Learning Doitch

The ‘language issue’ might have determined the whole course of my life here in Europe.

I got three shocks when I first came to Germany.

Firstly, it was as if my entire savings had been wiped out by a bank failure, as if I’d gone bankrupt. My English was suddenly worthless – like a currency that was no longer valid. Secondly, coming from a country where the kind of English you spoke practically decided your class, category and social status, it was surprising to find a developed, prosperous, western nation doing entirely without it. The Germans seemed to manage with their German. Translators and interpreters saw to the rest, where languages rubbed shoulders. Thirdly, I hadn’t known how difficult it would be to learn German, to attain the same level of proficiency in German as in English.

But I was perceptive. There were certain things which I saw or realized, some at once, some with the passage of time: that language or languages are a part of the geography of a continent, you can’t disregard them any more than you can disregard the Alps. Language represents the true borders of a country, its defences, its Siegfried and Maginot Lines – even its Chinese Wall! Nation means physiognomy, language and religion, in that order. These are the things that bind and the things that separate tribes, and keep them strictly divided from one another. Languages leave their mark on history and bear its imprint, in their turn. One can, with a certain effort of the imagination, conceive of a world with only one, or no religion, even a world where physiognomy and skin colour and the other anthropoid characteristics do not play a role – but it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody speaks the same language, makes the same sounds to signify the same things – unless we all start speaking in smileys. Otherwise there will always be ‘us’ and ‘them’, meaning the others, once called barbarians, today simply foreigners or aliens. Or at best everybody will have to turn multilingual on an unprecedented scale – and we’ll have to demarcate the operative areas of the various languages as well: English will be the language of politics and poetry, Japanese of trade and industry, American of armaments and entertainment, German of law and order, French of love, Chinese of dogma, Italian of domesticity, Arabic of religion, Russian of the Black Market, Polish of immigration, Spanish of unemployment, Hindi of poverty and Swahili of starvation. Some such scheme.

And then there’s the question of the accent. In those early days, I was vastly surprised to see a Samaranch or a Perez de Cuellar speak a very curious kind of English, to say the least, and apparently nobody sniggered. Somebody like Kohl, the Chancellor of a mighty nation, might even need an interpreter to translate President Bush’s golfing jokes to him. Kennedy once declared, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, ‘I am a Berliner’ (which is otherwise a kind of sugared bun with marmalade in it), in an atrocious accent, and won the heart of the German nation. So it wasn’t necessary to speak everybody’s language with perfect ease, after all, or was it? Then why were the Turks laughed at here in Germany? Why was an ‘Indian’ accent so incorrigibly funny in Britain?

That was another problem: you learnt their language, they wanted you to get the right accent; you did that, and they wanted you to change the way you dressed, you cooked, you prayed, you beat your wife; you did that, and they wanted you to change the colour of your skin.

In any case, the main division in Germany was between those who spoke German, and those who didn’t, or spoke only in infinitives. The main division in the world was between people, otherwise dumb, ignorant people like you and me, who’d had the chance to learn a language from the age and the stage of an unaborted foetus upwards, and learnt it badly, but were still ‘natural’ to those parts by the joint operation of jus soli and jus sanguinis, and the others who had begun far too late, their heads and hearts full of some other kind of gibberish, their tongues twisted out of shape by other vowels, syllabic liquids, dipthongs, voiced and voiceless, aspirate or unaspirated or nasal, velar, palatal, retroflex, dental or labial consonants, not to mention the conjunct ones.

I found myself relegated to the second category and had no intention of remaining there. What I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that when an Indian spoke English, there was at least a major historical accident behind it. But when an Indian spoke German, it was a purely personal accident. And it has remained just that – a source of permanent despair and perpetual pain.

Learning Doitch. I did my best, of course, but I had difficulty remembering the gender and the appropriate articles, conjugating the verbs, declining the adjectives, forming plurals, deciding the cases, forming the participles of the strong verbs, keeping the various meanings of the weak, separable verbs separate in accordance with the respective prefixes, which are basically prepositions. The vocabulary had to be acquired. But English and German words often tend to sound similar, with just that shade of difference in the meaning. And English idioms cause so much of incomprehension here in Germany that it is fatal to use them in translation. And one should simply forget the prepositional idioms – which are basically the English equivalent of German separable verbs. One should either stick to the German separable verbs, if any alien has ever succeeded in mastering them, or even venture farther afield into German idioms, which are as phlegmatic as oxen waiting to be yoked.

The battle between German and English had begun, my poor Bengali mind caught between the mighty armies of two European languages, Dunkirk, German on the advance, English retreating.

I was there.

(To be contd.)


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