Latest Articles

Nafeez Ahmed

Safeguarding the "grey zone"

For free, open and diverse societies

In an article first published shortly after the 13 November Paris terrorist attacks, investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed addresses the twisted logic of extremist ideologies; and how to break the continuum of violence that such ideologies seek to perpetuate. [ more ]

Valeria Korablyova

Pariahs and parvenus?

Ulrike Guérot

Europe as a republic

Hal Foster, John Douglas Millar

After the canon?

Robert Menasse

A brief history of the European future

New Issues


Osteuropa | 5-6/2015

Zeichen der Zeit. Europas Osten in Fernost [Signs of the times. Europe's East in Far East]

Poeteka | 36 (2015)

Now and again we dream of Europe

Host | 8/2015

Eurozine Review

Eurozine Review

Of technological waves and political frontiers

"Wespennest" refuses to let the machines takeover; "Letras Libres" sees citizen power as the key to a post-national European democracy; "Soundings" strikes out for a new political frontier in British politics; "Il Mulino" traces the shifting contours of the European debate on sovereignty; "Blätter" seeks ways out of the Catalan impasse; "New Eastern Europe" appeals to Europe's goodwill and openness amid refugee crisis; "Arena" reaffirms the Swedish people's overwhelming support for a humanitarian refugee policy; "Merkur" traverses the analogue-digital divide; and "Esprit" samples the paranoid style in the digital age.

Eurozine Review

Beyond imagination or control

Eurozine Review

What animates us?

Eurozine Review

If the borders were porous

Eurozine Review

That which one does not entirely possess

My Eurozine

If you want to be kept up to date, you can subscribe to Eurozine's rss-newsfeed or our Newsletter.

Share |

The beautiful German language

With German-bashing now firmly established as a European Volkssport, Dublin Review of Books editor Enda O'Doherty turns to the semi-barbarous German language; only to find that in the right hands, or expressed through the right vocal cords, German is indeed a very beautiful language.

There are nations which are endlessly, perhaps inordinately, proud of their language (the English and the French in particular) and those who are a little less confident or who will attribute to their native tongue only one pre-eminent virtue, as the Italians, not it would seem unreasonably, have attributed musicality to the Tuscan dialect that, rather late in the historical scheme of things, became their national language (their first king couldn't speak it; not that this is wholly unusual for royals – there were times in our neighbour's history when the king's English wasn't so hot).

Germans have featured prominently among those who have sometimes had difficulty in believing that their native tongue is quite up to the mark, or, as we say in our barbarous contemporary jargon, fit for purpose. The German invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century was certainly to give a boost to the prestige of vernacular languages (at the expense of the universal language, Latin). It was also to be important in spreading the new religion, Protestantism. Martin Luther enthused:

Printing is God's most recent gift and his greatest. Through it, in effect, God wishes to make known the true religion to the whole world, right to the extremities of the Earth.

And so it came to pass. But the Whiggish Protestantism (still alive in the popular cultural histories of Lord Bragg, formerly Melvyn) which celebrates the unstoppable spread of the Word, to be read and chewed over by the individual in private – an improving substitute for the "nonsense" mumbled by the priest in an incomprehensible language – tends to forget that in the short term virtually no one could read, whereas all could see and grasp the meaning of the wall paintings, statues and altarpieces in the church, which the Protestants for the most part were so keen to efface or destroy. The short term in this context, we should remember, was rather long. Mass literacy came to England only in the nineteenth century.

Luther however, after his initial enthusiasm, seems to have had second thoughts about the wisdom of translating the Bible into German and making it available to everyone, or everyone who could read (he was to find, disturbingly, that they disagreed with him about what it meant).

What blood and water I have sweated translating the Prophets into the vulgar tongue! Good God, what a work it is and how many difficulties there are in forcing the Hebrew writers to speak German. Not wishing to give up their Hebraism they refuse to be poured into German barbarism. It's as if the nightingale, deprived of its sweet melody, was forced to croak out the monotonous note of the cuckoo.

Luther, and Germanophiles, should perhaps take heart that this feeling of inferiority before the classical languages was felt even by francophones: Jean Calvin's cousin, Pierre Robert Olivétan, who translated the Bible into French, even used the same image: the whole difficult business, he felt, was like teaching "the sweet nightingale to sing the song of the hoarse crow".

German feelings of inferiority were not, however, to go away any time soon. Norbert Elias, a sociologist of Jewish origin born in Breslau (now Polish Wroclaw) in 1897, quotes in his 1939 work The Civilizing Process the words of the Prussian king Frederick the Great in his On German Literature (1780):

I find a language that is semi-barbarous and which is divided into as many dialects as Germany has provinces. And each believes its patois is the best.

Frederick does not attribute this sad state of affairs to the innate inferiority of the German people but rather to the huge devastation visited on the country by the Thirty Years War, from which it had never quite recovered (it had indeed been hugely wealthy and cultured in the early modern period).

Elias points out that the king was writing just a year before the appearance of very important works by Schiller, Kant and Goethe, but suggests that he would not necessarily have been moved by reading them since he was on a different aesthetic wavelength which attributed virtue only to elegance, classicism and the observance of the time-honoured (Greek) rules of composition, and found these pre-eminently in the works of French authors. If Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen recalled Shakespeare, well so much the worse, for wasn't Shakespeare really a rather low-class type of writer? Frederick wrote:

To convince you of the lack of taste which until our own days reigned in Germany you only have to look at the public theatre. There you'll see the abominable plays of Shakespeare translated into our language and the entire audience swooning before these ridiculous farces worthy of the savages of Canada. I call them ridiculous because they offend against the rules of the Theatre. These rules are not arbitrary.

Here we have picklocks and gravediggers, who speak just as they ought to. And then we have princes and queens. How could this bizarre mixture of baseness and grandeur, of buffoonery and tragedy, affect or please us?

Frederick, and Frederick's court, spoke French, as did much of upper class Europe at this time, to show that they were civilised people and not like their uncouth and unpolished subjects. But this wouldn't last: German came into its own, though it still had its detractors (most amusingly the American humorist Mark Twain).

There are still those who think it an unattractive language, but one suspects that many of them have been too influenced by watching films in which the only German dialogue is "Halt!", "Raus!" and "Papieren bitte!" A number of years ago I bought a set of CDs called Bildung, a sort of crib to European culture written by the academic Dietrich Schwanitz and spoken by the actor Matthias Ponnier. No one who listens to Ponnier's wonderful voice (even, like myself, without fully understanding everything that is said) could be in any doubt that in the right hands – or expressed through the right vocal cords – German is indeed a very beautiful language.


Published 2013-05-03

Original in English
First published in Dublin Review of Books blog

Contributed by Dublin Review of Books
© Enda O'Doherty / Dublin Review of Books
© Eurozine

Focal points     click for more

The politics of privacy
The Snowden leaks and the ensuing NSA scandal made the whole world debate privacy and data protection. Now the discussion has entered a new phase - and it's all about policy. A focal point on the politics of privacy: claiming a European value. [more]

Beyond Fortress Europe
The fate of migrants attempting to enter Fortress Europe has triggered a new European debate on laws, borders and human rights. A focal point featuring reportage alongside articles on policy and memory. With contributions by Fabrizio Gatti, Seyla Benhabib and Alessandro Leogrande. [more]

Russia in global dialogue
In the two decades after the end of the Cold War, intellectual interaction between Russia and Europe has intensified. It has not, however, prompted a common conversation. The focal point "Russia in global dialogue" seeks to fuel debate on democracy, society and the legacy of empire. [more]

Ukraine in focus
Ten years after the Orange Revolution, Ukraine is in the throes of yet another major struggle. Eurozine provides commentary on events as they unfold and further articles from the archive providing background to the situation in today's Ukraine. [more]

Eurozine BLOG

On the Eurozine BLOG, editors and Eurozine contributors comment on current affairs and events. What's behind the headlines in the world of European intellectual journals?
Victor Tsilonis
Greek bailout referendum, Euro Summit, Germope
Victor Tsilonis of "Intellectum" (Greece) comments on recent developments in the Greek crisis: the short-lived euphoria of the 5 July referendum, Alexis Tsipras's subsequent "mental waterboarding", and the outlook for a German-led Europe. [more]

Time to Talk     click for more

Time to Talk, a network of European Houses of Debate, has partnered up with Eurozine to launch an online platform. Here you can watch video highlights from all TTT events, anytime, anywhere.
Neda Deneva, Constantina Kouneva, Irina Nedeva and Yavor Siderov
Does migration intensify distrust in institutions?
How do migration and institutional mistrust relate to one another? As a new wave of populism feeds on and promotes fears of migration, aggrandising itself through the distrust it sows, The Red House hosts a timely debate with a view to untangling the key issues. [more]

Support Eurozine     click for more

If you appreciate Eurozine's work and would like to support our contribution to the establishment of a European public sphere, see information about making a donation.

Vacancies at Eurozine     click for more

There are currently no positions available.

Editor's choice     click for more

Timothy Snyder
Europe and Ukraine: Past and future
The history of Ukraine has revealed the turning points in the history of Europe. Prior to Ukraine's presidential elections in May 2014, Timothy Snyder argued cogently as to why Ukraine has no future without Europe; and why Europe too has no future without Ukraine. [more]

Literature     click for more

Karl Ove Knausgård
Out to where storytelling does not reach
To write is to write one's way through the preconceived and into the world on the other side, to see the world as children can, as fantastic or terrifying, but always rich and wide-open. Karl Ove Knausgård on creating literature. [more]

Jonathan Bousfield
Growing up in Kundera's Central Europe
Jonathan Bousfield talks to three award-winning novelists who spent their formative years in a Central Europe that Milan Kundera once described as the kidnapped West. It transpires that small nations may still be the bearers of important truths. [more]

Literary perspectives
The re-transnationalization of literary criticism
Eurozine's series of essays aims to provide an overview of diverse literary landscapes in Europe. Covered so far: Croatia, Sweden, Austria, Estonia, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Hungary. [more]

Debate series     click for more

Europe talks to Europe
Nationalism in Belgium might be different from nationalism in Ukraine, but if we want to understand the current European crisis and how to overcome it we need to take both into account. The debate series "Europe talks to Europe" is an attempt to turn European intellectual debate into a two-way street. [more]

Conferences     click for more

Eurozine emerged from an informal network dating back to 1983. Since then, European cultural magazines have met annually in European cities to exchange ideas and experiences. Around 100 journals from almost every European country are now regularly involved in these meetings.
Law and Border. House Search in Fortress Europe
The 26th European Meeting of Cultural Journals
Conversano, 3-6 October 2014
Eurozine's 2014 conference in southern Italy, not far from Lampedusa, addressed both EU refugee and immigration policies and intellectual partnerships across the Mediterranean. Speakers included Italian investigative journalist Fabrizio Gatti and Moroccan feminist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rita El Khayat. [more]

Multimedia     click for more
Multimedia section including videos of past Eurozine conferences in Vilnius (2009) and Sibiu (2007). [more]

powered by