Here’s something that happens in the German language: Dependent upon the usage of modal verbs, certain prepositions, conjunctions, or tenses, the verb is slotted at the end of the sentence. Take, for example, the following:

The man sighed after the judge his innocence found.

I hope that she me also loves.

For the listener, this structure can have a number of effects. It can create suspense. I hope that she me also what? The man sighed after the judge his innocence huh? The listener has no choice but to follow the sentence through its winding independent and dependent clauses, around its slippery prepositional phrases, and through its absurd idioms before arriving at the verb, which in the space of just a few letters wields the power to collapse the entire thing on its head.

Secondly, and probably most common to the trained or native ear, the concluding verb represents a confirmatory linguistic marker, a verbal signpost confirming the listener’s expectations and guiding them on their way. One feels immediately assured, as if the language were a friend in a park on a sunny day, opening wide her hand and ushering you in the way you should go.

Finally, it can baffle one into an existential crisis as gray and murky as the January North Sea coastline. If the second effect is most common to the learned ear, then it’s this effect that haunts the learning ear. You understand the subject, could identify, spell, and define each subsequent word or phrase, and are then met with a verb that can’t possibly make sense in the imagined understanding. What’s left is January North Sea coastline.

I arrived in Cologne a month ago in the pouring rain. It rained for two more days and I more or less stayed inside, leaving the apartment to run, buy groceries, or go to church. I didn’t start work for two weeks and I found it hard to gain traction in the city without relationships, obligations, or anything binding me here. Even the German is new. Two years in Austria taught me that January is Jänner. Here it’s Januar. I took comfort in the smallest and most lamentable pieces of past homes—stuffy waiters at an Austrian restaurant across the street, or Praise Team Leaders in an international church who introduce a hymn with an apology. “Bear with me. This next one’s a little older.”

Then the sun came out for a few days and I wandered around the city’s expansive pedestrian shopping district. I got lost a couple times and was annoyed with myself for wasting time I only had to waste. I bought a bottle of whisky from a Scottish specialty shop because the owner complimented my German. Then I bought gray blazer from a menswear store because the clerk smiled at me. Unable to find purchase in the cultural, I opted for the commercial.

At work, I’m learning the limitations of my German. I find myself plagued by the third effect. I sit in roundtable meetings with Communications Professionals, absorbing first the linguistic—word choice, sentence structure, intonation—and next the content. Somewhere in the Babelian sea between those two—the linguistic and the content—is where I assume most of my German language memories, along with my German language personality, very quietly reside. It’s still hard to know what to expect when the verb comes at the end.

On Sunday I was walking through a park when a man tapped me on the shoulder. His name was Emmanuel and he was looking for a church, somewhere where “they pray really good.” I remembered the international congregation had an afternoon service and took him there. On the way to church he told me that he was a Nigerian refugee who had fled Boko Haram. He told me how he got here, how he spent a half hour in the ocean, no coast in sight, clinging to a deflated raft. We prayed, sang “Blessed Assurance”, and took communion, which he said was good even though he’s tired of the bread he’s served in the camp.

Afterwards we went out for dinner and I wrote down some German phrases for him, because he wanted to answer the volunteers at the camp in German. He had more questions than I had answers—How do I get a job? Where can I find an apartment? Where can I buy church clothes, like that blazer? How do I get a German wife? I told him how to say “I want to get to know you.” He asked me why they put the verb at the end. After dinner we walked back to his camp. It was drizzling and gray. I asked him if he missed Nigeria, where his parents still live and his sister is missing. He said that everything was different, but he was happy to be here, on this distant shore.

1 Comment

  1. Caroline

    linguistically lovely.


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