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German and the Rules Posted by on Dec 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

Stereotypes are a funny thing: they’re always true, until they aren’t.

Itchy Feet: Anarchy

One popular cliché of the German people, beloved even by Germans themselves, is that they adore rules, obedience to the rules, and general order. Ordnung is such a common word that the expression “it’s all good” or “all’s well” translates to “alles in Ordnung,” or “everything in order.” Everything properly in its place and in accordance with its governing principles. Germans enjoy poking fun at themselves for this love of rules because, like the Italian stereotype of talking with their hands or the Canadian stereotype of being overly polite, it’s generally a positive thing. I mean, who doesn’t want a bit more law and order in their lives? The Germans just happen to be living it, and we should envy them. Of course, the humor comes in when they take this love to excess, as in the case of the comic above – which is not an exaggeration. Germans literally picture total anarchy when watching someone jaywalk. You can see it written on their faces.

So does this obsession with Ordnung also extend to the German language?

As with all stereotypes, at first glance, the answer seems to be a resounding “ja.” Every language has rules, of course, but the German language pays particularly close attention to following those rules. If you were to imagine a tidy German bureaucrat designing the German language with a protractor, drawing up grammar tables with engineered precision, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong – there was recently a reform of the German language which helped to standardize spelling. It was and remains somewhat controversial, but there you have it.

Though German grammar tables appear headache-inducing on first glance, it’s comforting to know that the rules will pretty much always apply – there’s no need to learn myriad baffling exceptions, as in other languages (looking at you, English). Sure, the word order in a sentence often seems backward, but it’s always backward under certain conditions, and always backward in the same way. True, the compound words like Bundesverfassungsgericht appear confusing and hilarious, but they’re always compounded the same way and for the same reasons. And yes, it’s impossible to guess a noun’s gender simply by looking at the object itself (das Mädchen, for example, makes “little girl” neutral, rather than feminine as you might assume), but even there you’ll find rules to follow whenever possible (the diminutive suffix -chen always turns the word neutral, no matter what gender it originally has), and those rules always apply.

Well, almost always.

After all, stereotypes are only true until they aren’t. And contrary to the cultural stereotype, I’ve found that Germans in fact have a love/hate relationship with the rules. Berlin is a perfect example – a city rebuilt by punks and rebels and counter-counter-counter-culture anarchists, who fought against rules harder than nearly any subgroup in Europe, and still do. Because Germans are self-aware of this rule-abiding stereotype of theirs, they often subvert it, creating innovative ad campaigns, unique architectural delights, and fascinating, moving motion pictures. They’re more than familiar with the old adage: you have to know the rules before you can break them.

And this, of course, finds its way in to their language, as well. The rules are only always followed in the classroom, or in the newspaper, or in a gathering of linguists. Everyday Germans speak their own language as sloppily and care-free as we all speak our own native tongues – slurring through adjective endings they don’t know, running roughshod over article genders they don’t care about, and making up words just because they feel like it. As much as they’re pinned for following the rules, they’re also as happy as anyone else to abandon them if the situation suits them.

What about you? Have you noticed a particular German way of adhering to the rules, in culture or in language? How do other languages reflect the stereotypes of the cultures they were born in, and are those stereotypes ever subverted?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Dan:

    That was a fun (and funny) article! It’s true! I’m a bit of a rule follower but I feel like an anarchist when I’m in Germany.

  2. Hamish:

    Germany – where the revolutionaries buy a platform ticket before seizing the railway station !

  3. Phil Ramsden:

    I don’t quite go along with the idea that English is an anarchic linguistic riot. I mean, it is if you look at orthography, but English syntax is pretty regular (it’s just that we follow the rules automatically, and don’t tend to notice them) and morphology, while irregular compared to (say) Spanish, is actually quite tame compared to German. For example, the number of nouns that pluralise irregularly in English is quite small, whereas in German there’s a convincing case (as Pinker has pointed out) for saying that the number of exceptions dwarfs the number of instances of the regular rule.

    Moreover, German doesn’t seem infested with all the grammatical shibboleths we have, and the army of dreary Heffers and Trusses eager to enforce them.

  4. Lauren:

    I was born and raised in good ol’ England, but I having been living in Germany for the past three years … I still can’t get over the fact that they have so many rules (like jaywalking) and I find their expressions highly amusing when those rules are broken!!


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