Archive | Language points RSS feed for this section

“Wie geht’s?”

22 Sep

One of the first phrases one learns in any beginning German course, “Wie geht’s?” means “How are you?” Simple, it seems. And yet it is important to know that there is no one-to-one correlation in how those phrases are used in Germany / Austria and the U.S.A.

First of all, in German “Wie geht’s?” by itself is quite informal. Ideally, you remember whether you are “per du” with someone or “per Sie”, the former being the informal you (like “tu” in French) and the latter being the formal you (like “vous”). If you are “per Sie” then the correct phrase is “Wie geht’s Ihnen?”–a German lesson in and of itself including relatively advanced concepts like the dative. If you are “per du” then “Wie geht’s?” by itself is acceptable or you could say “Wie geht’s dir?”

That’s the language lesson associated with that simple phrase. Then there are the intercultural aspects. In German, you only ask the question if you really want to know. This usually means you only ask people you know well, where you are prepared to hear a relatively long and truthful account of their current state of being (no “Fine, thanks, and you?” when someone’s back hurts or life is falling apart). It is acceptable to ask a stranger if there has been some kind of accident and you want to make sure the person is all right, but the general use of “Wie geht’s” simply does not exist here. For example, you would never find a salesperson asking you as you come into the store, even though “Schönen Tag!” (“Have a nice day!”) does seem to have crept into the language.

For years, I had a not entirely earned reputation of being a nice person, because I asked colleagues and clients alike “Wie geht’s” and listened patiently as they chronicled their aches and pains. The danger should one ask and then not listen to the answer is that one is labeled “superficial”–a grave allegation in this relationship-oriented culture.

Because I asked, though, I have also found some answers that have always intrigued me and that are, I believe, typically Viennese. One is “Lei’wand” (short for “Leinwand” or movie screen), which is generally interpreted to mean “Great!” The other goes deeper into the Viennese mindset. Sometimes people, especially those lower down on the socio-economic scale, answer, “Wie die Anderen wollen” or “As the others would have it”, expressing a sense that they do not control their destiny, are subject to the whims of others. So much for “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Advertisements

Words Germans (and for the most part Austrians, too) think are English

19 May

This applies for the most part in Austria, too. We don’t talk about “Open Airs” as far as I know, but probably tomorrow I’ll see it on a poster here or hear it in a conversation.

http://www.dw.de/13-words-germans-think-are-english/g-17619951

Tschüs!

29 Dec

“Tschüs!” is a form of leave-taking, rather like “‘Bye!”, originally from Germany.  It has made its way into Austrian usage to the extent that even my absolutely original Viennese friend, C., closes some of her telephone conversations with me with it. And yet there are some differences. “Tschüs” is now widely used in Germany. Even when you leave a store the sales clerk might use it instead of the more formal “Auf Wiedersehen”. In Austria it is seen as something you would use in an informal setting ONLY, and a story from an equally original Viennese friend of mine, B., illustrates this.

B. works for a organization where all address each other with the informal “du” rather than the formal “Sie”. Among them is a German colleague who even uses “tschüs” with clients, that is, indiscriminately in Austrian eyes. Out of curiosity B. had just finished talking about the differing uses with this colleague, sharing the Austrian understanding of “tschüs” and mentioning that Austrians only expect to hear it from people they are on “du” terms with. The German colleague was very interested by this and perhaps took it a little too much to heart. Five minutes later when she was getting ready to leave the holiday party she said “Auf Wiedersehen” to a group of colleagues (all of whom she addressed with “du”). And one of the colleagues, without having been privy to B.’s conversation, said, “Hey, we’re all ‘per du’ here. You don’t have to say ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ to us.” 😉

Na geh’

12 Oct

The Viennese (Austrians?) use “Na geh'” (a distant cousin to the English expression “Now get along with you”) to express general disbelief and mild protest–sometimes both at one time. It is almost exclusively a genial expression.

A Viennese friend of mine told me a joke that beautifully illustrates the use of the phrase:

Two animals meet for the first time.

The first one says, “I’m a Wolfshund. My father was a wolf and my mother was a dog. What are you?”

The second one says, “I’m an Ameisenbär.” [Ameisenbär is the German word for anteater and translates literally as “ant bear”.]

The Wolfshund responds, “Na geh’“.

May Day or The Band Played in Tune

1 May

Today is May Day, International Workers’ Day, and a public holiday in Austria among other places. One of the many parades has just passed under my window on its way to City Hall, where there are various celebrations. Because this is Vienna the marching was relaxed and not entirely tidy and the band played musically and in tune.

May Day has a lot to do with Vienna, the city government here being predominantly socialist. There is a lot of red around–flags and flowers and so on–and, true to the apparent Viennese belief that even those who earn less well should be able to enjoy the good things in life, the wine served at the City Hall festivities is decent.

Some things are changing, though. The Social Democrats no longer have an absolute majority in Vienna, as they did for decades. They now govern in a coalition with the Green Party. That may help explain why public transport runs on the usual holiday schedule on May Day rather than not starting until about 2 p.m. as used to be the case, something I found out the hard way my first year in Vienna when I was trying to get to lunch at friends’. (I ended up walking. Luckily, it wasn’t far but I felt I had earned my Schnitzel!)

The People’s Party (Volkspartei (VP), essentially the Conservatives) has its own Fest this coming weekend. Like many things in Austria, the system of providing a “red” option and a “black” option (the color of the VP is black) is alive and well, even if the idea of Proporz–divvying up positions on boards in state-owned industries and other bodies according to who came out on top in the last national elections–is dying out with those same state-owned entities.

Roof avalanche

22 Jan

All around Vienna you see these signs in winter.

image

They always make me smile because “Dach” means “roof” and “Lawine” means “avalanche”. Seems like such a dramatic way of describing the snow that slides off the roof.

The Viennese and their weather

19 Dec

It occurred to me that those of you who have never lived in Vienna might wonder why I have a special tag for the weather. That is because we have a lot of it in Vienna. 😉 At least, the Viennese are very aware of their weather and talk about it a lot–not in the way the British do, as a kind of safe subject for small talk, but as an explanation, not to say excuse, for all kinds of things. Everybody is short-tempered? Must be the weather. You’re tired even though you slept well last night? Must be the weather. You’re dizzy? Guess what. Must be the weather.

There is, in fact, one weather phenomenon known to cause some physcial symptoms–Föhn. This is more common in Innsbruck, but that doesn’t stop the Viennese from talking about it. I once had the joyful job of trying to explain Föhn (pronounced rather the way Inspector Clouseau as played by Peter Sellars pronounced “phone”) to a group of American visitors. At the time I believed, because my Viennese friends had told me this, that it was a hot wind coming up from northern Africa. Now there is Wikipedia and I can tell you with authority that it is a “warmer trockener Fallwind” or a warm dry wind that comes down over a mountain (great diagram at: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallwind). What does it feel like? Perhaps it helps to mention that Austrians use the word Föhn for  “hairdryer”  rather than the more standard Haartrockner.

But what does it do, this warm dry wind coming down off the mountain? The most common complaint associated with Föhn is headache. But sometimes you also hear of someone suffering from a Kreislaufzusammenbruch (Kreislauf = circulatory system; Zusammenbruch = breakdown). The first time a business partner called to cancel an appointment because she was suffering from Kreislaufzusammenbruch I gasped and said, “Are you calling from the hospital? Can I do anything to help?” She was audibly amused and said no she was at home but not up to a meeting. Life-threatening as it sounds, Kreislaufzusammenbruch does not usually require medical intervention. It makes the sufferer feel dizzy and miserable, but is not usually serious and is usually quite short-lived. (The circulatory system, by the way, is to German speakers what the  liver is to the French. We have Kreislaufzusammenbrüche; they have crises de foie.)

In spite of my New England upbringing, where external factors are seldom an excuse for falling down on the job, I notice that I have lived in Vienna long enough to feel it, too. Got a headache? Must be the Föhn!