Sunday, 6 June 2010

Linguistic identity.

Something I saw on the internet, (God alone knows where: somewhere Cheezburgerish most likely) sparked a realisation in my mind last night. The English word 'enough' is the same as the German word 'noch' meaning 'still' or 'yet' - which in turn is the same as the word 'jetzt' -which means 'now', which itself must be from the same root as 'new', or 'neue'. The two languages have diverged enough that the words now have different meanings, but they are certainly cousins. This made me ridiculously happy and I posted it on Facebook. Some of my most intelligent fb friends were like 'well duh...'. Nobody else cared. It really is just me.
When I was 13 I thought I must have been reincarnated. I decided that I had been German in a past life, because I couldn't understand why I understood spoken and written German before we'd covered it in class. Our teacher asked us to guess what the word 'bekommen' meant. Obviously we were expected to assume that it meant 'become' - the point being to teach us about German false friends. (Not, as I at first feared, an outmoded 1940s era assumption that "those bloody Krauts" couldn't be trusted, but a warning about German words that sound like an English word but mean something different.) However it did not even cross my mind that "bekommen" might mean "become". It wasn't an English word, it was a German one. It means to acquire, to receive, to get. This was a no-brainer to me, so I called it out, and thus completely sabotaged my poor teacher's point, and showed myself up as a smartarse. To this day I don't know where I picked up the correct translation. It just seemed to already be in there, like some kind of race memory. In my 1990s hippy teenage mind, this was evidence enough of a Teutonic past life giving me an unfair advantage in my GCSEs.
These days, I'm not so sure about that, but I certainly have a very strong emotional response when I notice something germanically interesting about language. I can't exactly call it spiritual but it's not just interest, it's actual incredulous joy.
When I went to Sweden it was like total ear porn. Swedish sounds like Yorkshire when the people speaking are too far away to distinguish actual words. Malmo sounds like Huddersfield. It's because we're all Vikings up here. Who couldn't LOVE that? That I grew up with a Norse accent and never even knew it? AWEsome. Better yet, there are quite a few Scandinavian words that are recognisable to many northerners. Laikin', or Lekkin' - a dialect word for playing which I grew up using, comes direct from a Swedish word for playing: 'leka' - so when I "lekked" out with my mates, I was playing like a Norsegirl. Streets in Sweden are called 'gata': Fargate in Sheffield, Briggate in Leeds and Glumangate in Chesterfield are Viking streets! I mean, Glumangata! How gorgeously Viking is that? I love it.
Now, I know that there are a lot of French/Norman words in English as well. Parliament, government, beef, mutton, pork, crepe suzette, malaise... but for some reason they just don't do it for me. Unless of course there's that link to Germanic languages. The absolute high point of my trip to Sweden - and bear in mind that I performed on a proper big stage with my wife, got to hang out in the green room with Kathryn Williams and met some really awesome swedish feminists at Ladyfest Malmo- the actual high point was in the airport, when I saw the sign for security. There it was, in all its Indoeuropean glory. "Sikkerhed, Sicherheit, Securite, Security". The same actual word, Four languages, thousands of miles, and nothing but a bit of creative spelling dividing them. That noticeboard, to me, was more beautiful and breathtaking than any fjord.
I am not a reincarnated German, but my linguistic heritage is Germanic, Norse, Viking. Maybe that deep, almost spiritual joy is not past life memory, but racial identity. Viking Pride!


  1. That is really interesting - I had a similar experience with Hebrew. I understood words before I learned them.

  2. Hmmm that makes me think: another link I have to Germanic languages, culturally and hypothetically racially, is Yiddish - which could be another reason I find that side of English so fascinating.
    Maybe I'm the reincarnated Jewish Viking: Yentehilde Cohensdottir?