Die Tage galloppierend

The days are romping past. In two months from now, I’ll be jumping on the plane and getting out at Frankfurt, and I’m barely into week three of my three-month course.

Part of the problem is that I should go a lot faster than the class, who are planning on taking a year to go the distance at two hours of class time each week. I could race through the book, I guess, but I’d be out of step.

Bearing in mind my friend’s image of German as a plateau with a steep initial climb and a modest slope after, I might aim to climb as much of that slope as possible, and use my private textbook – Language Hacking German – to fill in the colloquial and practical.

A bit of a break this week. Our tutor reported that after a visit to his dentist his mouth was in no shape to pronounce the language as it should be, and so he’d skip a week.

Fair enough. Last time I went to the dentist, I couldn’t open my mouth wider than half a sausage for weeks. Hamburgers were out of the question.

We’ve got enough to go on with. The next chapter has a wheelbarrowload of vocabulary and a cupful of grammar. Apart from learning Lili Marlene, I’ll be busy working through the exercises. And listening to the CDs, where native speakers aren’t talking through a mouthful of agony.

I won’t be up to Hamburger standard, though.

Lili mir Lied

I rather hoped that my Friday German class would feature a return of the drinking song I translated a couple of posts back. After all, I was now word perfect and could belt out the chorus like a native, a skill acquired at some cost to the tranquillity of Casa Skyring.

But no. We went one better. Lili Marlene is a song beloved by soldiers around the world, its maudlin sentimentality balanced by an unforgettable tune. Not quite the song to swing a beer stein to, though in my military days we sang our own bastardised versions:

“In the box formation, by the mortar line
Mortarmen were drinking Fosters, ouzo, rum, and wine.”

Perhaps to nobody’s great surprise, I forget the rest of that version.

So let’s get stuck into the real thing:

Vor der Kaserne vor dem großen Tor
Before the barracks, before its great door

stand eine Laterne, und steht sie noch davor,
Laterne throws me. I think of the word as Lantern, which has one fewer syllable. The contrast with vor (before in space) and davor (before in time) is very nicely done.
Stood a lantern, and it stands as before,

so woll’n wir uns da wiederseh’n,
Woll’n is wollen, meaning want, but I think would, meaning a preference for some future condition, works well.
so would we us there meet again

bei der Laterne woll’n wir steh’n
by the lamplight we would stand.

wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen.
as once (before with) Lili Marleen

die Kaserne (f) = barracks
die Laterne = lantern, streetlight
das Tor = gate

Uns’re beiden Schatten sah’n wie einer aus.
Both of our shadows appear to be as one

Daß wir uns so lieb hatten, das sah man gleich daraus.
That we had so much love, one could plainly see

Und alle Leute soll’n es sehn,
alle Leute = all peoples. i.e. tout le monde
And everyone should see this

wenn wir bei der Laterne steh’n,
when we by the lamplight stood

wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen.
as once (before with) Lili Marleen

die Leute (pl)= people
der Schatten = shadow

Schon rief der Posten: Sie blasen Zapfenstreich,
Too soon called the sentry, they blew curfew,

es kann drei Tage kosten! Kam’rad, ich komm’ ja gleich.
It can cost three days! Comrade, I come at once

Da sagten wir auf Wiederseh’n.
So we said goodbye

Wie gern’ wollt ich mit Dir geh’n,
How gladly would I go with you

wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen.
as once (before with) Lili Marleen

der Kamerad = comrade
der Posten = sentry
die Tage = days
das Wiedersehen = reunion
der Zapfenstreich = curfew, (literally) the blowing of Taps

Deine Schritte kennt sie, Deinen zieren Gang,
The streetlight has a mind!
Your steps it knows, your graceful walk

alle Abend brennt sie, mich vergaß sie lang.
I like the way vergaß is forgot. They are the same word!
Every evening it burns, it has long forgotten me

Und sollte mir ein Leid gesche’n,
And should a sorrow happen to me

wer wird bei der Laterne steh’n,
Who will by the streetlight stand

mit Dir Lili Marleen, mit Dir Lili Marleen.
With you, Lili Marleen?

der Abend = evening
der Gang = gait, walk
das Leid = woe, sorrow (not to be confused with Lied, a song)
die Schritte = steps, footfalls

Aus dem stillen Raume, aus der Erde Grund
Out of the realm of silence, out of the earthern ground

hebt mich wie im Traume Dein verliebter Mund.
Lifts me like I’m dreaming of your lovely mouth

Wenn sich die späten Nebel dreh’n,
When the late mists roll

werd’ ich bei der Laterne steh’n,
I will by the streetlight stand

wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen.
As once Lili Marleen

die Erde = earth
der Grund = ground
der Mund = mouth
der Nebel = fog
die Raume = spaces
die Traume = dream (Freudian much?)

Practical Deutsch

Photo credit Robert Agthe

I even got to use my words today. At the German stall in the multicultural festival, I said, Kransky, bitte, and the lady smiled and said, Mit alles? and I said Ja, danke because I had no idea how to say nicht cabbage, but I wanted the onions, and I had even less grasp on how to say nur onions.

So, part marks, and I went around the corner and scraped the mushy cabbage into a bin.

A friend, when I related the story on Facebook responded: “As for the cabbage, you could either say nur Zwiebeln bitte or ohne Kohl bitte.”

der Kohl = cabbage
der Kransky = not a German word, apparently!
nur, ohne = only
die Zwiebel (-n) = onion


Oh boy, did this innocent post stir up die Tauben! I posted the story on Facebook, and one of my delightfully nerdy German friends responded. As a matter of fact she was there at the gate when I landed in Germany for the first time ever after a surprise visit to Wales that almost had me missing my flight. Boy was I glad to see her! She taught me a few words, amongst them the pertinent phrase schon Mädchen
with which I managed to embarrass her immensely.

Here she writes:
 “…grammar nerd here. Mit alleM.”

Uh-oh. There’s more than way to say “all” in German?

She helpfully went on, ignoring my despair,
alles is the nominativ clause. Alles ist gut (everything is fine). You ask Wer oder was ist gut?

Mit allem is the dativ clause. Mit wem oder was? is the question you use to check if it is the correct ending)”

TMI! I knew that there were cases, but I’d kind of hoped to avoid them for as long as possible. In English we can say “the dog bites the man” or “the man is bitten by the dog”, and understanding the difference between bites and bitten is crucial. 

I found a chart listing the cases for alles.

Okay. In this example, “mit allem?” is standing in the place of a longer sentence which in English would be “Would you like your meal with all the extras?”

Clearly “all” is not nominativ, and by process of illumination I arrive at the dativ. My question now is why “allem” rather than “aller” or “allen”?

My Facebook grammar nerd replied,
“In this particular case, a complete sentence would be something like Mit allen Zutaten/Extras? Also dativ case, but as you see, allen because plural (all the ingredients/extras). To be honest, I’ve never thought about it before, so I’ll just guess that you use allem as a short form of mit allem drum und dran (something along the lines of “with all the trimmings” but clearly that’s not a one to one translation). That expression is very common (and colloquial!) to express completeness and even more common is it to shorten it to mit allem.”

Colloquial is good. Colloquial is something I can jump into and not worry too much about spending a couple of hours spread over a day or so to puzzle out why one single freaking letter in a two-word phrase is not what I expected.

But this is stuff I need to understand and get a grip on. If I don’t grasp German cases, I’m forever going to be stuck at the Mich Tarzan, Du Jane level of German.

Final word or two belongs to my mate:

“I’ve come up with this image of central European languages (German, French, Spanish) versus English: the former are like a high wall behind which there is a flat, easy landscape: you need to learn a lot of grammar, structure, exceptions to the rules and vocabulary to get past the wall, then it’s fairly easy to get going. English, on the other hand, is like an only slightly elevated hill that everyone can manage easily. But the further you try to go upwards ( = learn more of the language) the steeper it gets, the less easy it becomes because there are so many traps. Unlike the other languages I mentioned, you hardly need a conjugation to start speaking English and people can understand what you say pretty easily. But try to get more fluent and you hit all sorts of obstacles. With German or French, on the other hand, you need to learn a lot of things before you can make yourself understood in a conversation. But once you have managed all those things, it is plain sailing, just stick to what you’ve had to learn to get going.”

Can it true be?

Our drinking song rollicked along after I slid the CD into my “Fow Vay” and rollicked home along damp streets.

Du kannst nicht treu sein
Nein, nein, das kannst Du nicht
Wenn auch Dein Mund mir
Wahre Liebe verspricht
In Deinem Herzen
Hast du für viele Platz
Darum bist Du auch nicht
Für mich der richt’ger Schatz

Just looking at the lyrics cold, I was able to pull out a word here and there, and make a few educated guesses as to others. But in this wondrous modern age, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. I pulled out my iPhone and opened the iTranslate app. This has some neat features, one of which is the ability to translate on the fly using the phone’s camera. Just point it at a slab of text, or a sign, or a menu, and bingo! each word is translated directly into its English equivalent:

Put it this way, it’s not much of a song, not much use to sing along with, and rather puzzling as a text. But it’s a start, and if (say) I was trying to decide which toilet to use and they hadn’t included any symbols, this would be a handy app. As I discovered one morning in a small Iranian town, anxiously shifting my weight from one foot to the other.

Take a snapshot in the image, and it will read the text as a whole, rather than word by word, and this comes out better. (Or translate the page in the Chrome browser.)

This cleared up a few questions for me. The logic of the chorus seemed a little vague, but if this is what the canny Edith is saying to the feckless Oscar, well okay.

But, but, but, but I’m not here to wave a gadget over Germany and see only English. The aim is to have the German words come in the eyes and ears and tug on the correct neurons. I don’t necessarily want to translate to English in my head; I want to get the correct meaning in the same way that a native speaker would.

At this point in my studies, translating to English is a useful step. So bear with me as I make my own attempt. Here I’m making use of the above translations, my memory of the tutor’s translation, and a handy-dandy free app called dict.cc, which replaces all those language dictionaries in the bookshop.

Du kannst nicht treu sein
treu is true, and sein is be, but dict.cc doesn’t do just words but phrases as well, and if I enter treu, a few lines down I see treu sein, which comes out as “to be faithful to”.
You cannot be faithful

Nein, nein, das kannst Du nicht
No, no, (that) you can not

Wenn auch Dein Mund mir
wenn auch is “if even” or albeit or although.
Although your mouth to me

Wahre Liebe verspricht
True love promises

In Deinem Herzen
Not sure about this. Herzen is the plural of Herz, which is heart. Does Oscar have multiple hearts? Is Edith talking of men in general? Have we just been handed an extra syllable to make the line fit the melody? (Incidentally, Hertz in both languages means beats as in “cycles per second”, and I am always charmed by the conjunction of Hertz and Herz.)
In your heart(s)

Hast du für viele Platz
Hast du is simply “hast thou”, meaning “you have”. Viele Platz is literally “many place(s)”, but could also be “much room” or “ample space” or any combination. Für is for, but including it here doesn’t seem to add to the sense, unless it is to give the notion that a heart can have many places for love. Incidentally, the logic becomes even more shakey if we consider that plural hearts naturally have a plurality of places.
You have many places

Darum bist Du auch nicht
These last two lines cleverly have three interior rhymes, albeit at the expense of eliding a vowel from richtiger to make the words fit the tune.
Therefore you are not even

Für mich der richt’ger Schatz
richtige or richtiger has the sense of more than right, the only right, the perfect one.
For me the perfect sweetheart.

der Mund = mouth
die Liebe = love
das Herz = heart
der Platz = place, room, space
der Schatz = treasure, precious, sweetheart

No, I’m not going to try to write new English lyrics for the melody. Someone did that already, and I don’t like it. Frank Sinatra sang a version more true to the original, which isn’t too bad.

And no, I’m not going to apologise for making a meal of this drinking song chorus. This is my language log, and if I get stuck in and get my hands dirty, it’s so I can get a grip on the language, not to entertain my sparse readership.


Die Sprachschule

My introductory German class is at Hughes, fifteen minutes drive away. Twenty students with various degrees of senior citizenhood assembled in a small classroom under the direction of our tutor, who proved himself to be a stickler for punctuality and order, a trait shared by the German folk in general, who might be on an empty street at two in the morning, but will still wait for the green man.

Also a beautifully dry sense of humour and a taste for grammar, both aspects which will, I trust, make this a particularly enjoyable class for me.

We covered the alphabet, pronunciation, a little grammar – mostly the various ways German has of dealing with the definite article – and a song or two.

A drinking song, believe it or not, and though we had nothing stronger than coffee and cake, it was hard not to get swept up in the rhythm and enthusiasm. This, I suspect, is the sort of song that makes drunken German people stand up with a stein of beer when the band plays the first bar or two. So to speak.

An afternoon storm made its presence known. “Donner,” I murmured to myself, and made a mental note to investigate the gender of the noun so as to associate it with its correct article. Der Donner, according to my iPhone German dictionary app.

Der Blitz = the lightning
Die Wolke = the cloud
Das Wetter = the weather

Nouns are capitalised – often a word is both a noun and a verb, and this helps distinguish the two – and take one of three articles according to gender. Every noun has a gender: feminine, masculine, or neuter. Not sure why, but there it is.

But a plural noun takes the feminine form of the article. Der Blitz, but Die Blitzen. Not sure if this makes life easier or more difficult, but again, there it is.

Still drizzling when we broke up, and I was cheered to discover a Little Free Library outside. As a BookCrosser, these things are a magnet. Next week I must bring along a book or two to help keep the turnover up.


Hah für Hugo

In the nick of time my German text has arrived. This is the text for my University of the Third Age course, beginning tomorrow.

The tutor had warned us – after I had sent off my order – not to buy the expensive edition with the three included CDs because he had made a CD comprising all the conversations we would study plus some additional material.

Guess which edition I had ordered? I’d taken the position that getting the conversation right is half the battle, and I didn’t see any mention of a download site for the spoken texts. Sure, I could puzzle out the pronunciation and try to remember the voice of the tutor, but there’s really no substitute for hearing native speakers say the words.

And I could listen again and again, speak along with the CD, really drill the words and the word order and the pronunciations into my thick head.

Not to worry. Only a few dollars more. All up, the whole thing would cost me not much more than a hundred dollars for a year of instruction. That’s the beauty of U3A. It’s all pretty much free. We students pay a dollar an hour for the room rent, a few dollars for incidentals such as photocopying and refreshments, and that’s it. The tutor provides their services for nothing more than the pleasure of passing along their lifetime skills.

I had a quick shufti through the book. Standard stuff, beginning with the alphabet, some basic grammar, and getting into conversation as soon as possible. I didn’t bother to get stuck into serious study; the tutor would tell us how to approach the text.



Banksy wall art showing workman chipping a star off the EU logo.

I am blessed with several Facebook friends in Germany and Austria, as well as some of German extraction. Often their Facebook status updates are in German, and I can try to puzzle out their meanings.

Facebook helpfully provides a “see translation” button, and I can switch back and forth until I have a reasonable stab at how the words are put together.

If I have any problems, why, but I can always ask my friend, who will be only to happy to advance my studies.

And sometimes I can make a smartarse comment in German.

I have a friend, currently visiting London. “Chaos in England wegen Schnee,” she reports. The FB translation is not required. I know that Schnee is snow, and in the context, wegen must mean something like “because”.

“Nein!” I shot back. “Chaos in England wegen May!” and earnt a laughing face icon in response.


(photo credit: Duncan Hull)