Twisting Tongues in Bavaria

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German words have a reputation for being long, and at times very expressive. Two of my descriptive favorites are Zahnfleisch (literally ‘tooth meat’ or ‘gums’) and Schneebesen (which literally translates to ‘snow broom’ but means ‘whisk.’)

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Since we’ve been living in a village with a name of mammoth proportions these past months, it’s no surprise when friends and family (who aren’t German) have a tricky time saying Oberammergau. We playfully instruct them to just say ‘O-gau’ instead.

Imagine my delight a few weeks ago, when I learned that Oberammergau is famous not only for its woodcarvings and Passion Play, but also a tongue-twister. (If you’re curious, Germans call tongue-twisters Zungenbrecher, literally ‘tongue-breakers.’) When we were at a New Year’s celebration a few weeks ago, this tongue-twister had even been inserted into a modern song.

First, here’s the English Translation, so you know what you’re saying:

Today Hans is going to visit me,

 Lies is looking forward to it.

But if he arrives via Oberammergau,

or if he arrives via Unterammergau,

or if he arrives at all,

is not certain!

(Unterammergau is a village that is situated lower in the Ammer River Valley than Oberammergau. unter=below; ober=upper)

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And now, I challenge you to say the German version three times. :-)

Heut’ kommt der Hans zu mir,

 freut sich die Lies.

Ob er aber über Oberammergau

oder aber über Unterammergau

oder aber überhaupt nicht kommt

ist nicht gewiß!

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The German language’s penchant for precision is perhaps best described in Mark Twain’s humorous essay, The Awful German Languagewhich you can read here. Twain penned the essay in an attempt to describe the frustration he felt in learning German during his visits abroad; the essay has been a favorite for German language learners for more than a century. If you’ve struggled with German, as I have, and continue to do so, it’s a fun read.

Have you studied German? What are some of your favorite, noteworthy words?

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32 Comments on “Twisting Tongues in Bavaria

  1. My American better half, who speaks German quite well, always has trouble with the word Eichhörnchen (squirrel), same with Täschchen (little bag) or Streichholzschächtelchen (little match box) – if I want to tease him, I let him repeat the two words over and over again.

  2. My son and I both took German in high school. When he was learning it, we’d sit at the dinner table and speak German as though it was a secret code. It drove my husband crazy, which was the real intent. We were speaking nonsense. But I have a feeling my son would love this German tongue tweister. I’m going to send it to him so that we can both practice saying it. :)

    • Juliann, many of the comments here attest to family members, boyfriends and girlfriends teasing each other – how funny.

      Hope the tongue twister brings back fun memories for your son. You two will have to rehearse, then perform for your husband!

  3. I had a Swiss boyfriend for a while who used get hours of fun from trying to get me to pronounce words in Swiss German, it sounded like a weird combination of German and Dutch and was totally beyond me!

    • Lucy, so many tales of sweethearts tormenting their significant others with linguistics. :)

      It’s interesting how dialects/accents can be so different. I previously lived in another German state, and I have a tricky time with Bavarian German accents. This is compounded when we travel to Austria or Switzerland!

      • In fact, we have different dialects in each German state, worse, in each city. The Heidelberg dialect sounds completely different from the Mannheim dialect, although it is only 15minutes away by train. Even if we do not speak dialect, others can tell by the intonation where we are from. In Berlin taxi drivers always recognize me as someone from the Southwest of Germany – although I speak high German. How do you like Swabian? In high German we would say “Ich bin hingefallen” (I fell). In the Stuttgart area it would be “mi häts nobätscht”.

      • Really interesting insight, Cornelia. I didn’t realize that even HD’s and MA’s dialects were so different! I thought it was funny that in HD, people said ‘zwoll’ instead of ‘zwei.’

        Language is indeed a fascinating topic. It’s admirable that you can speak so many.

    • Thank you so much, Marina. I had chilly fingers and toes while out snapping that one! Do you miss NY’s winters at all, or are you thrilled to be in the sunshine?

  4. Oh my gosh, Tricia, your post just made me laugh so hard, I can’t stop!!! As being a true Bavarian, living in California it is so funny to me. Can you say “Oachkatzlschwoaf” fluently by now? Which means in englisch something like the squirrels tail. If you are staying there till February you will experience ” Fasching”, people dress up in costumes , here in US it’s like Halloween, but not the same. You will enjoy “Krapfen”, well it’s not gluten free, so maybe your family will love it. It’s similar to donoughts, but not the same, way more delicious. Whenever I read your new posts I get somehow homesick. Have you visited Munich yet? My home town, by train just 1 1/2 hours or so, you MUST!!!
    Well enjoy what you see!! Auf Wiedersehen!!

    • Cornelia, what fun responses I’ve gotten to this post! I’ll now add ‘Oachkatzlschwoaf’ to the list of words to master. :)

      Also, it seems the song has more lyrics?

      (I included the link so that you would laugh and not feel homesick! I guess the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence?” I could really appreciate some CA sunshine right now.)

      I’ve had a lot of ‘Krapfen’ sightings lately, and the colorful Fasching clothes have indeed hit the stores’ shelves. Though we’ll be outside of Germany for this upcoming Fasching, I experienced it in Köln several years ago. My Heidelberg apartment was also on the same street where the Fasching parade would pass by. Wild and fun times! Did you dress up each year as a little girl?

      I didn’t know you grew up in Munich – such a beautiful city! I was there as a child, and then during a few Oktoberfest seasons these past years. We will definitely visit there when we return to Germany this summer. My childhood memories there are of the Glockenspiel, and men getting sick in the streets by the Hofbräuhaus after imbibing a bit too much. Of course, we visited the impressive Frauenkirche, the beautiful gardens, and some museums. Can you recommend other spots?

  5. Nice post Tricia, I like German and I can speak it quite well, actually Hochdeutsch, but when I speak to people from Austria or Swiss, I can barely understand “Guten Tag” .
    And I`m still struggling with “Streichholzschächtelchen”, it`s easier when I seperate it to Streich – holz – haechtelchen, and after few repeats, I pronounced it togather :-)

    • Thank you, Nada, or shall I say ‘hvala?’ :) Impressive that you speak so many languages! My husband and I will likely be heading to Croatia in the coming month, so I better get practicing with the language.

      • :-) that`s right, “hvala” means thank you, only Croatian is a bit more difficult than German.
        But if you say “Dobar dan” means good afternoon and “Dovidjena” means goodbye, will be good start :-)

  6. Excellent post! One side of my family could speak Italian and the other side of my family could speak German. I feel very lucky. I knew Italian and French for years and now have lost it somewhat. I need a refresher course on all! Tongue twisting!!

    Your pictures looks magical! The first one looks heavenly :)

    • Judy, ah, that explains a lot of the foreign words sprinkled throughout your site. What a lovely background you have!

      I was chatting with a foreign language teacher the other day about my desire to practice my French and learn Spanish, and she highly recommended this site http://duolingo.com/, which is free. Perhaps that will serve up the tongue twisting and linguistic practice you’re seeking. :)

      Thanks, as always, for your generous comments. Oberammergau is a stunning village, so it’s hard to make it look anything but magical.

  7. Oberammergau is a place I’d love to visit, especially to attend and witness the Passion Play. But then again, I do love the Bavarian Alps. :)

    I tried saying the tongue twister quickly three times: I was fine the first two times, but the last attempt is what got me and got my tongue all twisty.

    I lived in Heidelberg for two years – on Rohrbacher Strasse in Weststadt. I was back in Heidelberg for American Thanksgiving, and it was nice to see the ol’ haunts, especially lit up for Weihnachtsmarkt.

    • I do hope that we’ll get a chance to see the Passion Play, but it won’t be held for another 7 years. I cannot imagine what this village is like when thousands of tourists descend upon it! Actually, I heard about 500,000 visit here during the several-month run of the Passion Play.

      What a coincidence that you also lived in Heidelberg. I think I might have mentioned before that I previously lived in the Altstadt. I could descend my 87 stairs, out onto the Hauptstrasse, and the Weihnachtsmarkt was just outside my door. How nice that you got to return for Thanksgiving, just as the decorations were put up.

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