oh, the Germanity

Today was the last day of the intensive German class. It’s been a crazy month for me, so far, with five applications due, daily German class, and a host of other things besides. As much as I kind of needed those mornings for other things, I think it was worth it. I definitely learned a lot–the Starbucks people don’t even automatically switch to English when I order anymore. That seems an adequate measure of my skills, right?

I did pretty well on the final exam, although nerd that I am, I would have liked to have done a little better. But I scored high enough to move up a level and that was what I wanted, so I’m going to let go of my inner perfectionist and call it good.

And oh, am I going to enjoy waking up tomorrow without the prospect of three-and-a-half hours of language lessons hanging over my head.

Bonus image, because it always makes me laugh.

Bonus semi-related image, because it always makes me laugh.


in which I actually speak German

This month, I’m taking a German class, with three and a half hours of German a day. I’m in the intermediate class, and slowly learning to formulate sentences correctly, and even, once in a blue moon, to use the right case while speaking. This is all part of my 2013 goal of going the distance and forcing myself to integrate somewhat into German life.

Which is all to say that I was very proud of myself this morning when, on the way to the subway, a woman asked me if the escalator had stopped working. Now, my usual course of action is to understand what someone says to me but not know what to say back. So I’ll smile a lot, stutter a few words, and gesture and make signs that further confuse whoever I’m talking to. But lo and behold, today I suddenly had the words to tell her that I had just seen someone go up the escalator so no, it probably wasn’t broken.

It probably seems like a really small thing if you’ve never lived abroad and have always been able to participate in the plethora of small exchanges that take place every day, whether it’s with a neighbor, at the grocery store, or the three thousand other places that have the ability to throw me into a linguistic panic because someone just deviated from the standard script and I now have no idea what I’m supposed to say or do. (And…breathe. As you can tell, I am still a little traumatized from our move to the Netherlands where I spent years feeling stupid, isolated, and so very not Dutch. Good times.)

Moral of this story? No way am I moving somewhere ever again where they don’t use a language I already speak. Let’s just hope my dream guy got the message, and doesn’t turn out to be French or something. That just might kill me.


So, in an attempt to blend into my surroundings now that I’m actually living here in Germany full time, I’ve been trying to do all my interactions with strangers in German. But only when no one I know is around since my accent is atrocious and as soon as I run out of words, I have the tendency to say Dutch things that sound vaguely German but actually aren’t.

There’s this story we tell at home featuring my mom shortly after she and my dad had moved to the States. She was going to the grocery store, looking for tarragon. Which in Dutch is “dragon” (with the emphasis on the last syllable). So when she couldn’t find it, she went to a boy stocking shelves and asked him where she could find the dragon. In a jar, she added, when he looked confused.

All I can say is that I totally understand her and am kind of waiting for something like this to happen to me.

on the rise of logical punctuation

From Slate:

For at least two centuries, it has been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside of quotation marks. This rule still holds for professionally edited prose: what you’ll find in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post—almost any place adhering to Modern Language Association (MLA) or AP guidelines. But in copy-editor-free zones—the Web and emails, student papers, business memos—with increasing frequency, commas and periods find themselves on the outside of quotation marks, looking in. A punctuation paradigm is shifting.

The US, apparently, is fairly alone on this. Many English-language speaking countries, Great Britain included, place their punctuation marks on the outside of quotation marks. (The Dutch do this as well, and I’ve always been grateful that my high school teachers never marked down my papers for incorrect punctuation placing! I had enough “real” mistakes to grade down as it was.) They do it because it’s more logical – it’s the rule of minimal change: once you place punctuation marks within quotation marks, you’re changing the original material that you’re referencing or at least implying that the period or comma was a part of the original material. And that would be WRONG. (Yes, capitals are needed here. Can’t you feel the injustice?)

The writers of the piece then go on to say that

…the vast majority of the legion of logical punctuators are not consciously rejecting illogical American style, or consciously imitating the British. Rather, they follow their intuition because they don’t know the American rules. They don’t know the rules because they don’t read enough. Don’t read enough edited prose, that is; they read plenty of Facebook posts and IMs that make these same sorts of mistakes.

Did anyone else pick up on that smug tone? Look at us, we read! We’ve memorized both Strunk and White and the MLA Style Manual and we fret for days when we make a mistake in grammar!

No? That could just be me then.

Anyway…what they’re saying is that although the English way might be more logical and it’s common practice on the internet and other mediums of informal communication, it doesn’t look like it will be changing soon in the US:

Some shifts in punctuation practice make their way, over time, to grammar books and official acceptance. Imagine Jane Austen starting a book today with the sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Her editor would take both commas out. But despite the love it gets from the masses, logical punctuation isn’t likely to break through to the rule-keepers any time soon. The old way is just too established. When I asked Feal and Carol Saller, who oversees the Chicago Manual of Style, if there was a chance their organizations would go over to the other side, they both replied, in essence: “How about never? Is never good for you?” What’s likely is a more and more pronounced separation between official and unofficial practice. That is, prose published by established entities will follow the traditional rules, while everyone else will follow logic. As a wise man once said, “You pays your money, and you takes your choice”.

I don’t really have an opinion on this, other than that I subscribe to the idea of the punctuation within the quotation marks being more aesthetically pleasing. On the whole though, it doesn’t really matter. Language constantly changes and evolves – that’s what makes it so fascinating! I like the idea of now being aware of this punctuation discrepancy and coming across it while reading – it offers me a neat little guessing game on whether the author is British or just unaware. I love guessing games, don’t you?

And to end this piece on a slightly irreverent note: who wants to come over to my house and play punctuation mark bingo? I’ll make popcorn and I promise it’ll be awesome! (Seriously, do a google image search on any phrase you want – you’ll always find something fun.)

ella minnow pea

Yesterday, the topic of “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” came up during dinner. Coincidentally (or not, it depends on whether you believe in coincidence or not), I had been reading Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn that same day. I had so much fun rereading it for what must be at least the eleventh time that I decided I had to write about it.

It’s a lovely book, short and sweet, that details the turmoil on the little (fictional) island of Nollop. Nollop, supposedly, once created the pangram stated above, and is revered for that on the island. There is a statue of him on the main square, with tiles affixed to it that spell out the sentence. But then the glue on one of the tiles gives way, and the tile falls and shatters.

Not a big deal, right? Some new glue and you’re good to go. Wrong. The High Council decides that this incident means that Nollop (who somewhere along the way has gone from respected figure to an almost divine status) wants them to stop using this letter. One slip-up means a public reprimand, two means a flogging or an afternoon in headstock, and three means banishment from the island – or death, if you refuse to go.

All of a sudden, this delightful book full of quaint language turns quite dark. Nollop turns into a kind of police state and neighbors turn on neighbors, and all struggle to survive. It’s up to a “subterra” movement to stop the High Council, despite all odds..

The book is written in letter-form, which works very well here. As a word-geek, I had such fun reading the letters, which are filled with old-fashioned and multi-syllabic words that sometimes taxed my vocabulary. I highly recommend it – there’s intrigue in there, wordplay, romance, and even a Pony Express. It’s one of my favorite go-to books when I want to read something familiar. My only criticism is that towards the end, when so many letters have been banned that the islanders have resulted to writing in a kind of phonetic spelling, the letters become quite hard to read. Of course, you might not have such a problem with that. I am known to be just a tad bit lazy, after all.

And I trust you’ve all grasped why the book is titled Ella Minnow Pea? If not, say it out loud a couple of times, and it’ll come to you.

Awesome. Just awesome.

LBD, only different

And it’s time for a new poem of the month. This one is a little different of tone than what I usually read. I came across it on this site and it spoke to me somehow, so I decided to post it anyway.

What do women want? - Kim Addonizio
I want a red dress. 
I want it flimsy and cheap, 
I want it too tight, I want to wear it 
until someone tears it off me. 
I want it sleeveless and backless, 
this dress, so no one has to guess 
what's underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty's and the hardware store 
with all those keys glittering in the window, 
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old 
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers 
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly, 
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders. 
I want to walk like I'm the only 
woman on earth and I can have my pick. 
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm 
your worst fears about me, 
to show you how little I care about you 
or anything except what 
I want. When I find it, I'll pull that garment 
from its hanger like I'm choosing a body 
to carry me into this world, through 
the birth-cries and the love-cries too, 
and I'll wear it like bones, like skin, 
it'll be the goddamned 
dress they bury me in.

I can just see her walking down the street, trying to hide her vulnerability with anger, and trying to pretend she just doesn’t care. But she does, and you know it, and if she’s honest, so does she.

you think I’d know by now

Every time I look something up on Urban Dictionary, I wish I hadn’t. I never seem to land on any innocent definitions, and all the others seem to refer to things I’m perfectly happy to remain ignorant about.

Francis Bacon might have considered knowledge to be power, but I don’t think this is what he was talking about.