In preparation for Germany, I pack, I fill out forms, I stress, I send countless emails, I browse, teary with frustration, through the minutiae of airline luggage regulations, and I learn German. Before I put you off studying German forever, let me console you with two of my favourite German words. One is punkt, meaning ‘dot’ or ‘full stop’, said out loud it’s the cutest word ever. The other is ausgezeichnet, which sounds like a sneeze, looks like a sneeze, and means ‘excellent’.

German is a gendered language, and on that basis, we are familiar. My mother-tongue is a gendered language; Arabic, which I’ve studied for years, is also gendered. Likewise with French, which I made a feeble attempt at in secondary school, is gendered. But a mother tongue is one thing, it comes naturally to you, Arabic comes slightly less naturally to me, but it’s so methodical it’s mathematic. French doesn’t count, because I don’t recall any.  Then there’s German, which may have a method to its madness, but it’s passed right by me on its way to smarter alecks. It seems I am destined to be eternally German gender confused.

Some noun genders are expected, such as man being masculine and woman as feminine. Little girl is, confusingly, neutral, but I can live with that. Apple is masculine. So is tree. So is the sun. But cat is feminine. So is pestilence, nature and one of the words for sea, because synonyms don’t necessarily share genders. Sky, moon and stars are all masculine but people, food and travel are all feminine. To top it off, these words will change genders and/or articles when they are plural, or dative, or genitive, or possessive, or anything else.

Learning a language requires the kind of dedication that I have never given anything I don’t absolutely – on the pain of legal prosecution- have to do. Without teachers, I’ve had to resort to auto-didacticism, which does not always produce results when the would-be autodidact is me. DuoLingo does its best, but their long-suffering green owl makes frequent visits to my email address, and yet the highest bar I’ve ever reached is a one-day streak.

So I’ve decided to bumble along as best as I can. I’ve tried, but Germany will have to put up with me gender-swapping everything I set eyes on. And I’m nowhere near ready for German compounds (sometimes they’re fun: kartoffelwaffeln, potato waffles; sometimes pure unadulterated horror: rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, an insurance company which provides legal protection. And yes, since you wonder, I did waste ten minutes checking the spelling of that word). German enough to order food is good enough for me; as long as endless rounds of cheese on bread will still be available in Germany when I get there, I shall not starve.

And now, for my last act, I direct you to Mark Twain’s short essay-review on German, entitled, naturally, ‘The Awful German Language’. It is scathing and hilarious – ausgezeichnet, even.


Maryam Peerbhai

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