Recalling several occasions where her native tongue has been criticised, Juliane Beck became conscious not only of the sound, but the cultural and socio-political history attached to the German language. Here, she writes about learning to accept and appreciate how language is embedded in life.
It was at our Lucy Cavendish kitchen table where my dear French friend said to me, in almost these exact words: “You Germans are so weird. You always put the verb at the very end of a sentence. Why? You have to wait for such a long time until you know what the other person wants to say.”
I was in my early 20s and suddenly, for the first time, I became aware of this truth. I am a native German speaker, and since my teenage years I have indulged in German literature; I loved its classics, its early and mid 20th Century literature, its long sentences and gloomy themes. Yet I had only just consciously realised that, in German, the verb sits always at the end of a sentence. After that conversation, I constantly remembered my friend’s words. I would ask myself: “What does this mean? Can’t we argue as heatedly as in other languages? Does this mean that in German we interrupt less than in other languages? Or is our interrupting even less polite because it is less efficient?”
I am not an expert on any of these questions. But I did draw a conclusion for myself: my earlier love of my native language, though not gone, was, to some extent, shaken. Yes, I had been aware that there were people out there who disliked the long compounds and complex sentences of the German language, but I had never before shared their criticism. What my friend had just pointed out, however, was so clearly right, so completely justified. Now there are times when I come to a halt in the middle of a long German sentence, asking myself with a bit of irritation: Why do I have to put this in such a complicated way?
Another episode at the very same kitchen table involved a group of French students laughing about the harsh sound of the German sentences they had learned at school. Now, some years later, they were trying to pronounce them again. I, too, joined in their laughter about their sharp barks, presented with upright Prussian postures and the stereotypically stern look on their faces. I didn’t take it personally, but I still thought: so this is how the sound of my native language is perceived by non-speakers? Is this really the image we present?
I wanted to prove them wrong. After I replied with another German sentence, they were happy to concede that the language could also sound quite agreeable. Admittedly, though, I had pronounced the words even more “doucement” than I normally would have done. Since then, I have also continued to speak German in a consciously soft way. Occasionally, fellow German speakers have commented that my German sounds a bit slurry. They claim to have detected something “foreign” in it. But I am now aware that this is the German I feel most comfortable with, and I have not made any effort to change it. I have, however, occasionally wondered why that is – that a ‘softer’ form of my language should appeal more to me.
Fast forward four years, to an evening stroll with my Swiss friend. I said to him – in German – that language-wise, it was important for me to blend in in another country. If possible, I did not want to be immediately recognisable as a foreigner – or perhaps specifically a German – when I spoke. He replied: “But why? Why should you want to hide where you are from? I’m completely at ease with being Swiss.” I looked at him with envy. Why was I not born in a country with more of a politically neutral past? He had merely insinuated it, but I felt he was right: I was not at ease with being German and in particular, I was not at ease when I was abroad. It’s true that I have met people who were enthusiastic about a particular aspect of German culture or current politics. Some true Germanophiles might even have been among them, and yet negative connotations always seem to outweigh those aspects. When I am abroad Germany’s past is linked to me personally, through language, through my place of birth. In Germany, I was (and still am) rarely aware of this, because there that past does not only stick to me.
These episodes have opened up an entirely new perspective to me. I began to understand and feel personally how history, culture, the way others see me and the way I see myself, and even behaviour, are all intertwined with language. It is not an easy perspective, and I know I have not come to terms yet with the changing feelings towards my native language. Yet I am also very glad about this new way of looking at things. More than ever before I have come to enjoy the variety of the languages I speak, and come to realise the privilege of doing so. To me, language has become much more embedded in life, when it used to be something abstract and unquestioned.
About Juliane Beck
Juliane Beck was a visiting student in Law at Lucy Cavendish College in 2010-2011, and later completed a MPhil in Comparative Government at Oxford. After quite some moving within Europe (UK, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey), she has now been based in Berlin for nearly two years.
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages