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The World | DISPATCH FROM BERLIN

All They Are Saying Is Give Frieden a Chance

August 10, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The languages of Europe are supple: the musical playfulness of Italian, the nasal sensuality of French, the pitter-patter of Portuguese. And then there's the harsh, infinite knot of vowels and consonants that inspired the Mark Twain screed "The Awful German Language."

But German is the tongue of Goethe and Thomas Mann. There is poetry. Verbal splendor hides amid syllables jammed like train cars on a cluttered track.

To prove it, the Deutscher Sprachrat, or German Language Council, is riffling through 22,000 entries in an international competition to find the most beautiful German word. (Oxymoron is not German.)

"We're getting people to think about the beauty of the German language," said Rolf Peter, a competition organizer. "By choosing words to [nominate], people are confronted with the richness of the language.... For too long, the impression of German has not been positive."

Entrants -- 30% are from foreign countries -- submitted words and described why they resonate. Judges, including writers, a singer, a film director and a soccer coach, will announce the winner in October.

Syntax is weighed, inflections calculated, meanings pondered -- especially when two or three small words merge to form one big one such as vergissmeinnicht, which means forget-me-not.

"German words can be like Lego blocks," Peter said.

Some entries rattle forth in a brawl of consonants. Others force lips into odd contortions: galanteriewarengeschaeft, a clothing accessories shop, or ohrwurm, a melody you can't get out of your head, or geheimrats- ecken, which may be the only word that sounds worse than its meaning: receding hairline.

German also has a bit of lilt in its lexicon. Liebe means love, schnee is snow and schluessel is key. These words float unmuddled, like a puff of winter air.

"Such a competition is a bit questionable from a linguistic point of view," said Rudolf Hoberg, chairman of the German Language Society and a contest judge. "There are no criteria. What is a beautiful word? People may pick a word because of its sound, its meaning or even because they mix up a word and a thing. It's going to be interesting to find out what animates people."

Consider kartoffelpuffer, or potato pancake. One contestant wrote that the smell of kartoffelpuffer conjures up childhood memories of a kitchen full of guests. A World War II survivor chose frieden, or peace, as his favorite word.

One entrant offered feierabend, which means leisure time after a hard day's work. "It is always said," the entry reads, "that we Germans are too serious, but this word shows that we can see things in a relaxed way."

Foreign contestants chose words for which their native tongues have no expression. The Spanish like the word fernweh, the desire to travel abroad. Dutch women are partial to dauerwelle, hair perm. And who but Beethoven and his 9th Symphony could ignite goetterfunken, the "spark of God," from a chorus?

But even the most devout Teutonic wordsmith would have to agree that the Italian expression for "excuse me," mi scuzi, is more endearing than the German entschuldigung.

Twain was no Teutonic devotee. German baffled, confused, mystified and angered him. Germans split verbs. They put verbs at the end of sentences. Then there's gender, with words masculine, feminine or neutral.

"In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a woman is a female; but a wife (weib) is not -- which is unfortunate. A wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither," Twain wrote. "To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse."

Weib has grown dated, and its replacement, frau, Germans are happy to report, is feminine.

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