time is valuable); Germans are direct and honest (say what you mean when around Germans)
Speaking English- Speaking German:
In the USA, it is pretty much expected that everyone can speak English. Since foreign languages are not stressed at most schools and American culture is so dominant around the world (not to mention English is the lingua franca and one-third of the world speaks English), very few Americans speak more than one language. If a foreigner speaks English to an American, the American will speak English back to them.
In Germany, it is a totally different situation. Elementary school students must take many school subjects including foreign languages. Not to mention, English is everywhere–music, cosmetic industry, general advertising, business industry, tourism industry, science and so on. In everyday conversation, Germans use English words (even if there may be German equivalents) in their speech. For foreigners who have just learned a few words in German, they should pretty much expect that they won’t hear much German spoken to them. Workers in almost all fields will quickly respond with English. Even when you are decently fluent in German and ask touristy questions (where is the bathroom?), some Germans will still respond in English–I guess they just want to practice their foreign language skills. Because they get used to many tourists/foreigners who aren’t very interested in learning German, advanced students of German may get frustrated. If you are in an official situation where you have to share that you are American (for example, opening a bank account) and speak great German with them, sometimes they may start speaking English (out of habit) and ask whether they should speak German or English. I have personally experienced the last situation and I respond in German, but I am never rude if someone is so eager to speak English to me because I trust my language skills and don’t let little interactions cause me to lose my confidence. But, I also want to add that once you have a good foundation in German and a decent accent, Germans will converse with you and go on with things like normal. Not all Germans speak English and they speak English on many different levels, but do expect to read & hear the English language in everyday German life and meet many Germans very eager to practice English.
Americans may not realize how often they smile in comparison to other nationalities until they go abroad. Many other nationalities (Germans, Russians, etc.) often interpret the frequent smiling as superficial/dishonest or weird/crazy. To Russians, a person walking down the street just smiling is not all right in the head. And an approaching person, who is smiling, wants something. Even smiling is not 100% viewed the same in all parts of the USA. Take for example, a small southern town in comparison to a big city. A smile is usually (or so I think) a polite/friendly greeting once you make eye contact with somebody or it is an indication that everything is alright. But in a fast-paced city, where you may not be able to trust everyone around you, a smile may be too personal. In Germany, I have experienced a lot of staring when walking down the street or quick, awkward glances when passing someone. So, yes it seems fair to say that Germans stare more and smile less. Overall, they do not have as dramatic and open emotions as Americans and can appear more business-like even in casual situations. But, they do smile in Germany–especially once they have got to know you. No need to feel intimidated if you don’t see a lot of smiles and give Germans some time to open up. Eye contact and smiling may also be interpreted as flirting in Germany so keep that in mind too! To sum it up: if not waving and not smiling isn’t considered unfriendly in Germany, then that also means when an American waves or smiles to a stranger they aren’t necessarily being unaufrichtig/oberflächlich (insincere/superficial), it is a habit of their culture and considered polite and friendly even if they may not be overflowing with joy to meet a stranger.
Greetings & small talk
When you enter a room (a shared kitchen for example) or any shop, you will always be greeted–but just with “hello” and not “hello, how are you?” In comparison, in American stores you may often be greeted with “hey. how are you? how’s it going?” Also when you exit a place in Germany, you say bye. Often Americans leave without saying goodbye. There is some small talk (especially among students), but Germans seem to be more comfortable with the silence when among strangers. Although, I have noticed that older Germans love to talk with each other on the bus and train. And just like anywhere, people usually talk to the most with people they already know. So I am not implying here that Germans don’t like to converse with each other–just that it depends on the situation and small talk in the line at the grocery store or other similar situations is less common than what I experienced growing up in Georgia, USA. There are many clubs in Germany and they also have parties and other events so there is a lot of social life and conversation here too. I have encountered many outgoing Germans who always introduce themselves, but also less talkative, shy Germans too. Overall, greetings (hello-bye) are a daily standard everywhere but open conversation among strangers seems to be much more common in the USA. In formal, impersonal situations, what is necessary is said, but “personal” topics are only discussed in informal, more casual situations (in Germany).
Being polite vs. being straightforward
That brings me to my next point–namely, about being polite vs. being straightforward. Well, let’s just start by saying that Germans complain more. When they don’t like how something is being done, they will say something. I don’t think that makes them rude–they are just trying to improve things. Americans also tend to soften the truth instead of being straight forward. Yeah, they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but what can be accomplished when everyone avoids the truth? In Germany, you get what you ask for. Constructive criticism gives Germans the chance for self-improvement. German language tends to be more literal whereas English can do roundabouts. Opinions and discussions are gladly heard in Germany.
Eating at the table
Although there is a proper way to eat at the table in English-speaking countries, fast-food has made this less relevant in America. We eat with our hands, talk loudly at the table and sometimes cut our food and then put the knife back down and just eat with the fork. One thing I’ve observed in Germany is that Germans usually keep their hands and arms visible–above the table. They often rest their elbows on the table, which I guess is not considered rude here. Yes at the Biergarten, Germans are going to be talking with each other but somehow Americans are always louder. Finally, Germans eat with a fork and knife and do not set the knife down until they are finished eating (or need to reach for a drink, etc.) There are some foods that you eat just with the hands (pretzels or bread rolls), but fries and burgers are eaten here with a knife and fork.
To conclude this article on “Was ist deutsch?”, I want to return to Deutsch perfekt’s article, which ends with “Deutsch at a glance.” This part of the article is labeled “schwer”- meaning it is written for advanced students, but check it out and see what you can understand. If it isn’t clear, I recommend dict.cc for translation. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this presentation and were able to understand the question and answers to “Was ist deutsch?” a bit better. My question for you is: how did you interpret the photos that were included in the Deutsch perfekt article? Abstract? Meaningful?
Until next time,