Adventures In German Language

JohnnyO once discussed his ‘Wheels On The Bus’ iphone app that allows the user (his daughter, in his case) to play back the song in a number of different languages. All is good until you get to the German version, where the singer is breathlessly rushing to keep up with the music— such is the syllabic elephantiasis of the language that ‘Wheels On The Bus’ doesn’t fit into the allotted space.

I think of this story every time I toggle between the English and German versions of Craigslist Berlin. Seriously, the German version has the exact same content and is a third wider:

Just imagine if they started a section for the services of Eisenbahnknotenpunkthinundherschieber (railroad switchmen). That could push the total page width beyond 1200 pixels.

I have yet to actually do any significant design work in German language. But Czech language never failed to foil me with its diacritics (the little hats and angles worn by various letters). First of all, many fonts don’t include the characters; also, you can’t tightly pack lines of text vertically, because the stupid special characters bump into the letters above them. And, to my dismay, I quickly learned that you can’t just kinda sorta maybe get away with leaving out the accent— it would be like substituting in an entirely different letter. I’m sure that German will present its own share of bedeviling lines-that-don’t-wrap-because-one-word-is-too-long and dual English/German language layouts where the two text blocks aren’t remotely the same length. Until my proposal for a glorious Simplified International English language takes hold and renders other languages obsolete, that is. Details to follow…

See also: Mysteries of Czech Language

Mysteries of Czech Language: Diminutive Fever

Though I’ve left the Czech Republic for Germany, I feel obliged to keep up America’s favorite ongoing blog series, The Mysteries of Czech Language.

Czech language has a built-in structure where you can form diminutives from just about anything. A waitress at our favorite Prague restaurant seemed to have a nervous disorder that compelled her to use them constantly and ask me things like if I want ‘another little beer-y-poo.’ But the system of forming diminutives is applied most exhaustingly to children’s names: Zuzanna becomes Zuzka becomes Zuzinka and so on.

One couple we know had a daughter and named her Justina (like Justine, but the Ju sounds like ‘You’). Via the diminutive system, she’s most frequently called Justinka, like ‘you-STINK-a’. It’s almost impossible for me not to laugh every time I hear this. I try to keep a broad mind and remember that it sounds perfectly acceptable (a touch exotic, even) in Czech. But it just sounds like a corny set-up for one of those old ethnic humor shows, like Life With Luigi:

Hey-a. I come to America and everyone says, ‘Hey… you stink-a! And I say, ‘No, it’s-a not me. It’s my baby.’ And everyone says, ‘Oh, what a poor baby. She’s such a pretty girl. What’s her name-a?’ And I says-a-to-them ‘Justinka’. And they get angry and a-punch me in the cucalabanga! Hey-a!

While we’re here: my friend recently posted photos from his vacation to a small town in the Czech Republic, Lazy. He reports that there is also Horni Lazy nearby (Horni = high).

And: there is a phrase in Czech that sounds exactly like this: ‘FUCK YO?!’ It means, ‘Oh, really?’ and Czechs say it all the time. Just so you’re forewarned.

One Nose Horn

One of those semi-incriminating cached searches that come up on your iPhone when you don’t have a good alibi ready:

Along similar lines, I wonder if the mysteries of Czech language point towards a secret unholy marriage between rhinoceroses and unicorns:

Rhinoceros = nosorožec, meaning ‘Nose horn’

Rhinoceros visual aid:

Unicorn: jednorožec, meaning ‘One horn’

Is the rhinoceros the husband? And what would a jednonosorožec look like?

Cognitive Dissonance

Two things I’m finding confusing right now:

1. Taste dissonance: grapes and raisins. Given that grapes and raisins are practically the same thing, you would expect their tastes to be complementary. So why is the experience of eating one and then the other in rapid succession so unappetizing? Try it for yourself– it’s surprisingly bad.

2. Not-so-fundamental nature of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. The Fundamental Attribution Error is super cool-sounding. But the phenomenon it describes isn’t really all that fundamental: basically, if you step in poop, I’m likely to assume that it happened because you’re the kind of person who steps in poop, whereas if I do it, I’m likely to assume that its because the poop was poorly placed. This reflects an interesting bias, but it’s not like the phenomenon crops up all that often.

To me, it seems to me that ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ would better describe the phenomenon where somebody mistakes a symptom of a situation for its cause. For example: lots of people are having accidents, and there are lots of ambulances on the streets– therefore, the ambulances must be causing the accidents. This comes up more often than the step-in-poop phenomenon described above, if you ask me.

I wonder if people who work in various fields of social science are secretly miffed that ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ got scooped up and used before they had a chance to claim it for whatever mistake-tendency they happen to be researching.

(Image: Josef Muller-Brockmann poster designed for public service campaign against noise pollution. Actually has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance, but works nicely together so long as you don’t speak German).

Blog Fight Song, pt. 3

Film director Elia Kazan, from an unpublished letter to Tennesse Williams. Kazan is asking Williams to add a speech in praise of bohemianism to his liberal-leaning script for “Camino Real”:

A dying race call them what you will: romantics, eccentrics, rebels, Bohemians, freaks, harum-scarum, bob-tail, Punchinellos, odd-ducks, the out-of-steps, the queers, double-gated, lechers, secret livers, dreamers, left-handed pitchers, defrocked bishops … the artists, the near artists, the would-be artists, the wanderers, the would-be wanderers, the secret wanderers, the foggy-minded, the asleep on the job, the loafers, the out-and-out hobos, the down and out, the grifters and drifters, the winos and boozers, the old maids who don’t venture to the other side of their windows, the good for nothings, the unfenceables, the rebels inside, the rebels manifest.

See also: Blog Fight Song parts one and two.

Photo: Paul Gaugin being ‘bohemian’.

Tough Choices

  • It also kind of looks like a martini.
  • This question had been haunting me for years– thanks, Internet.

  • Amidst all the proposals being floated around to balance the budget and save the US from crippling long-term debt (i.e. raising the retirement age and so forth), what about simply abolishing the Postal Service? It wouldn’t solve the problem by itself, but it is poised to lose 238 billion over the next decade.  There would still need to be some kind of parcel service, but just about every piece of mail could be delivered electronically if we put our minds to it.
  • I’m sure everyone has ‘friends’ on Facebook that stretch the traditionally-understood definition of friendship– i.e. people you hardly know (or maybe don’t know at all) and have little interaction with. I was considering which of my Facebook ‘friendships’ is the most tenuous and decided it’s a tie between (a) a former student of mine who unfortunately is deceased (her profile remains active as a sort of memorial) and (b) a guy I’ve never met but whose bed I’ve slept in at least three times. It would be more appropriate if I was friends with the bed.

Life's gay paegent

Favorite new Czech word: Zázrak. Means ‘miracle’. I can’t tell you how much enjoyment I’m getting out of this one. The next time something mildly surprising or fortunate happens, lift one hand, say ‘ZAAAAAZ-RAK!’ with great zest and make a face like Doug Henning (above). If you’re in a public place, just say it under your breath and only go half-Henning. I guarantee you’ll enjoy yourself in either case.

Favorite new air travel horror story: the Daily News article that TK posted about a flight where someone brought raw meat onboard and the passengers wound up being sprinkled by maggots falling out of the overhead luggage containers. Aside from the basic mind-altering, horrifying parameters of the story, a few other notable things here: as TK mentions, the fact that the Daily News story absurdly includes a generic stock photo of maggots not related to the ones on the flight just to get the point across; second, the detail that horrified passengers complained to the flight crew and were robotically asked to ‘please take your seats and remain calm’– I love this. My friend is flying from Mexico City to Prague next week and is terrified of flying– I can’t wait to run this scenario by him.

Favorite spring/summer holiday calendar: Czech Republic’s, naturally. First, let me introduce you to something called ‘Easter Monday’– it’s just like Easter Sunday, but you get a day off work. Second, there’s a weirdo configuration where we get May 1st and May 8th off for separate holidays– as these are exactly a week apart, you wind up sort of inadvertantly re-living the same holiday a second time through one week later.

But, best of all, thanks to Saints Cyril and Methodius, a FOUR day weekend around the 4th of July. This meant I had enough time for a proper weekend of oozing around Prague in blasting heat and watching World Cup in beer gardens, followed by a second separate weekend, as it were, at a friend’s cottage, enjoying family fun time and village idyl stuff.

Czech product marketing update

My father was visiting last week. It took his discerning eye to draw our attention to the name of our current toilet paper brand, which I hadn’t noticed before:

Happyend, a German brand. No word yet on the specific terms of this guarantee.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clean has become Mr. Proper:

Same guy, but over here his fastidious nature extends to moral issues as well.

For more fun in this vein, see Sick/Barf.