Monday, June 1, 2009

Cheating Example 3: Dein Reich komme, dein Wille geschehe

Cross-posted from my own blog examining part of this article on British gulags in Kenya. This is cheating slightly as I do speak German, but this is an all too common pitfall, and using my experiences with one foreign language to apply principles to others is going to be a fundamental part of this blog.
Yet in Britain today, there is a blood-encrusted blank spot about Empire. On the reality show The Apprentice, the contestants recently had to pick a name for their team, and they said they weanted “something that represented the best of British” – so they settled on “Empire.” Nobody objected. Imagine young Germans blithely naming a team “Reich”: it’s unthinkable, because they have had to study what their fathers and grandfathers did, and expunge these barbarous instincts from their national DNA.
Hari is right that no German team would call themselves 'Reich'. But the main reason for this is that it sounds rubbish in German, as Germans are not nearly as prone to snappy names and titles. In fact, when Germans translate Hollywood film titles, they often have the full English title, with a lengthy German subtitle, for example 'Der Fluch: The Grudge'.

And he's made a typical anglophone mistake with this German word. The word 'Reich' is not quite so appalling to German speakers as it is to English speakers with German A-Level. For a start, 'reich' also means 'rich', so "Die Reichen" might be just the sort of thing a group of German yuppie twats would call themselves. Secondly, the word 'Reich' has a lot of variants. In second year at Uni, I got corrected for my use of the phrase "das Zweite Reich" - the second Reich. It's called the 'Kaiserreich' in German. As you might expect, only the Nazis numbered their predecessors one and two. Also, if you scroll down to the bottom of the list, you'll see us: 'Vereinigtes Königreich' - United King-reich. What you don't see on that list is our 'Weltreich' - the World-reich on which the sun never set. You even had the öster-reich-isches Kaiser-reich until 1918. And although 'Reich' does have slightly negative connotations, these are not so clear cut. Germans can't just refer to 'das Reich' in history as, as everyone who's ever picked up a history book knows, they've had three.

This is quite a common problem with lendwords. Germans have it too - whereas we have one word 'network', they have the German word 'das Netzwerk' and the fashionable slice of irritating business jargon 'das Network'. The latter refers solely to the irritatingly fashionable business practice of 'networking', meaning Germans can say just 'Ich habe ein gutes Network' where an English speaker might have to clarify, or use an alternative such as 'contacts' or 'connections'. This goes both ways, but with the weight of history's most hated regime on its shoulders. I remember an American colleague of mine, before I moved to Germany, wondering how the 'Deutsche Volksbank' could even consider using such a Nazi word as 'Volk' in their name. All I could say was that for Germans, the word is as normal as 'the people', and even more so, since they use it where we would use 'folk', for example 'Volksmusik'. And it's all part of our silly practice of taking German words from one specific era, using them solely in that context until they become short-hand for its ideology (often adding umlauts for good measure), then assuming we can just plug them back into German and they'll mean the same thing. And of course, until you've heard, read, written and spoken the word 'Reich' and its variants a few dozen times in German-language contexts, you won't even notice yourself doing it.

However, what's also interesting is the linguistic relationship between 'Reich' and 'Raj'. So he's not quite so out in the end perhaps. But how do we know Hari was talking out of his arse with that 'Reich' comparison?

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