I don’t seem to have a concrete topic to write about this week, but I have been saving some snippets of thoughts about language, especially connections or contrasts between languages, that have occurred to me while in the shower, through overheard conversations or just in the course of everyday activities.
1. There’s a hole in my bucket
One of this week’s mundane but important tasks was to repot several large plants and trees that seem to have accumulated in the flat. We needed to make some drainage holes in the bottom of a galvanized metal pot, and M set to work at this, humming away (as you do). And it was at that point that I had what Germans call – and I love this term – an Aha-Erlebnis (“aha experience”), as I realized he was humming the tune to “There’s a hole in my bucket”, which I remember very clearly from childhood. Except, of course, that the muttered fragments of text that were audible were German.
It turns out that the song is in fact in all likelihood of German origin, the earliest known version being attested from around 1700 – I really hadn’t imagined it was that old. It later became known as “Heinrich und Liese” (Henry and Liza in the English version, of course) and was widely believed to be a folk song from Hesse. Interestingly, it may have entered English through Pennsylvania Dutch, as versions were collected in some mid-20th century collections of Pennsylvania Dutch folk songs.
It wasn’t until about 1960 that the English version became popular – notably through Harry Belafonte’s recording of it with Odetta, which reached no. 32 in the UK singles chart in 1961. Oddly enough, while I hadn’t imagined the song’s history to go back as far as 1700, I was also surprised at how recent an addition it is to the English-language repertoire of nursery rhymes and so on.
No, I’m not going to regale you with the story behind another childhood song here (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…”) – this time it’s the word itself that interests me. Or more specifically, the name of this flower in different languages.
The English name is, I guess, pretty “meaningless” (in the sense of not having an obvious, substantial semantic component) to the casual observer – it has a feminine quality, not just because of its association with a flower but because it doubles as a girl’s name. It was only when I learned the Welsh name for it that I had another of those Aha-Erlebnisse – it’s widely known as llygad y dydd, which translates literally as “eye of the day” (which is, incidentally, the exact English term Chaucer used for it), shortened to “day’s eye” and hence the cognate of the English name.
The other languages whose words I know for the same flower have rather different names for it. In standard German it’s a Gänseblümchen (literally: little goose flower), this name coming, apparently, from the fact that it tends to be found in areas where the grass is short, and in olden times such suitable habitats would often have had their grass kept short by e.g. geese grazing on it.
The French word for the larger ox-eye daisy, marguerite, has something in common with the English word “daisy” in that it doubles as a girl’s name. What I didn’t know until very recently, though, was that the English girl’s name Daisy was, in former times, most frequently a nickname for a girl called Margaret. Ordinary daisies, it seems, are called pâquerettes in French, in connection with the fact that they tend to make their appearance around the time of Easter (Pâques).
3. Out(ge)sourced language
German is full of anglicisms these days, especially in areas such as advertising, fashion, telecommunications and marketing. I’m sure you can work out why some people in these areas might find it cool, impressive or whatever to pepper their sentences (if they manage sentences, that is) with this foreign jargon. Other people’s sensitivities can flare up, though, when more everyday language becomes noticeably affected.
I used to try to avoid unnecessary anglicisms when speaking in German, but at some point you realize you’re fighting a losing battle if you try to avoid them altogether, and I’m not keen to sound stilted, old-fashioned, snobbish or foreign for avoiding these words. Plus languages have always borrowed from one another; it’s an inevitable element of language change.
However, I continue to find some of the English words that have been adopted into German to be really rather awkward, even embarrassing to use, especially the verbs that you can conjugate as if they were German verbs. One example that I heard used numerous times on a talk show at the weekend was the verb outsourcen, especially the past participle outgesourced. Now that’s just yucky. As it happened, the host and about half the guests on the programme seemed rather uncomfortable using it, too, so I did find myself wondering why they bothered.