It’s been a while since I’ve posted any reflections on the German language. There is one in particular I’ve been considering the last few days. Recently I began reading a wonderful book by Stephen Pinker, The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. The book is delightful, even for those like me not normally accustomed to reading what is essentially a style guide. Pinker is a Harvard psychology professor, and in The Sense of Style Pinker breaks down the cognitive processes that readers engage when reading text. Good writers structure sentences, paragraphs, and larger textual units in ways that aid comprehension. Conversely, bad writers frequently abuse the cognitive processes of the reader, steering the reader away from the author’s intended meaning. Reading The Sense of Style makes me want to write more.
I bring up Pinker’s book here because of a particular quirk in German writing that poses unique challenges to native English readers like me. Simple German sentences are structured much like their English counterparts: the verb immediately follows the subject (e.g. Ich liebe dich: “I love you.”). However, sometimes one doesn’t find the controlling verb until the end of the sentence. Here’s an example I found online:
Sie kann sehr gut Deutsch sprechen.
“She can speak very good German.”
The infinitive sprechen, “to speak,” appears at the end of the sentence. This sentence is pretty straightforward, but things get quite confusing when one encounters a sentence with numerous objects and subordinate clauses. German sentences can get quite long and convoluted. When I try to read one of these sentences I often find myself skipping to the end of the sentence first to figure out the verb before returning to the preceding text.
So here is what I’m wondering: when a native German reader reads a long sentence with an infinitive form at the end (as above), does the reader typically hold all of the preceding text in mind (direct and indirect objects, subordinate clauses, etc.) and then put everything together when reaching the ending infinitive, or is it more common for readers to glance at the end of the sentence to locate the infinitive form first, and then go back to read the preceding text? I’m interested in the actual process that German readers employ when they confront an ending verbal form. And one further question for my blog readers familiar with good German writing: is it ever the case that a German author might write a sentence that ends with an unexpected verb, as if the sentence is leading the reader’s expectations toward an obvious conclusion only to have that conclusion subverted by the author’s choice of the final word in the sentence? In short, I’m wondering how Pinker’s description of the internal process of reading might relate to effective writing and reading of the German language.
My thoughts about the German language are not a mere sidebar to today’s blog post. The word of the day, übersetzen, is the German verb, “to translate.” I chose this word because it seemed to me a good reflection of what will be my most memorable takeaway from Wartburg Castle. The castle dates from the 11th century and is best known as the site where Luther fled in 1521 to escape arrest after being declared an outlaw at the Diet of Worms. Luther spent ten months translating the New Testament into German at the Castle. The room where Luther worked has been preserved. On the desk in the room (probably not original) sits a copy of Luther’s German New Testament (also probably not original).
It was a thrill to savor, even just for a moment, the space that played such an important role in the history of western Christianity. Aside from the room, the castle itself is quite a spectacle. The original castle fell into a grave state of disrepair by the end of the 18th century but was substantially renovated during the first half of the 19th century. Much of what one can see at the castle today is “only” about two hundred years old, though some older parts do remain. The Allied forces bombed Eisenach during World War II but spared the castle. During the GDR era Wartburg was an important national monument that attracted tourists from around the world. Our tour guide told me that the crowds today (which number over 400,000 per year) are consistent with attendance at the site prior to German reunification.
Eisenach and Wartburg were fabulous. I hope to go back and spend more time there in the future. We are back in Leipzig now and will be so for the next few weeks. I’ll leave you with this lovely view of Eisenach from the Castle grounds.