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10 April 2005

Bitte, beuge mich!

There is a charming Theory in Linguistics that explains why modern English does not have feminine, masculine, neuter, ablative, dative, accusative, genitive, apellative, first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth declensions, third, fifth, second, first, fourth and maybe sixth conjugations, and the ablative absolute. In English, we skip all that insane drek and just say "Give me the sausage," and we don't have to know that the sausage secretly wears women's undergarments.

According to this charming Theory, after a few centuries of Vikings in the North of the island (around the Jarvik suburbs) murdering and raping and pillaging and burning Angles and Saxons in the South, things started to calm down, and everybody got down to the serious business of horse-trading and pitching woo.

Both Anglo-Saxon and Vikingish were hopelessly inflected languages. You don't even want to know the grotesque details of Old Danish and Anglo-Saxon grammar.

So when Erik Cowhorn the Viking tried to buy a horse from Ethelred of Wessex, it was a terribly frustrating business, because to one of them the horse was masculine (even if it had teats) and existed in an arcane case, and to the other the horse was always feminine (even if etc.) and also existed in a different bizarre noun case which both Erik and Ethelred could never hope to make any sense of.

Then when Erik Cowhorn brought a handful of posies on a summer's eve to pretty Ethel, Ethelred's freckled redheaded daughter, she hadn't the slightest idea what he was trying to tell her, all his flattery was lost in a horrible jumble of conflicting inflections.

Raiding and burning and pillaging had been a lot simpler.

It took a century or two, but eventually everybody, the horsetraders and the lovesick teenagers, just agreed to strip both lingos of all their crazy inflections, and the result was English, very grammatically streamlined, easy for everybody to trade horses in and pitch woo with.

Now I don't have to know the gender of a fire hydrant, and I don't get thwacked on the knuckles for misspelling the 2nd person plural passive pluperfect of throw.

Just give me the sausage, just buy my horse, just let me nibble your pretty little earlobe, Ethel.

Centuries later, another Viking named William the Conquerer would force everyone in his new Court du Londres au parler francais, and it greatly enriched the vocabulary, but he was not able to re-introduce genders of shoes and noun declensions and verb conjugations and le pluparfait. English stayed streamlined.

Inflections just seem very odd to native English-speakers, but it also seems like a very charming marvelous Talk Puzzle meant to confuse me as I wander from Gare du Nord to BerlinerZoostation to Amsterdam Centraalstation and eventually to Milano and Lisboa with my backpack.

And English still retains its own bag of quirky inflections, and they must seem very odd to people from the other side of la Manche. You can eat a dozen prawns, but no matter how many shrimp you eat, you are still eating 36 shrimp. And the torture a Deutschespracherkinde must endure to conjugate the verb "to be" and make sense of Hamlet solliliquoying "To be or not to be ..." Unglaublich!

Pat Z. may tell me otherwise, but I have heard a rumor that this little poem is one of the only examples of The Pun -- die Wortspeil -- auf deutsches. Anyway, for a little South Parkie who had to learn the torment of Latin from Miss Murphy, who also taught the Deutschesklasse, I've always loved this poem. I hope you like it too.

It is midnight in the town cemetery. The moon is full and bright ...


Der Werwolf
von Christian Morgenstern

Ein Werwolf eines Nachts entwich
von Weib und Kind und sich begab
(left his wife and kids at home)
an eines Dorfschullehrers Grab
(the Schoolmaster's grave)
und bat ihn: Bitte, beuge mich!
(Please, decline me!)

Der Dorfschulmeister stieg hinauf
auf seines Blechschilds Messingknauf
und sprach zum Wolf, der seine Pfoten
geduldig kreuzte vor dem Toten:

»Der Werwolf« -- sprach der gute Mann,
»des Weswolfs«, Genitiv sodann,
»dem Wemwolf«, Dativ, wie man's nennt,
»den Wenwolf«, -- »damit hat's ein End«.
(accusative / objective)

Dem Werwolf schmeichelten die Fälle,
er rollte seine Augenbälle.
(rolled his eyeballs in amazement)
Indessen, bat er, füge doch
zur Einzahl auch die Mehrzahl noch!

Der Dorfschulmeister aber mußte
gestehn, daß er von ihr nichts wußte.
Zwar Wölfe gäb's in großer Schar,
doch »Wer« gäb's nur im Singular.
(alas, "Wer" (who) is only singular.)

Der Wolf erhob sich tränenblind --
er hatte ja doch Weib und Kind!!
(but what about my wife and kids??)
Doch da er kein Gelehrter eben,
so schied er dankend und ergeben.
(he thanked the old spook and sadly went away)


Blogger pat's pub said...

Weeeell man we need ta werk on di german grammars of yaz fara while man, bat othawize no bad fara yankee man coz dem yankee man usually only know di inglish langish coz de usual yankee man is ingnorant.But Bob knows wathiz like inna Babylon
I & I will look up some of di books coz I & I now some poems and limercks by Goethe, Ernst Jandl and Karl Valentin an such on di subject....

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Yes, I had heard that Switzerland had many Rastaferians, but this is the first one I've ever had an e-mail from!

Well, I just like the poem. You know that I only speak the eisenbahnundwurstdeutsches dialect.

I'm definitely coming to visit on Bob's Euro Absinthe Tour 2005, but so far my best glimpse of .CH is the movie "Pane e cioccolata / Bread and Chocolate."

Oh and of course the world's greatest detective, Kommisar Hans Berlach!

What did you think of the Jack Nicholson version of Durrenmatt's "The Pledge" (Das Versprechen) a couple of years ago? I love the book (NOT the feel-good hit of the season) so much, I'm afraid to see the movie. There's a web reference that this is the second movie made from it, do you know the first, was it auf deutsches?

Blogger pat's pub said...

re: the poem. I know for sure that there is at least one other poem juggling with declination. I think it was by the great german satirist karl Valentin. I'll keep you updated.

I must confess that I haven't "Bread and Chocolate" and I haven't seens the Nicholson movie yet since I'm not a big fan of Jack, but I saw the old one made in the mid-70s ("Der Richter und sein Henker" with Maximilian Schell, if I am correct) Good Old Fritz has a pretty cool and intense cameo in this one. His widow is currently making local news bcause one of Fritz' old mates filed a lawsuit against her. Details on request

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

That's a different roman, ich glaube. "The Judge and His Hangman" was a Komissar Berlach story, and I think you're right -- when Berlach goes to question the local Canton Romaniste, the actor is Durrenmatt!

Bitte, ja, supply details of the lawsuit!

"Pane e cioccolata" is Switzerland as seen from the Weltschmertz of an Italian migrant worker. The Swiss police invite him in to question him about the murder of a little girl. (He didn't do it.) They are very polite to him, and when they are done questioning him, they release him.

He is so incredibly upset and nervous that he immediately does An Italian Liquid Thing against the wall outside the Police Headquarters.

A Swiss policeman sees him do that, is outraged, and he is immediately deported.

Also bitte the Valentin Wortspeil poem!

Blogger Mamagiggle said...

grrr click *pop* tweet snuffle sniff. I is sooo iggerant!
Speak to me with thine eyes....

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Hey, most of these things are great movies, you visual artists can just rent the video.

And the only thing I can do in German is find my train and order bratwurst.

Once on "Cheers," Sam was insanely jealous because Diane's old literature professor, with whom she'd had a torrid grad-school affair, was in town. They all arranged to have a very uncomfortable dinner at Melville's.

To Diane's astonishment, Sam began discussing "War and Peace" with the professor, in detail, with insight and grasp.

The professor, of course, told Sam his insights were completely wrong and jejeune (Sam panicked at that), but Sam held up his end of the discussion very well.

Later, alone, Diane was a puddle of mush. She said: "Oh, Sam. Now I know you really love me. You read the entire 'War and Peace' just for me. Most men would have just rented the movie."

Sam exploded. "YOU MEAN THERE'S A MOVIE?????????"

Blogger pat's pub said...

Friedrich Duerrenmatt's widow Charlotte Kerr sued swiss wtriter Hugo Loetscher, a former friend of duerrenmatt on charges of defamation claiming that parts of a book by Loetscher be removed.
In a book with essays on swiss literature Loetscher recalls a few anecdotes regarding Duerrenmatt's death and his funeral service. He claims to have seen a book by Stephen King on Durrenmatt's bedside table after his death, that Kerr first told him that there would be no funeral service (she didn't want him to show up) and that Duerrenmatt's hands were folded while being on display in the open coffin during the service (Duerrenmatt was a lifelong atheist).She lost this particular trial.
This is not the first (and probably not the last) lawsuit Kerr has filed against colleagues and critics as she is desperatly trynging to conserve the reputation of her late husband and going ballistic against anyone trying to scratch the surface.
Duerrenmatt himself would have had quite a good laugh on this one, I reckon. Could be right out on one of his stories.
How come I was just thinking of Yoko Ono ? Eerie similarities ....?

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Being 6000 kilometers from Switzerland for the first time shows me how lucky I am. Until this post about all this scandal, Durrenmatt's reputation was perfect in my home and on my bookshelves, he is a god to me. Durrenmatt means nothing to me but wonderful storytelling, startling ideas, beautiful language (even in translation).

The Stephen King book may have been by his bedside, but perhaps he was using it as a beverage coaster. I can't imagine he was reading it for pleasure or edification.

"A prophet is not without honor save in his own country." -- Jesus to his neighbors in Nazareth

But I'm still coming to visit to see the country Durrenmatt lived in and wrote about.

And to knock back some absinthe! And see some clocks by Jost Burgi!


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