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Language: As Convenient As German Recycling Posted by on Mar 14, 2016 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Convenience

I wrote this comic when I first moved to Germany four years ago. As you can see, I was quite…taken by the German obsession with proper recycling (I’ve since found that Switzerland makes the Germans look like filthy litterbugs). These days, I rather appreciate their green attitudes, and I wish more countries took on recycling programs with such gusto. It’s an extensive and earnest approach to a prevalent problem.

But convenient it is not.

If Germany was as convenience-obsessed as, say, the USA, they wouldn’t ask citizens to get off their lazy bums and sort the garbage themselves. They’d just throw everything into one bin (or two, if only for appearance’s sake) and have paid city employees sort through it later. Yes, it’s dirtier, more work, more expensive and probably less effective…but it sure is convenient. Instead, we’ve got to sort through all that mess ourselves and make these tough decisions every day (milk cartons are made from paper, a layer of plastic, and sometimes aluminum lining – do they go in paper, plastic or trash?!). But I’m not complaining. I’m happy to sacrifice my own convenience for the Greater Good.

Which is why the other day, as I was happily trying to guess whether lightbulbs went under “glass” or “trash” or “electronics” (the answer: it completely depends on the type of bulb), it occurred to me that languages feature a very similar irony.

Languages, while their fundamental use is to make communication easier, are far from convenient.

Languages are complicated: they’re full of rules and exceptions and categories and sub-categories and implicit and explicit meaning; they’re tied inextricably to body language, local culture and idioms of obscure reference; they’re subject to regional variations and conditions like social standing, time of day, occupation and age of the speaker. These things, among others, make languages very inconvenient to learn.

If language had been invented by modern, convenience-obsessed, throw-everything-in-the-trash couch potatoes, they’d all be so simple to learn we wouldn’t even have different languages. Words would be mere grunts, accompanied by stabbing a finger in the direction of whatever you’re talking about, or making a crude, obvious gesture if that thing isn’t in front of your face. The written word would just be a childishly simple picture, understandable anywhere in the world – and literal, not some artistic visual metaphor like those wacky hieroglyphics. Everything would just be what it is, no interpretation or translation required.

Language would lose all its beautiful nuance, its power to inspire and the fun, rewarding journey required to learn it…but man, it sure would be convenient.

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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.


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