In the process of learning a foreign language – writing hundreds of vocabulary notecards and dreaming up silly but remarkably useful mnemonic devices – you become much more sensitized to the way words work in the foreign language than you would with those you learn in your own mother language. As a student of German, I always love the moments when those intimidating German words actually break down into wonderfully logical parts, which in effect shed light on the deeper meaning of the word. I’m not necessarily talking about German’s notoriously long compound nouns, which are fabulous in their own right (Donau dampfschiffahrts elektrizitäten hauptbetriebswerk bauunterbeamten gesellschaft,# anyone?). Rather, what I find truly exciting are those more commonly used words, whose equivalent meanings in English I often take for granted, but that become so much more vivid in German. Although I tend to think that the English language doesn’t have this same descriptive quality that I so admire in German, a part of me suspects that I am simply missing out on the subtleties of my mother tongue, precisely because it is my mother tongue. Having learned English as a first language, it’s as if I’m too close to it to be aware of the way the words – which I often throw about carelessly and automatically – actually work. It takes the struggle to become familiar with a foreign language to grasp the fascinating way words can convey meaning. Even more thrilling is when finding patterns in the way foreign German words work leads you back to to recognizing similar patterns in the way English words work. In this way, learning a foreign language can help you to learn again your first language.
Below is an abbreviated list of some excellent German words that, when broken down, can get you thinking in general about the deeper meaning of words we use every day:
Entschuldigung – excuse me
- Schuld is the German word for “guilt,” “debt,” and “fault.” Ent is a prefix that indicates the action of taking something away such as with the word entfernen, meaning “to remove, to strip off.” So the next time you bump into a German on the street and hastily utter “Entschuldigung!” you’re literally asking him to take away the guilt or fault you feel for having interrupted his day with your clumsiness.
verantwortlich – responsible
- Antwort is the German noun for “answer,” which can be further broken down into ant, the Old High Germanic prefix meaning “opposing, back, in return” and Wort, meaning “word.” So Antwort literally means something along the lines of “returning the word.” The prefix ver-, among other functions, strengthens a psychological or physical state one is in (take, for example, the German verb “to love,” lieben and the verb “to fall in love” verlieben). To be ver-ant-wort-lich, or responsible, you are in a sense, assuming the duty of being answerable for your actions. Looking back at the English equivalent actually reveals a similar break down: response and able.
Entwickeln – to develop
- Again, ent indicates taking something away and wickeln means “to wind” or “to wrap.” Wickeln is also often used in the context of wrapping a baby in swaddling or, in more modern terms, putting a diaper on a baby. When this word is used to describe a personal development and maturity, you can almost picture an individual unwrapping and discarding the outer layers of one’s childlike self (or, if you will, taking off the diapers) to reveal one’s inner character, which apparently has existed within the person all along.
übersetzen – to translate
- The German über is preposition or prefix that can mean “over, across.” Setzen means “to set” or “to place.” Therefore, when you translate, it is as if you are taking the word from one language, crossing over some separation between two languages – not only a linguistic, but perhaps also a physical separation, as in the distance between two different places where two different languages are spoken – and setting the word into another language system.
I hope this short jaunt through German prefixes, verbs, and other types of words has been enlightening and enjoyable. What are some of your favorite foreign language words (or native language words, for that matter) that you think convey especially well or creatively their meanings?
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