Search
  • matthewbosley

Three irresistibly mystical features of the German language

Over the last four or five years I've become more than interested in Deutsch, as anyone who knows me a little would notice. In this time I've gone from language level A1 to C1 (meaning almost nothing to quite advanced) and been to German speaking lands subject to any latest bureaucratic hinderance. When I'm asked why I learn it, sometimes I say because I need to understand German operas, sometimes I say it's because I love the German culture, but the truth is I don't know exactly. I could talk forever about it, but to boil the reason down... it just has a gravitational pull for me. Like my automatic interest in theatre or music or art: I don't know, it's just there. We're taught to have a terribly clever and pseudo-unique answer, but that gets a bit boring.


Our native language is just there for us and unless perhaps you're a language scientist, is used in all its bizarreness without reflection. However, as I've been learning German I've often found myself going "how queer", "how inexplicable" but also "how profound". Here are three engrained features of the language that leave me in wonder...


1. es gibt - there is/are


Es gibt viele Gründe, Deutsch zu lernen = There are many reasons to learn German.


"Es gibt" is just how you say "there is" or "there are". But literally, es = it, gibt (from the verb geben) = gives. "It gives many reasons". How strange! But this is just embedded into the language; you're not supposed to ask questions. I did however ask myself the question and I came up with this profoundly spiritual answer. Formulating "something exists" in this way gives the expression a miraculously active stance: there is an entity or a subject that "gives" something. The implication is that something isn't manifested to our senses without a cause; it doesn't just exist in a void. Rather, "es gibt" suggests an unmanifested realm giving rise to the manifested. For me, it is pointing to the "God dimension", which I also looked at in The universe is not physical. Who gives it? God gives it! Far out!


2. da - there/here


Meine Mutter ist immer für mich da = My mother is always there/here for me


You can specifically point to a physical location over there with "dort", or specifically here with "hier". But both here and there? Duh, just whip out the "da"! Heidegger philosophised about human beings as "Dasein", meaning both "being there" and "being here". Isn't that true? So I can say my mum is always here for me without being here in this building. Here and there can obviously be used in the context of "da" in English, but there's just something wonderful about the way you can fuse the here and the there into one word, which for me expresses this experience of closeness or oneness with people, things and experiences. Also, when we perceive anything in the world, it is both out there and in here; i.e. without my eyes there is no visual world. It is a representation in my mind, but it is also there, something I can touch. The universe is just as within as it is without: You are the universe simulating a brief experience called human. Da is very present, complete, fluid and at peace. The Earth is just, well, da, isn't it? In the painting below, what for you is dort, what is hier, what is da?


I find it all very mystical.


Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (c.1824) by Caspar David Friedrich

3. kennen vs. wissen - know vs. know


Kennen Sie Matthew? = Do you know Matthew?

Wissen Sie, wie spät es ist? = Do you know what time it is?


Now, I associate da with a kind of unconditional knowing-ness of presence, but what kind of know should I use? Kennen or wissen? In German there are these two verbs for "to know". You use kennen in the case of knowing a person or a subject, and wissen in the case of knowing a fact or object. They're two very different experiences! Kennen for I know Sarah, but wissen for I know she has blonde hair. We need both kennen and wissen to understand the world, but they have two very different perspectives. I first came across this analysis before learning German in Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary, a fascinating book about the two hemispheres of the brain and how they represent two contrasting approaches to understanding. Wissen without kennen can be very destructive inasmuch as wissen is a type of knowledge which seeks to reduce phenomenon to objective attributes, and doesn't recognise the unfathomable essence of the human being that makes it a human being. You can have empathy and love for a person, but not a computer. So, in a society obsessed with the wissen, it looks at least on the surface as if the German language wants to make sure we don't get mixed up.


The man and woman in the painting know each other (I assume). What type of knowing could you use about the moon, the trees, the sky?


20 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All