I might tell you that I speak German, but I won’t say that I’m fluent. I can read a newspaper article and hold a conversation on your day, the weather, your opinion on Angela Merkel. But a bureaucratic form or a passage from Schiller will stymie me. I moved to Berlin having only taken German 101 and 102, and so I can also never tell you when I’m using a modal verb or the Präteritum, the simple past tense. I first learned German while living there, mainly from parties and conversations with stoned flatmates, an internship at a magazine where I cold-called business owners and mostly got shouted at. But I would not call myself fluent. I can’t understand a parliamentary debate and anything written before 1930 requires a dictionary.
Still, my German comes out in strange places. I dream often in German, phrases and conversations. I dream that I am looking for the German word for something.
We say “there must be a German word for that” when we land on a particularly nuanced, but universal feeling — arriving at your car to realize you’ve left your keys in your apartment; the half-dreaming moment before you fall asleep when your stomach suddenly drops as if you’ve fallen, and you startle awake. But in fact English has tens of thousands more words than German does; a student I lived with in Berlin was shocked when I told him about the English-speaker’s assumption that German was the language with all the most perfect words that our own language lacks. German doesn’t have many words, to be truthful, it just allows for mash-ups. Thus, the wildly bereft sensation of being alone in the forest, which we must capture in that lengthy phrase, is expressed in a single word: Waldeinsamkeit — Wald, forest, and einsamkeit, loneliness. The concept arises from the tradition of German Romanticism, and therefore Waldeinsamkeit not only alludes to what it’s like to be alone in the German woods, sun-dappled leaves gleaming in the silence of the Black Forest, but also evokes Beethoven’s 9th, Rilke’s appeal to the angels. A culture’s history and its literature are tightly bound within its words.
English evokes, too. While it steals indiscriminately from other languages in a way that many other tongues don’t — not forgetting, here, that English’s linguistic rapaciousness is due largely to its colonial history — English is attached to its latinate adjectives. Thus the adjective to describe something moon-like is lunar — a word far from “moon,” which stems from the German Mond. In German, to ascribe adjectival qualities to the moon requires clunkily appending the word for it (“Mond”) to another noun. We can say “lunar landscape,” an expression that handily beats Mondlandschaft in terms of its poetry. A lunar orbit sounds like smoother sailing than a Mondumlaufbahn. In English, with the Germanic roots of “moon” and the Latin roots of “lunar,” we get a whole family of words in English: lunatic, loony, lunate, moonfaced, moonstruck — and the association between those words and the planetary body is not always made plainly visible by the words themselves. The connection between insanity and the phases of the moon, and underneath that, the moon-linked menstrual cycles of women, is a kind of linguistic, misogynistic open secret. But in German, there’s just der Mond. Nothing underlies it. (And it’s a masculine noun, to boot.)
German has all kinds of words that look strangely literal to a non-native speaker — a “virgin,” either a woman or a man, would be a Jungfrau, the words for “young” and “woman” mashed up together. The words related to pregnancy, I just discovered from an expectant German friend, sound even stranger — the cervix is a Muttermund, “mother-mouth.” The placenta is Mutterkuchen, “mother-cake.” Of course, a friend once treated me to a lecture when she overheard me wondering about Jungfrau to another non-native speaker — a young woman, she explained, is a junge Frau. Jungfrau might have once come from the term, but now it just means “virgin” and nothing else. But how could a speaker not associate the two? The literalness of German can be delightful: a roommate once told me she had to run out to fill her prescription for Antibaby-Pillen, her birth control pills. A lover of words might be pleased to discover that in German, vocabulary is Wortschatz, “word-treasure.” There’s a logic to German, a rush of recognition, that I love to follow: in English we have “speak,” “language,” “pronunciation” — a non-native speaker might not alight on the relationship between the three words, with no knowledge of their meaning. Germans, on the other hand, have sprechen, Sprache, Aussprache. There’s an audible link.
Words are also personal. Years ago, I was sexually assaulted. “Sexual assault” is such a sterilized, inadequate term, but it’s the least inadequate one that English offers up — for an act that stopped short of rape; for a traumatic, sexualized threat. The kinetic rage suggested by “assault” doesn’t conjure the sensation of a man’s hand gripping my ribcage, pushing my spine against a hard and grease-slicked kitchen wall, the sickening realization that my body could not move — but what does? Germans call it sexuelle Nötigung, roughly “sexual coercion.” But “coercion” suggests the victim plays a role — its close cousin, persuasion, haunts it in English — when the trauma of assault lies in the absence of any role. To play a role requires agency; to be a victim of assault is to be forced to experience a profound lack of it. Sexual assault is an erasure of agency, of a selfhood.
In the wake of it, I roiled in a crippling depression, and my vocabulary diminished. That loss of control manifested an obsessive desire to regain it. I developed what our culture calls an eating disorder, what in German is an Essstörung — Ess-, from essen, to eat, mashed-up against Störung, meaning, yes, disorder, but also interruption, malfunction, failure. An eating malfunction: it felt like one, the repetitive motion of spoon or fork or fingers to mouth similar to that of a lonely gear spinning endlessly without a partner, machinery moving without purpose. For it was, specifically, a binge eating disorder. “Binge” in English stems from the Northampton dialect of England, and originally meant to eat enough food to soak up the alcohol you’d consumed (which makes “binge drinking” a paradox).
That’s what it felt like: binging was a soaker-upper of everything, a numbing agent; in consuming food I was consuming consciousness. In the time it took to spoon cookie-dough ice cream from the soft cardboard pint and press it between my hungry lips, I did not think. But then, when I put the spoon down, I thought only about whether I would pick it up again. Food, calories, food, calories, eating, starving, eating, starving — my thoughts and my actions have never been so tightly bound; my mental vocabulary so winnowed. In German, a binge eater is not suffering from an Essstörung but rather an Esssucht, an eating addiction.
The vocabulary for addiction in Germany is evocative. The word for “addiction,” Sucht, stems from suchen, to seek, to search. An addiction is a perpetual search, an unending quest for a feeling that the sufferer will never attain. An addict is described as suchtig, in a constant state of seeking. Gazing at the sticky bottom of an empty Ben & Jerry’s pint, scratching at the bright orange crumbs lingering at the bottom of a second, a third, a fourth box of Cheez-Its — any binge eater could tell you as much.
But Sucht, addiction, also lends itself to my favorite German word: Sehnsucht. Sehn, from the verb sehnen — to hanker for, to yearn for, to crave — plus Sucht, a search, a seeking. A seeking for a yearning, an unending, craving quest. It’s almost a doubling up of meanings; “searching” and “yearning” are closely related but not quite the same. Sehnsucht is a word I’ve never been able to properly translate. I’ve called it “yearning” and “desire,” but it’s much more than those — a friend once described it to me as a desire so strong you feel that it might kill you. It’s a beautiful yearning, an exquisite pain.
My favorite German poet, Else Lasker-Schüler, ends one of her famous love poems with the lines “A yearning pounds at the world,/And we must die of it.” Es pocht eine Sehnsucht an der Welt,/An der wir sterben müssen. To suffer from a Sucht is to be addicted in an earthly way; those of us with Sehnsucht labor under an existential desire, a more collective yearning. At the bottom of any Sucht, any addiction, is a yearning gone awry: the addict labors to fulfill those most basic human desires for safety, control, peace; or, failing those, obliteration.
When I thought I was losing my mind, that summer of post-trauma, I thought I was crazy. Crazy, losing it, mentally ill. English illustrates insanity with far more color than the Germans do. We can be unhinged, mental, bonkers, demented, deranged, wacko, psycho. Germans can be verrückt, wahnsinnig, irre — all suggest a turning around, a wrong turn, a confusion. Most of the English terms suggest a departure, a severance from reality and rationality. But the German language was the language of both Freud and Jung, the 20th century’s inventors of and proselytizers for psychoanalysis. And so the first language for mental pathology and its treatment, in English, was largely a translated language. The id and the ego are, in some ways, a mistranslation — the first English translator leaned on English’s fondness for Latin words and chose “ego” for the German ich, which is simply “I”. And “id” was originally es, or “it.” Of course, with German’s gendered pronouns, the concept that a person would possess an internal, neutral self — an “it” — wouldn’t seem so strange to German readers. To English ones, talking about our “it” and our “I” feels immediately foreign; there’s a weirdness to the terminology that the German doesn’t suffer from. And so the original translator decorated the concept in Latin words, words that were foreign and so eventually became applicable only to the psychological lingo of Freud and his disciples. But Freud’s German title, Das Ich und das Es, is strikingly ordinary, the terms so dressed down that they’re provocative in their simplicity. The language of psychoanalysis was one that any reader could speak.
I signed up for German 101 the autumn following my disordered summer, and so the thick, glottal German words were the ones in front of me as I battled to regain my grip on the world. The foreignness of the words was a comfort, a distraction, something my mouth created instead of consumed. More than that, it echoed how I felt — my world was different than it had been, and rearranging the words I’d always known wasn’t working. I couldn’t speak to anyone about what had happened. My English failed me. It made sense, then, that I should be confronted with a language I couldn’t understand. The world around me, at that point, was one I didn’t recognize. The strangeness of German felt familiar; it echoed the foreign winds whipping around my psyche.
Learning a language is a little like falling in love. The forms and the shapes of it are as foreign and alluring as that of a body that isn’t yours. Before I understood any of it, before I could even conjugate a verb, I remember letting my breath hush, lingering, through all those glottal ch’s. My first German teacher had the class chant the word for “speak,” instructing us to push our tongues against our back teeth to capture that German “ch,” a combination of the whispery English “sh” and the choking Hebrew “ch”: spre-chen, spre-chen, spre-chen, we chanted. Speak, speak, speak. It was like an incantation.
In English, I could call myself cautious, reluctant, guarded, quiet, reserved, demure. In German I have only zurückhaltend — a combination of zurück, meaning “back” or “backward” and haltend, “holding.” Zurückhaltend: back-holding. Holding back. I once asked another German friend, who grew up on the border of Germany and Holland, who grew up speaking Dutch and German in school and at home, whether she’d ever considered living in Holland — no, she told me. Every time she was in Holland, she was struck by how loud, extroverted the Dutch were. Ich bin eine zurückhaltende Deutsche. I’m a reserved German, she told me, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. We lived together at the time, and in the mornings, she had timed her departure so exactly that I knew to leave the bathroom available between the minutes of 8:05 and 8:20, when she’d wash her face and brush her teeth before leaving. When I had guests over, she’d quietly excuse herself after a glass of wine to make it to bed by 11pm.
Another German friend later explained to me that in German zurückhaltend has positive connotations — to be reserved, to hold back, is to be praised. I love the paradox of this, in my own relationship with the language; when I speak German I become loud. The intensity of a German consonant demands that you annunciate it loud enough to be heard. It’s near-impossible to mumble a German phrase. In English I can fade away the ends of words, slur my consonants, lilt my voice upward into a question mark, all signals to the listener that I am not to be taken seriously, that perhaps I’d rather be invisible. When I was most unhappy, that one summer, I became practiced at disappearing. No one knew that I was suffering, which is how I wanted it. Except, eventually, when I didn’t, and then I didn’t know how to say the words the right way anymore, how to find the ones that would make me seen again. But when I speak German, I am forced to be present. Sometimes I blush with embarrassment when I speak it, it’s so loud and guttural and harsh; so unavoidable. Yet to speak it is to speak it loud and clear, and thus to declare a self. It’s only in my native tongue that I’m able to be zurückhaltend.
In Germany, pop music is sung in English. I asked a friend about it once, why American Top 40 was everywhere I turned; why my German roommates only played indie rock songs in English, Spanish, French. “German’s too harsh,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “It sounds so ugly when you sing it.” (I’m not sure Wagner got the message.) The popular music that isn’t in English or French or Spanish is language-less: electro.
Germans didn’t invent techno but they nurtured it: clubs like Berghain and Watergate in Berlin’s former East are the centers of a globetrotting culture of internationally worshipped DJs. Electro is music sans lyrics, sans language. It is a music of sounds, an orchestra of mechanical noise: of stamping beats and rib-rattling bass, rhythmic beeps and blips and electric sparks. To dance to it is to give in to a kind of biological manipulation, to become a kind of cell in a larger, teeming body. The pulsing walls of the club sweat with condensation, and the music seems to take over a body’s natural rhythms. Dancers breathe and step and flex to the external beats.
The best part of the electro clubs in Berlin is the dancing. Germans can excoriate and shout in their guttural, swooping language with a vehemence that comes less naturally to a battle of more lyrical English words, but those native German speakers somehow lose that energy on the dance floor. In a Berlin club, all goers are passionate but few can dance well. The DJs are world-renowned and the clubbers are grimy and leather-clad; but an American girl somehow arrives with a sense of rhythm in her bones that the most radical anarcho-punk German can’t seem to locate. In those clubs, I lost hours and hours of weekend nights and early mornings swept up in those pulsing beats. In those clubs, I barely spoke, and I let my body go.
Now that I’m living in the U.S. again, after several more excursions in Germany, German comes to me at odd moments. Phrases occur to me, suddenly, as if dropped from the sky; the language comes in dreams. Sometimes I can open up a German news site and it’s as if I never left the country: the meaning of each sentence, the nuances and jokes and asides, it all swirls quickly into recognizable meaning. Other times I pick up a German novel and it’s impenetrable: the parade of umlauts, the hard corners of all those Ks and Zs, the endless verbs crammed into the ends of sentences. The impenetrability of the language is then like an affront, and I often put down the book in frustration. Those times, I feel locked out of a world I once held a key to.
To suffer through and recover from a breakdown is like passing through some kind of veil to another, chaotic and more sinister world that lies just beside this one. Once you’ve been there, you’re preoccupied with the knowledge that you can always return. That summer many years ago, I felt as though I had become a wholly different person and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find my old self, ever again. Psychologists call this depersonalization. It’s a common side effect of trauma. But a similar depersonalization, a less violent one, takes place when one begins to communicate in a foreign tongue. My German self is brasher, funnier, more exaggerated and spontaneous than my English-speaking one. But the difference between bilingualism and breakdown is the distinction of opposite poles. The speaker of a second language is ascending, finding that there’s a new world and a parallel self alongside the one she always knew. The discovery is one of expansion. In a mental breakdown, the new reality and personality is a constriction, a vise, a suffocation of language and of self.
Learning a new language is like looking at the world through thick dark fabric and suddenly noticing that the cloth is thinner than you thought; everything’s tinted and blurred, but you can see it, it’s there, die bekannte Welt, the known world. Language is recognition.
Nika Knight is a writer and translator living in Portland, Maine. She has written previously for Narratively, Grist, and Full Stop, among others. Once in a blue moon she can be caught tweeting at @nsknight.