09 March 2011

Post 347: The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Mark Zusak. ISBN: 9780307433848 (eBook).

I really loved the smattering of German throughout The Book Thief. I love the German language. I don't speak a whole lot of it, but I know enough that I could probably find my way to the Bahnhof (train station) or buy some food. I have found pantomime to be incredibly useful no matter the language, and it tends to elicit laughter from everyone involved.* In fact, I miss hearing German in my daily life.

I think a lot of Americans have the wrong idea about foreign languages. There are people who think just because they can't understand another language that it automatically has no value, but there is a kind of music to it. I would listen to my German coworkers just for the pleasure of hearing foreign vowels and consonant combinations in a very familiar pattern (the rhythm of the German language is very similar to English). I found this translated to other languages the longer I was away from Germany.

In fact, I distinctly remember sitting at a table at Antioch with some Polish exchange students and they were speaking to each other in Polish. When they realized that I couldn't understand them, they turned to me and apologized.

"Oh, no," I said, "please continue, I lived in Germany for 10 months, so I'm used to it, and to be honest I miss hearing a random smattering of languages during the day."

So, even though I already knew the meanings of the words Zusak threw in and then (usually) translated for the reader, it was still wonderful reading them again. It was wonderful to hear them in my head, and shape them with my mouth, to chew on them again. And even if they have the same literal meaning as they do in English, there is a definite difference in the connotations the German words bring to mind. Perhaps they are not the intended connotations of the language, but autobahn automatically sounds different to me than highway. Authobahn brings up images of sports cars and tunnels and hills and valleys. Meanwhile highway reminds me more of deserts and tumbleweeds and endless, mind-numbing boredom.

It doesn't matter that there are problems and inaccuracies with both of those words and the connotations created in my head. The fact remains that I have them and I like to think that most people attach different feelings to different words. That is why I like hearing foreign languages spoken. In some ways it makes it easier to understand the meaning of the words spoken, even if it just means I know someone is talking amiably to a friend, or kvetching to a coworker. The fact that I don't know the words does not mean I do not know the context of the emotion, unless their inflections and/or body language are completely different. But I also get to add foreign words to my vocabulary and so I am able to relish the emotions, memories, etc. that these words evoke. The same sentence could very well paint completely different pictures in my head depending on the language it's spoke in.

The cat is black.
Le chat est noir.
Die katze ist schwarz.
El gato es negro.

They are all images of a black cat, but for instance I see the French cat sitting in an open window at night with a ribbon tied around it's neck and a large bottlebrush tail. The German cat is in the barn earning his keep by chasing away all the mice. Maybe I'm the only one who does this, but I guarantee that expanding your mind in this way makes life infinitely more fascinating. I can stay inside my head for hours thinking about words and language and painting all sorts of different emotional and visual pictures. Does anyone else think this way?

An awesome video review can be found on bandgeek8408's channel.
LibsNote: Copy checked out from my library via Overdrive Media.
*I have stories about a Frenchman trying to get the idea of "turkey" across to me, and me trying to get the idea of the word "asshat" across to yet another Frenchman. What can I say, French wine is very drinkable.

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