Egregiously Etiolated Adjectives

Adjectives. Cheap ways of throwing verbal paint about, but messy. Maybe that’s why German makes you think twice before using one. Mark Twain, in “The Awful German Language” quotes a German student who claimed he’d “rather decline two drinks than one German adjective”.

In English, “good” is always “good”. Dogs can be good. So can bitches. You can eat a good meal, or, indeed, good meals. You can give a good man’s pilchard to a good girl’s stoat. You just slot the word “good” in, and that’s that. In German, you have to worry – or have Angst. First, you need to think about whether the noun being described is male, female or neuter, singular or plural. A different “good” could go before each one.

This is just the first of many considerations you have to make before proclaiming something as good. That’s just the beginning. Is it “a” good man or “the” good man – or is there no article at all? Yes, it makes a difference. So can we say “good” yet? No – not so fast. What case does “good” govern? In other words, is the good man the subject (“the good man ate some cheese”), the direct object (“the dog bit the good man”), the indirect object (“the taxidermist gave the tongs to the good man”) or the genitive (“the Walking Coughdrop visited the house of the good man”). You see, which “good” you use depends on these cases too. So, you have to hold in your head this monstrous flowchart/linguistic junction box, the adjective flying down the tracks, switching at each set of points, until finally, one hopes, it arrives at the correct linguistic platform. Some hope – there are 48 different possible destinations for that adjective, 48 possible linguistic slots that need to be taken account of. Just to say the word “good”. In English, we just have to remember the word “good”. In German, that’s just 1/48th of the way there.

There are lots of languages with morpholoically-realised case, with arbitrarily gendered nouns and the rest, but many have noted German’s peculiar precision in its syntax, its compoundwordaddiction and so forth. There is a way that the language slots together which, at times, out-Latins Latin. One of Mrs Trellis’s colleagues, an Italian, noted this characteristic in German when he learned it. Any Romance language speaker detects it immediately.

Now, I am intuitively suspicious of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis, which suggests an intimate connection between the language we speak and our very perceptions of the world; however, one must wonder at the cultural and meta-cultural effects of this German morphologically-realised pernicketiness. What effect has it had on national character? I wonder this myself, because my brief visit to Germany confirmed that many of the national stereotypes are just that. One seemed to ring true, though: the precision demanded in all circumstances, even when informality or irrelevancy might, in an Anglophone society, render such precision near autistic. An example – one of many examples: the night-train attendant asked when we’d like breakfast served. “So spaet wie moeglich, bitte”, I replied, “As late as possible”. The attendant looked mildly horrified at the implicitness of this all and demanded a specific time be enunciated. Thence ensued a bizarre Dutch Auction, in which I named a time, he claimed that it was too late, until eventually I hit on one that seemed properly balanced for both our needs.

German precision is, of course, renowned in its philosophy, its engineering or, with IBM’s help, in darker logistical areas. There are other cultural effects: German food is “explicit”. Their appreciation of comedy is either “explicit” slapstick or precise, dry and wry. Their philosophy tries to systematise totality in a pernickety way quite alien to the English philosophical school. To speak German, one needs to follow explicit rules instinctively. Too often across German society, this acquiescence to a panoply of petty rules has been noteworthy. Dare one mention the attraction of racial Darwinism to the mindset of a conversationalist whose adjective can fall in one of 48 slots? But no, that’s unfair, unworthy of even a Basil Fawlty. These are all flabby generalisations, but beneath the wobbly tummy is something of a beating heart.

The English and German language have common ancestors. Indeed, even by late Old English, the two languages can almost be considered dialects of one another. English became less anally retentive as time went by, ditching its arbitrary genders and leaving us with only a vestigial morphologically-realised case system (“I/me” and the increasingly rare “who/whom”, for example). German, in distinction, clung on to the explicit and, to an English speaker’s mind, ridiculous extrinsic belts-and-braces redundancy. Did restrictive cultural forces hold German in its waistcoat? Did English start letting it all hang out because of the productive miscegenation of its speakers? Or, more tantalisingly, did the changes in English language spark off a greater cultural effect? In other words, is the difference between BMW and British Leyland explained, in part, by the declination of adjectives, or are those pernickety Teutonic linguistic practices just a component in the greater cultural tendency to precision?

In an interesting twist, many have noted that German’s waistcoat buttons are beginning to pop open, and that the language is starting finally to “Englishify” itself – the genitive case is almost extinct in the spoken language, and the subjunctive mood is becoming ever more restricted – although it is not quite as ghostly as in English yet. The complicated carving of German grammar is tending towards the usefully corrosive effects that have formed whorish English. Will the eventual smoothed pebble lead Mercedes Benz to create anything like the Mini Metro? Alles ist nicht klar. (It could have also been klare, or klaren, or klares, or klarem…).

6 thoughts on “Egregiously Etiolated Adjectives

  1. If the Germans ever produce anything like the automotive spontaneous abortion that was the Mini Metro, civilisation is doomed.

    I mean, British Leyland once recalled a glut of Mini Metros because they weren’t selling, retrofitted them with a digital clock and vanity mirror, rebadged them as “City” models and sent them back to the dealers. Rover then had a go at rebranding them Rover 100s, did a “hot” version, but failed entirely to understand that the car should actually have been expurgated from history.

    The Maestro has its fans – my uncle and cousins have kept theirs on the road for nearly 30 years, thanks to its Soviet style simple engine.

  2. I’d steer clear of Russian if I were you. *Everything* declines, there are six cases (Nominative, Accusative, Genitive, Dative, Instrumental and Prepositional), three genders (M, F, N) two verbal aspects (Perfective and Imperfective) and very flexible word order.

    That, and they write funny too. Lovely people, but with all that to think about, it’s no wonder they get pissed all the time.

  3. This is nothing new. Most languages use root words for new constructions. Eg: German has wahr (which means true) Wahrheid (truth, literally ‘truehood’), wahrscheinlich (true-shiningly – in other words, likely) and so on. So if you are commenting that English is peculiarly difficult in its constructions, you are incorrect.

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