Hübsch and doch – language breakthroughs

I’m currently into week 4 of my German language course. For background, I learnt German at school, and continued my study of the language for a year and a bit at university before my life took a different direction. Since then, my study of, and exposure to the language has been minimal, but at the beginning of October I started a course at the Goethe Institut in Sydney to get myself back on track.

Language learning as an adult is hard. It really is. It’s tiring, and the process just doesn’t flow quite as well. I speak from experience, especially given that I’m learning the same language for a second time. One thing I have definitely noticed this time around is my brain’s urge to translate. It seems to want to think in English, and it doesn’t seem happy to have learnt a new word or phrase unless it knows that word or phrase’s English translation. This is irritating for a couple of reasons:

  1. I know it’s counter-productive. I know languages are not codes and that fairly often direct translations are not even possible.
  2. There is a guy in the class who does this vocally – he has to know what everything is auf Englisch bitte and it drives me to distraction. I’m there thinking you don’t need to know what it is in English if you understand it! while my brain is doing the same thing his is.

However, this week I had a breakthrough. I learnt two new words. Hübsch and doch.

I’ve been overusing hübsch at a ridiculous rate because I’ve fallen in love with the word. Not really because of the word itself, but because it is the first word in this period of my language learning that I haven’t needed a translation for. My brain is content with the idea that hübsch means, well, hübsch. I won’t say that I understand the contexts it is suited to, or maybe even cultural contexts, but I’m happy just to know the word. I haven’t looked it up and, more importantly, I don’t have the urge to look it up.

Doch is a word that probably has a thousand and one meanings, but it came up by accident in class the other day when it appeared in a text and someone asked what it meant. I can’t remember the exact context, but the teacher explained how it just made the phrase more polite, but it led to her also explaining its use as “a positive answer to a negative question”. And when aforementioned need-to-know guy asked und auf Englisch, bitte? her response was simply, “no idea”. A couple of confused looks and she did go on to explain how the word just doesn’t exist in English:

If we were having a party and everyone had a glass of wine, and I noticed everyone had drunk the wine, but John hadn’t even touched the wine, I might ask him “don’t you like the wine”, and it might be that he’s saving it for later, but he does like the wine. In English he’d reply “yes”, but “ja” would be wrong in German; you’d say, “Doch!”

And it made sense to me – another breakthrough, and another realization that sometimes language can just exist in its own right without reference or translation to another language. Doch might translate to yes  but in order to understand the meaning of it, you really have to tell a story and explain how to use the word, and provide context. And my brain is comfortable with that.

Sometimes language learning is hard, but I mostly really enjoy it. Little breakthroughs like this, though, are when I really love it and I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

In case your brain needs to know, here are a couple of links to dict.cc for translations:



My favorite TV show at the moment is The Great British Bake-Off. It’s a celebration of home baking, a celebration of tradition, and a celebration of Britishness. Only, well, it isn’t. It’s presented as something that is uniquely or quintessentially British, but aside from the people who are actually in the show, there’s nothing in it that is particularly British. And in many cases, quite the reverse.

In the first episode of this series, the contestants were asked to produce a showstopping version of a British classic from the 1970s – the kitsch classic Black Forest Gateau. Surely anybody who grew up in Britain (me included) recognizes Black Forest Gateau as a cake that is classic British cuisine, which is bizarre given that (as Christian points out), it’s very much a German cake.

This led to more discussion on the use of the word British tacked on to seemingly everything to give things an air of respectability or superiority. So at the supermarket, we’re presented with The Great British Sausage to cook on the Great British Barbecue, which would normally happen in the middle of the British Summer. Like what should simply be the Great Bake-Off, there is nothing inherently British about any of these things, but it seems that in Britain, unless you can stick “The Great British…” in front of something, that thing is worthless.

What caught my curiosity was that until Christian pointed it out I had never noticed it. Now, of course, it irritates the hell out of me, but before that I didn’t even realize it was there. Even curiouser, I didn’t notice that the British do it despite the fact that after moving to Australia I noticed instantly that people in Australia do the exact same thing and it annoys me intensely. It’s alienating and screams of this awful superiority complex that nationalism encourages.

Politicians talk about all Australians (but never all people), the post office is branded Australia Post, the supermarket Woolworths changed its slogan in 2012 from simply The Fresh Food People to Australia’s Fresh Food People. And I noticed all of this, and still thought that we didn’t do that in Britain.

It’s related, I think, to banal nationalism, but it’s not exactly the same thing. During the discussion, Matthew Smith coined the word jingonym – a portmanteau of jingoism and demonym, and I think that captures the concept perfectly. Demonyms that are added to things to assert some national superiority. There’s nothing British about summer in Britain any more than there is anything French about summer in France. The weather isn’t somehow warmer because it’s British, there’s not somehow less chance of rain in June because of Britain. It’s absurd, yet we do it without noticing.

It’s not exclusive to Britain – as I mentioned Australians do it, and Americans are notorious for it – my example here would be the Americans With Disabilities Act – a very important piece of legislation, but one whose name exerts the importance of it being applied to American people only. But I wonder if it is exclusive to the English language (surely not, but I can’t be sure) – another tweet from Christian points out that there’s certainly no such thing as the Great German Summer.

What do we do? Stop attributing value to a nation for the sake of it? I think we should do that, but that’s a hard sell. But I think it could be worth it – let’s try to enjoy things whether they’re Great and British or delicious and from Baden-Württemberg, masquerading as 70s British kitsch.

The language of love

There’s a guy in my life. We sit next to each other and watch TV. We share a house, share a bed. We share some of our money. We’re invited to parties together. Sometimes we fuck.  We report each other’s incomes on our tax returns. We reported every last detail of our relationship to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship so that I could come and live here.

But I don’t know what to call him.

It’s a strange thing, not having a go-to word for that person; I think it comes from a few places:

Heteronormativity means that unless I make it explicitly clear, most of society will assume that the person I’m talking about is a woman. Sometimes this will be because, well, society just assumes people are straight, but bizarrely this will often be out of some strange, misguided ‘politeness’ where, based on gay stereotypes, they’ll assume I’m gay but pretend to assume my [whatever we want to call them] is a woman so as not to offend me.

(To be clear: this offends me.)

Internalised homophobia contributes to this dilemma in a huge way too. And it is, in a way, working with heteronormativity but in the opposite direction. Not always, but sometimes, I feel the desire to hide, and to keep the gender of him as ambiguous as possible. It’s absurd, and as I’ve discussed before I’m very much “out”, and it is a very rare thing that I feel a need to actually hide my sexual orientation out of fears for personal safety etc.

Put these two things together, and combine them with a desire for honesty as well as warmth, and I’m left with essentially zero good choices for what that guy actually is.

Partner is the one people like to use to sound inoffensive, and whilst it doesn’t necessarily offend me, it does make me want to vomit. It’s so sterile and bland, makes our relationship sound like a business arrangement, transactional. It is totally unrepresentative of a relationship based on love and mutual admiration.

Lover. Fuck off.

Spouse crops up on forms and official documents. The Immigration Department uses spouse and I don’t like it at all. Partly because it’s incorrect (yes, de facto spouse is correct I suppose, Border Force), but we’re not married, we have decided not to get married, and we don’t like the idea of marriage. Our relationship looks a little bit like a marriage, at least from the outside, but that is certainly not what it is. (I also really dislike the word, aesthetically.)

Husband is a word I sometimes use to piss people off, but mostly I don’t like it. Again, it’s too marriagey for my taste, and if I’m honest it makes me feel subordinate.

I sometimes use Other Half but I don’t like it all that much. It implies that people are not complete unless they’re in a relationship (and note the “half” – it could never be “he’s one of my other thirds”, which is another reason – even though I personally am not polyamorous – I dislike it). It’s slightly better than Better Half though, which makes me see red.

Related is Significant Other, which I suppose isn’t too bad, but it feels a bit glib. He’s more than just “significant”, but like other half, I feel it does downplay the significance of myself in my own life.

I used to dislike Boyfriend intensely. It seemed okay for young people, or people who hadn’t been in the relationship for a very long time, but for a co-habiting couple in a stable, long-term relationship, it always sounded a little immature. My feelings on that have changed a little now. Using boyfriend feels like a rejection of societal norms. It feels like an acknowledgement that marriage is not some ideal or a goal to aim for. And I like that it pisses some people off or confuses them (as I’ve said before, I’m over caring whether people are confused or not).

Still I don’t call him my boyfriend nearly as often as I’d like. Maybe it’s a feeling that I ought to hide something about him, maybe it’s a desire to be taken seriously. It’s all indicative of an urgent need to unlearn all this rubbish that surrounds relationships and society’s ideals when it comes to talking about them. But I’m working on it.

I’d be interested to know what words you like, dislike, use and avoid. Let me know in the comments or in a tweet!

Something for the weekend: Idiom

This week I decided to go back to school. Not full time or anything like that, but a twice-weekly evening class to improve my German. I learnt German at high school and started a university course in German (why I didn’t finish it is a whole other story), but I haven’t spoken German in about ten years, so I have forgotten a lot. Coupled with my never-ending difficulty in meeting new people, my frustration at no longer having any real fluency in a language I love inspired me to take some action.

I have taken the placement test, and term starts next month. It’s a little bit exciting, but a certain apprehension last night:

Idioms are phrases or expressions that have figurative meanings, and they’re usually specific to the source language, that is translated word-for-word into another language leaves the phrase either meaningless or (perhaps worse) with a literal meaning that is something other than intended. An example in English is I’ve got butterflies in my stomach. To a native English speaker the meaning is clear: it means you’re nervous or anxious, but what it doesn’t mean is that you actually have butterflies in your belly. And translated into most other languages the meaning is unclear: you have to use a phrase with a different literal meaning to convey the same figurative meaning. In Chinese, for example, you would say that your heart is beating as hard as a deer bumping into a tree. Perhaps you could guess the meaning, but it doesn’t really make sense. One of the most curious things about idioms is that often, as a native speaker, you don’t notice them until you start learning another language, or someone who is not a native speaker points them out. And oftentimes they are very difficult to explain. Christian asked:

The meaning of love child is wrapped up in culture and subtlety, almost irony, and it’s very hard to convey the exact meaning of the phrase. Wiktionary defines it as a child born as a result of a romantic liaison between unmarried partners, but the phrase itself is supposed to draw attention to the infidelity: the essence of the phrase is difficult to translate, or even to explain in English. The fascinating topic of idiom was expanded on last night in a discussion with Dave, who studies Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and should soon be an interpreter. I asked

And the answer was basically some do, some don’t and yes. For instance I was able to make a good guess of how to sign it went over my head (meaning it was too confusing for me to understand or often used to indicate that what was just said appeared to be an in-joke that the speaker was not in on), but Dave explained that there are examples of phrases that are idiomatic in English and Auslan, but rely on different figurative language:

In short, idioms fascinate me, and the best way, I think, to discuss them is just to give examples and to explore them. But back to my original worry. Ich bin nicht von gestern might be translated for the Australian learner as I didn’t come down in the last shower. And as a boy from urban Yorkshire, neither one of those phrases is part of my native tongue!

Marriage Terminology

Since this debate on marriage and same-sex couples isn’t going away any time soon, I expect in the coming year or so I’ll be writing a fair bit about it. There isn’t a particular term I stick with when talking about it, which I understand can be confusing. But here are my thoughts on some of the more common terms used when discussing this matter.

I should mention that I don’t think any of them is ideal, which is perhaps why I chop and change, and switch about when writing. Sometimes I deliberately use one or another, but really they’re all pretty crap.

Marriage equality / equal marriage

I’ll start with the “big” one, and the one which seems to have been adopted as the “right” one. I hate it. I hate hate hate it. Not that I’m opposed to equality, of course (although I should say here that since I learned about the concept of liberation I’ve been forever giving equality activists massive side-eye), but because mostly proponents of changes to marriage legislation don’t actually advocate equality; rather just an extension of privilege.

Many view forms of marriage that include same-sex couples, but exclude trans people as unproblematic. That’s not equality. Many advocate restricting marriage to gender-binary people, and that’s not equality either. Almost all are happy restricting marriage to monogamous couples. Again, not equality. Most completely reject the notion that marriage itself is an institution based on inequality, both within a marriage, and as part of a society that affords privileges to married people that are not afforded to unmarried people. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s how we’ve decided to run our society. Maybe it’s the only administrative solution to society circa 2015. All of that may be true, but it’s not equality.

I hardly use the term marriage equality (except in tags!), and it infuriates me when people use it blindly as though equality is something that can be achieved very easily with these sort of band-aid solutions, ignoring all the inequality and injustice that is ignored or even caused by marriage and extending marriage.

Equality is not brought about just by saying the word.

Gay marriage

Gay marriage is so problematic, but it’s the one I tend to use most, and perhaps for that reason. It’s a term that doesn’t pretend to be inclusive, or equal, or fully descriptive. That said, I don’t really like the way it aligns itself so neatly with the very real idea that gay marriage activism is almost exclusively in the realm of middle-class gay white cis men.

The term is becoming ever less acceptable, and I think (hope!) that reflects a growing realization that not all (and in fact most) people who are not heterosexual are not gay. A marriage between two bisexual women, for instance, would not accurately be described as a “gay marriage”. Neither would a marriage between, say, a heterosexual trans man (whose legally registered gender was inaccurate) and a cis woman, even though current marriage legislation excludes them.

The term excludes so many people, but it knows it does. Perhaps I shouldn’t use it, but I do – not because I think it’s in any way adequate, but because in a group of terms that are all inadequate, this one is the most inadequate.

Same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage is a term that feels so clinical to me and I don’t really like it. Perhaps it’s the most accurate, but similar to what I mentioned above, it relies heavily on cis, binary norms. It’s exclusionary, but selectively so. Many relationships that are excluded from marriage now, but would be included in any proposed changes to the Marriage Act are not “same sex” relationships. And more so than gay marriage this is a term that people use to sneakily exclude people – and as usual it’s the people who most need inclusivity.

Marriage. Just marriage.

One day, perhaps, we’ll have marriage that includes everyone, and a society where unmarried people are not discriminated against. One day we will be able to talk about marriage, and not have to specify that we’re not just talking about marriage between cishet two-people couples. One day there won’t be a distinction between man-woman marriages and other types of marriage. Unfortunately today is not that day. Where inequality exists, we have to be able to name it, but while inequality exists we can’t just say marriage without a qualifier and be understood.

Language is wholly inadequate when discussing inequality, and especially when trying to reconcile the way people actually live with an institution associated with tradition, bigotry and administration. I can’t think of any term that is adequate for talking about extending marriage to all relationships that doesn’t exclude people or lie about its intentions in some way.