Thursday, 12 September 2019

Hamburg 4

View of the Elbe from the Altonaer Balkon

Stuhlmannbrunnen, Altona

It's not much of a boast to say that I speak better German than most of the British population. After all, most of the British population don't speak any German. Or, increasingly, any foreign language at all; the requirement for state schools to teach one foreign language to GCSE level was removed some years ago, with the inevitable consequences. German was never widely taught to start with, and it is estimated that teaching has declined by 64% since 2000.

However, it is true that my German is quite good, having studied the language to A-level, and handled German books most of my working life. That "quite good" is not false modesty: until relatively recently I had not visited a German-speaking country for decades, so lack the sort of everyday fluency that can only be acquired by, say, trying to find a universal plug for your hotel bathroom sink in a department store. I'm sure I must sound like a memory-impaired dotard who has been locked in a library for 30 years (not an unfair description, now I think of it): not so much Kaspar Hauser as Kaspar Bibliothekar. Nonetheless, I am able to say, with a surprising degree of conviction, "I am in need of one of those whatsits that makes the water remain in the sink, but of uncertain dimensions, please, Miss". My accent, I'm told, is quite posh, which must be doubly unsettling.

I was lucky enough to be taught by a brilliant man, one Dr. Arthur Splett, who had studied at Downing College, Cambridge in the days when F.R. Leavis held sway there. Known to all pupils as "Arfur" or "Doc", and for some reason widely (yet falsely) assumed to be gay, he was a fine example of a breed of teachers that may have died out with the state grammar schools: an engaged scholar of his subject, a profoundly cultivated man, uncompromising in his standards, yet caring deeply about the education of unlettered New Town oiks like me. I wouldn't say I was his star pupil – that honour went to another Mike, the extraordinary M.A. Rogers, son of a local vicar [1] – but I like to think I made an impression. I know he was disappointed when I chose to study English at Oxford, and not German at Cambridge.


Durchschnitt, Rotherbaum

Despite this excellent preparation, I always seem to be ending up in parts of the German-speaking world where the local accent or dialect is verging on the impenetrable. Most recently in Austria, Berlin, and now Hamburg. I mean, it's quite a stretch from the conventional Hochdeutsch "guten Morgen!" to the Hamburg Plattdeutsch equivalent, "Moin Moin!" I suppose it's the equivalent of an English-speaking German ending up in Newcastle or Glasgow, with the rather significant difference that the locals there won't immediately and cheerfully switch into fluent German in response to your first blank and baffled look. It's no wonder Brits and Americans feel no pressure to learn foreign languages: it can sometimes seem as if English is the universal substratum of all languages, a rich seam of common understanding into which all foreigners can delve, if only they have the sense and good manners to take the trouble. A foreigner who insists on speaking in Foreign is therefore – by definition, to this way of thinking – simply a rude, ignorant bastard. After all, what language is the Bible written in?

As a linguistically-curious person I'm in the habit, when abroad, of always carrying a small dictionary with me. There's always some new word, or some important ambiguity to resolve, especially in the sort of dense officialese employed on crucial things like railway timetables or, most crucially of all, restaurant menus. Not that most small dictionaries are much help with the latter. One particularly delicious meal I had was a Hamburger Pannfisch ("Hamburg-style fish-fry") which included Rotbarsch ("red rough"), Seelachs ("sea salmon"), and Meerzunge ("sea tongue") [2]. None of which were in the dictionary but, hey, in for a fishy pfennig... I also enjoyed myself in the Zoologisches Museum, figuring out the German names for various creatures: I was particularly taken by Siebenschläfer ("seven sleeper" a.k.a. the Dormouse) and Saatkrähe ("seed crow" i.e. the Rook) [3].

But, as it happens, my main linguistic takeaway from my brief stay in Hamburg was the word Kiez or Kietz, which seemed to be cropping up everywhere, but which also didn't figure in my dictionary. There were posters for things like Klassik in deinem Kiez ("classical music in your Kiez"), a radio station called Kiez 1, and even a kebab joint called Kiez-Döner. I began to suspect it was some new, all-purpose word for "good". When I eventually looked it up on the Web, however, it turned out to be a northern German word meaning something like "neighbourhood" or, if one wanted a British slang equivalent, "patch" or "manor". But THE neighbourhood, from a Hamburg perspective, is always the red-light and night-life district centred around the Reeperbahn. Alles klar!

Reeperbahn hoarding

View of the "Warehouse District" and Elbphilharmonie concert hall

1. To my surprise, Mike Rogers turned out to be a lecturer in German at Southampton University when I arrived at the library there in 1984.
2. These turned out to be Red Perch, Pollock, and Sole... All very tasty.
3. An observation: bird-life seems awfully scarce in Hamburg. Apart from the odd pigeon or crow, and a single Jay, I saw hardly any birds, even in the park-like areas. Certainly there were none of the urban flocks of sparrows or starlings you'd expect in Britain. OTOH, I was delighted to see Red Squirrels in the tree outside my hotel window. I don't think there's a connection...


Unknown said...

Thanks Mike, for the kind words that you said about my late father Dr Arthur Splett, I did not really know him as he past away when I was 4 years old, back in 88,so I was surprised to see your message and learn a little more about him... David Arthur John Splett.

Mike C. said...

Hi David,

If you'd like to contact me privately (email in "View My Complete Profile" top right) I can perhaps shed a little more light, and there are one or two things you may be able to clarify for me. If you don't want to, that's fine!

Best wishes,