Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Nuts for German

We had a lovely, older client the other day who had a lovely, older Schnauzer. The dog was nearly 15 years old & spent almost the entire time napping in her doggie bed while we cleaned. The woman referred to her dog as 'meed-chin'. Well, that's what the name sounded like to me. I thought it was an interesting name & was about to ask her how she came about it, but then read the doggie bowl, door matt, and dog collar. The dog is actually called Mädchen (or Maedchen, for those of us who don't have an umlaut on the keyboard).

I said aloud to no one in particular, Oh! Mädchen! Spoken aloud, Mädchen doesn't sound like 'meed-chin', to be honest, but I wasn't going to correct this woman's pronunciation. It's her dog, her dog's name & that's that.

I did, however, go Deutsch Lehrerin on her (and then felt stupid for doing so) after the woman told me, 'It means 'little girl' in German.' I said, 'It just means 'girl', actually.'  Then, as I said, I felt stupid. She didn't have us over for a German lesson. She had us over to clean. Technically, you could say that the woman was sort of right. Literally, the word means 'little maid' & its origins date back to the 15th century, I think. In today's parlance, it just means 'girl'.

I have been taking German courses, on and off, for over 25 years. I began learning the language when I was 20 (you do the mathematics).

Needless to say, I dig the language. I also speak German fairly fluently. My accent isn't pegged as 'American' & most people think I'm a native Dutch speaker when I'm speaking German. I'll take that as a compliment, quite frankly. It also means that most folk don't switch into English when I'm conversing with them which further aids in my being able to practice the language. I have some friends whose German is regularly met with English, and they are the worse for it, language-wise.

Recently, I did have someone ask me for German help & I was very happy to oblige. A friend was preparing for his roles both as Emcee & border guard in a local production of Cabaret. He wanted to make sure he was correctly pronouncing the few bits of German dialogue he had. He sent me the page of dialogue with the German. The text did not contain any notes regarding the umlaut vowels. On the page, an 'a' looked like an 'ä', and that doesn't fly. German 'nut' that I am, I sent him this:

A couple of things: 

Remember the ABCs in German for Adam*? After the regular alphabet are the umlaut-vowels: ä, ü, ö.

Your lines feature the ä & ö.

The ä almost sounds like a ‘long a’ in English, not quite but between a ‘long a’ & the ‘e’ in ‘meh’.

You ask for Cliff’s and Ernst’s passports (plural). Then you ask for Ernst’s passport (singular) once Cliff has shown you his without a fuss.

Passport is ‘Pass’ in German. Passports is ‘Pässe’ in German. Pass is spoken with an ‘ah’ sound. As in when the paediatrician used to say ‘open wide’ and we’d say ‘ahhhhh’. Pässe is spoken with the combo ‘long a’ and ‘meh’ sound. (Ask John**to demo this!)

With respect to the ö, I think it’s harder to describe, given that English doesn’t possess this sound at all. I do think, however, that French*** uses an equivalent sound. I could try and send you a voice mail making the ö sound, if that would help.


Officer: Deutsche Grenzkontrolle (German border control). Ihre Pässe, bitte. (Your passports, please).
English, English, English....

Officer: Ihren Pass, bitte (Your passport, please).
Sie waren geschäftlich in Paris? (You were in Paris on business?)

Ernst: Nein. Auf einer Urlaubsreise (No. On holiday).

Officer: Bitte, öffnen Sie ihren Koffer (Please, open your suitcase). The ‘o’ in Koffer sounds a bit like the ‘o’ in the name of former UN head Kofi Annan.

Officer: Haben Sie nur diesen einen Koffer? (Do you just have the/this one suitcase?) Certainly, by inserting the word ‘einen’ (meaning ‘one’) in the question you’re placing emphasis on the fact that you’re scrutinizing the fact that Ernst has just one suitcase (or does he?).

I went to see Cabaret & noticed that not only did my friend not take on board any of my pronounciation advice (doubt he'd even read the above note I sent him), but also that the passport control officer's dialogue had been reconfigured to exclude the German word for 'passports'. Still, as Emcee, my pal did a wonderful job!

*I drew an ABCs auf Deutsch sheet for his son, Adam.
**His husband, John, speaks some German.
***My actor friend speaks some French.


  1. I'm proud of you Bea. It all sounds, well, too hard for me at my age. We had a young German man working for us at the farm. I learned a lot about Berlin, but never a word of German. He spoke english fluently and without an accent. He was a hard worker. One time he came in, eyes wide and said man that is a big chicken. He was referring to our tom turkey.

    1. Ha! I have a similar 'big chicken' story. I was in Paris at a sandwich shop ordering what I thought was ham. The meat looked a bit pink, so it's ham, right? The lovely woman behind the counter, said, 'No. It's, how do you say, the big chicken?' Ahhhh, turkey!

  2. One of my sister-in-law's best friends is a German woman who teaches English in Germany. I bet the two of you would have lots to talk about.

  3. My father was German and I am ashamed to say I speak virtually none. And my accent is such that people would certainly switch to English. Quickly. Congratulations on your perserverance.

    1. It sounds silly, but I just really like the language. Ya gotta be good at something, I guess. ;)


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