Days are becoming shorter, nights colder, and sunlight scarce. What can you do on those cold winter days?
Legend has it that, once upon a time, a Spaniard landed in Germany with an unsettled stomach and walked into a café to get a comforting tea. And then false friends happened.
From Latin īnfundō (to pour in, upon or into), an infusion originally referred to the liquid which had had ingredients steeped in it to extract useful qualities, hence nowadays we still use the word infusion for beverages such as tea. Later on the term slid into medicine to refer to the administration of liquid substances directly into a vein, i.e. transfusion. False friends may not as distant as they might seem. One just has to find the etymological link between them. : )
As if the German language weren’t twisted enough with its random gendered articles and convoluted syntax, even simple time structures can mess up your whole schedule. In the spoken language, 3:00, 3:05, 3:10 and so on are easy: drei Uhr (three hour), fünf nach drei (five after three), zehn nach drei (ten after three). But when the minute hand reaches “half past”, Germans take the next full hour as a reference. In German – unlike most languages – “halb drei” wouldn’t be “half past three” but “half past two”, in the sense of “we are half way to three”.
This incident made me realize two things. First, the reason why Germans think of foreigners as “tardy people whose idea of being on time is showing up an hour late”. If you don’t know how time works and get all your appointments at “half”, you are bound to perpetuate the stereotype of the lazy, unpunctual foreigner.
The other thing I realized is that Germans live in the future. Instead of taking the current hour as a reference, they jump on to the next, as if they were anxious to get past the present. For 3:25 they’ll say “fünf vor halb vier”, literally “five before half way to four”. With such a rush to beat time, no one can really enjoy the present. No wonder everyone is so stressed out.
You are abroad, little foreigner. Far away from your country, your native language, and your folks. Whether you are living abroad or traveling with friends, foreigners often stick together and use their common language to communicate, and most of the time they assume that there’s no one around who can decipher their messages. Well… watch out, for the language ninja might be right behind you!
Here are some case studies featuring The Language Ninja in action:
Case study #1 (image above)
I’m on the subway in Berlin on my way to meet a friend. The two Spanish women next to me are exchanging workplace gossip, including some disgusting pranks and sketchy office practices that could get more than one person fired. My friend calls me up, I start talking to her in Spanish while I can see the two women going vampiric pale and sweating more than sinners in a church.
Case study #2
I’m getting groceries in a supermarket in Savonlinna (Finland) and two dark-haired guys stare at me as I walk past them. Spaniard A says to Spaniard B: “Look at that curvy goddess”. I turn around and reply: “¿Gracias?”. Hysteric giggles follow. We end up in a karaoke bar singing hits of the 80s.
Case study #3
I’m in a hostel in Stockholm and introduce myself – in English – to a bunch of friendly Austrian guys. I unpack and do my thing while they resume a heated conversation about their sex lives, their numerous partners and their kinkiest bedroom stories. After half an hour one of the Austrians asks me about the location of the showers and I respond in flawless German. The Austrians burst into hysteric laughter, which takes almost ten minutes to dissipate, and spend the next hour apologizing. Later that day I meet their girlfriends, who insist on me tagging along to the bars that night (#solotravel). The Austrian guys spend the night subtly paying for all my drinks in exchange for my silence on their sex stories.
What about you? Have you ever been busted by a language ninja? : )