Thursday, April 02, 2009


Myths about Germany

I’m looking forward to my usual square dance trip to Germany in May, and as I think about it, and as I look for some light blogging, I thought I might talk about a few myths about Germany that seem to be common (certainly not universal, of course) belief in the U.S.

Myth 1: They always put the verb at the end of the sentence.

German verbs are sometimes put at the end of the sentence, but not always. It depends upon the construction of the particular sentence. For example, to say, “I’m going to the bank,” you’d say “Ich gehe zur Bank”, which, literally translated, says, “I go to the bank.”[1] If you then ask my friend if he’s going with me, you might say, “Gehst du mit?”, using the separable verb mitgehen. The verbs certainly aren’t at the ends of the sentences here.

But you might say, “Möchten Sie zur Bank gehen?”, meaning “Do you want to go to the bank?” But the literal translation of that would be “Do you want to the bank to go?” Here, the verb is at the end of the sentence.

So, it depends.

Myth 2: Their words are so long because they tack all the adjectives onto the word.

Not the adjectives, but the attributive nouns — nouns that are used to modify other nouns.

So, a small, red room is “ein kleiner roter Raum”. Nice, short words. On the other hand, a heating-oil storage room — note all those attributive nouns — is “ein Heizöllagerraum”, and the word length starts to build.

So, yes, it’s true that many of their words are long; not because of the adjectives, but because of the attributive nouns. I once saw a package of sanitizing bathroom cleaner, where the word for what it was had to wrap all the way around the box because it was too long to fit on one side.

What is also true is that they use these umlauts that make their words nearly unpronounceable to most Americans.

Myth 3: They don’t have any speed limits on the roads over there!

There most certainly are speed limits on most of the roads. It’s only the Autobahn — the equivalent to the U.S. Interstate highway system, and the Motorways in the U.K. — that eschew speed limits, and only on the parts of those that are well away from busy areas.

As you approach population centers on the Autobahn, you’ll see signs slowing you down, first to 130kph (about 80mph), then to 100kph (60mph or so), and then perhaps to 80 (50). And you leave the busy area, the limits will be staged up again, until you see the sign you’re looking for: the speed limit number (or sometimes just a blank circle) with a gray slash across it. That means you’re on a section with no speed limit, and you can stand on the accelerator if you like.

Many a time, my host would be speeding along in the left lane, passing slow-pokes who were crawling to our right... and I’d realize that those “slow-pokes” were “crawling” at 85 miles per hour, and that we were doing 110mph or so. Not something we Americans are used to.

Also, not only do they have speed limits, but they’re enforced with randomly placed speed cameras. You’re never sure where they’ll turn up until you notice the tell-tale tiny red flash. By that time, it’s too late, and you’ll most likely get a speeding ticket in the mail soon (unless the camera’s memory is full; you can hope), resulting in a fine or suspension of your license, depending upon your driving record. Just like here.

Myth 4: You must get out of the way of other drivers or it’s your fault.

The way this is usually posed is that if you’re on the Autobahn and you’re in the left lane, and someone zooms up behind you, he can just plough into you and the collision will be considered your fault, not his.

This is, of course, stupidly silly. There may be countries where that’s the way they actually drive, law or not, but Germany isn’t one of them. People will certainly be annoyed with you if you drive “slowly” in the left lane (see above for the discussion of what “slowly” might mean), and the law does say you have to move over to let them pass (you can indeed be fined for moseying along in the left lane). But, no, get real: they’re not allowed to crash your car with impunity. Quite the opposite, someone going more than 130kph who is involved in a collision will likely be considered at least partially responsible. You can drive fast, but you have to be careful.

[1] English is rather strange, in that we don’t use the simple present tense (“I go”) to talk about what’s happening in the present. Instead, we use the present progressive (“I am going”) for that, and “I go” is used in sentences like “I go to the store twice a week,” and “I go to that school over there.” In that, English differs from most European languages, which is why foreign speakers are likely to ask things like, “What do you eat?”, when they mean, “What are you eating [now]?”, and they’re puzzled when the answer they get is, “Pretty much anything except liver and anchovies.”