i continue to make slight progress with German. After 3.3 years, i can still just barely hold down a conversation, if my interlocutor makes an effort to speak German instead of Bavarian, and to speak slowly and clearly. It is a weird and unsettling language; by contrast, Italian and French seem intuitive and logical. A couple of years ago the Viking – who speaks passable if American-accented gay manga German after living in Würzburg for a decade – said i should stick to Italian and not even try to learn German; he expanded, saying i would find Italian easier because i am swarthy and short, whereas German would be hard because i am not the right race. The Viking, as the name suggests, is blonde-haired and blue-eyed.

i don’t feel my genes are the problem. For one thing, some of the greatest German writers (e.g. Kafka, Celan) were and looked Jewish, whereas there were plenty of blonde-haired, blue-eyed deathcamp guards who left no great contributions to the German language. My most obvious problems are understandable: the only friends i regularly talk to don’t speak German; my job requires me to use English and to not merely refrain from giving German translations but to ignore or chastise students who use German; i am often overwhelmed by the unrelenting social stimulation of my job, and just want to be alone in my free time.

There is a deeper problem, that is, an inability to inhabit the language, to feel it as a real human language and not just a series of made-up grunting noises. Although i can’t speak French, it at least sounds like a real language when i hear it spoken, and i was able to convert my Dantean Italian into comprehensible spoken Italian after a few weeks in Padova. German always sounds Gothic and forested and excitingly gruesome to me. They call meat Fleisch; you can buy Fleischsalat, should you so desire. They have names like Wolfgang and Gudrun. They eat Schweinebraten (roast pork). i see this cowled monk everywhere in Munich:


He is Das Münchner Kindl, the Munich child, official coat of arms for the city.


It has a sterlingly Teutonic, badass Catholic look to it. In England, such a symbol would have been replaced with a Koran or black lesbian dwarf Marxist, or perhaps Jade Goody. But in Germany, there are limits to modernity. They like their smart phones and BMWs but for preference they spend their free time hiking or skiing rather than clubbing. i have a Realschule student who has read Goethe and Thomas Mann and Hesse, and the Gymnasium students all seem fluent in Ancient Greek and Latin by the age of 18. And their language is a thing of misty forests and cackling witches. i sometimes violate the McLingua rules and use the odd German word or phrase in class; apparently, i pronounce these “like Mr Hitler”. This is because at times the language seems to want to be spoken so, with guttural force and barbaric rage:

At times, i say, though whenever Germans get heated, or shout, or talk through loudspeakers, it invariably sounds like a Nazi rally (i once heard a Salvation Army speech, in Kassel, which sounded like one of Hitler’s kill-the-Jews and steal-their-gold-teeth speeches, but was in fact about universal love and brotherhood).

Language is one of the main forces in, and influences on, a culture. English, with its grammatical looseness, openness to slang and fruitful error, general illogic, is not readily apt to the theoretical; to speak good English you need thousands of hours of practice, to get a feel for the individual cases, the idioms and slang, the music of it. To speak good German you need thousands of hours of practice, to memorise rules, noun genders, and to apply the rules without thought. Germans are, on the whole, in love with precision and order; hence BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, Volkswagen. i’m sure this is in some way encoded in their language.


But then there is the other side, the Wotan aspect as Jung might say.

My favourite Germans are atypical, open to wildness and chaos and disorder; they usually take to me immediately, because i seem so ungermanic to them, yet not as disreputable and corrupt as, for example, an Italian.

The success of German business seems to do with a just about workable meeting of these two seemingly opposed aspects. i guess the wilder element is ancient, but i wonder just how far the clean and shiny and orderly impulse goes. The language is older than English – the primeval Germanic languages seem to have taken form about 500 BC, whereas English as we would recognise it only dates back to about AD 1500 (the English of 14th Century London is kind of comprehensible but if you go north, to the Midlands, it is virtually incomprehensible). English took elements from Celtic (grammar rather than vocab), Latin, Dark Age German and Scandinavian, 11th C Norman French, and Greek. German is full of loan words from English but it retains a stark individuality and strangeness. Listening to German really is like going back in time a couple of thousand years, to some enormous and sentient black forest full of bears and cripples and gypsies and moustachoied sorcerers and wolves and mud huts and fur-clad axemen and two giant ravens and a murder of crows and angry blonde maidens (with axes) and cold snowmelt rivers with black clear water and Werner Herzog and groves where the wind shakes those hanging from the ancient trees, and stinking peasant villages where you smell the Schweinebraten from afar but it is in fact human flesh, and abandoned forts, crumbling and half-sunk in vegetation and moss, and in the night a voice crawls out of the pillow and it speaks:

When i speak Italian i can feel my body change, as the centre of gravity shifts higher, as if into my chest so i feel i am expostulating from my heart. The language itself determines what you can say, and thus how you think & even feel. With German, this is not so easy. i often lapse into a Rammstein/Hitler kind of German, because i feel this is how the language is; but this is like a German talking about tea at 4 and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, to improve his English. My problem with German is an inability to consistently enter into another world; compared to Italian it may as well be a wholly alien reality. It feels like going back in time, a good thousand years at least. i guess most learners don’t have this problem, but then most people aren’t sensitive to language. As ever, my peculiarities only hinder me; they never, or rarely, help. However, i feel that if i am to exit the ordinary world and my extant self, i require a great test of this sort – to unlearn modernity and re-enter the forest, where things begin.