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LETTER: Germans have way with words

Thanks to Wolf Depner for his article ‘German lexicon grows by 1,200 words.’ Mark Twain was stretching a point to say that only the dead have time to study German. I studied it for a year in university, and continue to dabble.

English and German are closely related. People from the western coast of what is now Germany and the Netherlands started to come to Britain around 450 C.E. They spoke the North Sea dialect, which is close to modern Frisian. Vikings visited Britain around 850 C.E., and occupied England by 990. There was intermarriage, and the Vikings simplified the complex grammar of what we call Old English. Scandinavian words including sky and starboard were adopted.

In 915 C.E. the Frankish king Charles invited Hrolf (or “Rollo”) the Viking to settle in Normandy, on the condition that he repel Viking raids on the coast. Rollo invited lots of his Viking friends, who took over Normandy (the place of the Northmen, or Normans). Within generations the Normans were speaking French. In 1066 William from Normandy won the battle of Hastings, and the Normans took over Britain. For 250 years French was the language of the nobles and the courts. Middle English became the usual language in England in the 1200s. The word order of English is close to that of French, English has only two cases (nominative and possessive), compared to four in German, and many French words were adopted.

Millions of German speakers emigrated to North America in the 1800s. The word “dumb” used to mean “unable to talk” in English. “Dumm” means stupid in German, and the German use of dumm has been adopted in English. “Schadenfreude” was recently adopted by English speakers.

Around age 12 I was smitten by Beethoven’s rendition of Schiller’s poem An die Freude (the 4th movement of the 9th symphony), and resolved to learn German. Currently I’m in the Victoria Choral Society. We have sung in German with the symphony in Brahms’ Requiem, and as part of the chorus of the opera in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchmen.

Robert Shepherd


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