Tag Archives: German language

Mothertongue, first language, native language or dominant language?

In the strictest sense, we all have a mothertongue as we all have only one (biological) mother. – But does this mean that the language our mother did talk to us is automatically our mother tongue? What about this friend I had in school, who was adopted when she was 2 and grew up in a Dutch family: would her mother tongue be Swahili because her mum was talking Swahili to her or would it be Dutch, because this was the language the mother who adopted her did talk to her?

Usually, mothertongue (or fathertongue!) defines the first language we were exposed to, our L1, the first language we speak, the one we grew up with or that our parents (or caregivers) did speak with us. And usually people tend to speak this language for a long time.

If we want to define the first language we speak, learn and feel comfortable with, the term first language may seem more appropriate. This first language doesn’t have to be one. In multilingual families it can be two or three: the important aspect to define a language as first language is, that the child uses it on a regular basis, preferably every day – linguists suggest that an exposure of at least 20% of the daily time would be optimal for a child to become (almost) equally proficient in the family languages. If there are more than one first languages in a family, we can also use the term of family languages: these would be for example the language a child talks with the mother, another one with the father, a third one with a caregiver (i.e. at daycare, school etc.), maybe a next one with extended family or locals, a fourth one with friends…

My parents only spoke German with me and my sister, but we were exposed to Italian since day one. We didn’t “learn” it in the conventional, academical way, so Italian counts as our second-mother-tongue or one of our first languages. – Usually, when people ask me which is my mother tongue (or mother language) I answer German and Italian. Both languages are still equally dominant and valuable for me.

If I analize the different phases in my life, there were phases where Italian or French or German were dominant languages in my life. I’ve spent about 4 years talking mainly Italian and French (and did study Old-French and Old-Provençal, which felt like “living” in this time and period!). During that period I really had difficulties communicating in German. I struggled every time.

Only when this linguistical situation changed and I did focus more on German and Italian, my German became more dominant. English was the fourth language I’ve learned and I didn’t use it very often from age 20 to 34. I did re-activate and improve it when we moved to the Netherlands, along with Dutch that I learned with my son.

In the last 8 years, English and Dutch became the most dominant languages, with German being our family language.

Therefore, my first languages are now German, English and Dutch, with occasionally Italian (the language that still feels like the closest to my heart!), French and Swissgerman.

Using a term like family language would also be an option, but then it would mean that the whole family (maybe even the extended family?) shares these languages or gives them the same value. But this, in a family of five (even three would be enough!) is not very realistic. Also, using first language instead of family language, I would inply that the dominance of the languages within a family can change throughout time. Situations change, we move abroad, we immerse into other cultures and languages and within a multilingual family this can be a reason for prefering one language to another – even if only for a certain period of time.

Which are my children’s first languages?

From a chronological point of view, this would be Italian and Swissgerman for all of my children, but only for their first years.

This changed when they started attending the Dutch crèche and then an English school.

Today – I should better say “at the moment”! – they consider German and English as their first languages and of course Dutch. They don’t feel that confident in Swissgerman or Italian (at the moment). But I know, by my own experience, that this can change if the linguistic situation changes again or if they just decide to talk them more often.

For multilingual children whom’s linguistic situation within the family and social context changes in their early years, the concept of first language changes too.

The first language or mother tongue plays an important role in sociolinguistics, as it is the basis for people’s sociolinguistic identity. Terms like native language or mother tongue refer to an ethnic group rather than to the first language.

Native speakers are considered to be “authority on their given language due to their natural acquisition process regarding the language, versus having learned the language later in life”. In this case, my native languages would be German, Italian, Swissgerman and Dutch because I did acquire them naturally, without studying them. I did not “learn” them at school, I did imitate speakers and copy sentences. The fact that someone is a “native” speaker because he or she did learn this language in an early stage, doesn’t really make sense to me. We are perfectly able to learn a language in a “natural” way also in a later stage of our life. In the same way, the mother tongue can be no longer the dominant one later in life (cfr. language attrition).

In his lecutre “English and Welsh” in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien distinguishes the “native tongue” from the “cradle tongue”. The cradle tongue being the language we learn during early childhood and the native tongue “may be different, possibly determined by an inherited linguistic taste, and may later in life be discovered by a strong emotional affinity to a specific dialect (Tolkien confessed to such an affinity to the Middle English of the West Midlands in particular)” (cfr. pdf of “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien)

We each have our own personal linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes, and our native language comes seldom to expression, save perhaps by pulling at the ready-made till it sits a little easier. But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

My chief point here is to emphasize the difference between the first-learned language, the language of custom, and an individual’s native language, his inherent linguistic predilections: not to deny that he will share many of these with others of his community. He will share them, no doubt, in proportion as he shares other elements in his make-up. (cfr. “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien, p.18)

The predilection of a language is, in my opinion, more important than the chronological place it has in our language acquisition history. For me, personally, the language I prefer speaking and that is closest to my heart and I’m more spontaneous in, is not the language my parents talked to me during the first period of my life.

lingua madre

lingua madre (Photo credit: Gianfranco Goria)

About the origin of the term mother tongue

“The origin of the term mother tongue harks back to the notion that linguistic skills of a child are honed by the mother and therefore the language spoken by the mother would be the primary language that the child would learn.” However, this type of culture-specific notion is a misnomer. The term was used by Catholic monks to designate a particular language they used, instead of Latin, when they are “speaking from the pulpit”.That is, the “holy mother of the Church” introduced this term and colonies inherited it from the Christianity as a part of their colonial legacy, thanks to the effort made by foreign missionaries in the transitional period of switching over from 18th-century Mercantile Capitalism to 19th-century Industrial Capitalism in India.” (cfr. wikipedia)

Enhanced by Zemanta

Some similarities between German and Dutch

Learing a new language is always very exciting. Especially when the new language we’re learning is similar to one we already know. These similarities can be at different levels (phonetical, lexical, syntactical etc.).

The Dutch language belongs to the westgerman branch of the indoeuropean languages and is actually close to German (and Swissgerman).

The simplified relation between the languages ...

The simplified relation between the languages Dutch, English and German. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many foreigners the pronunciations of “Scheveningen” or “Gouda” are a challenge. It’s especially the way the <ch> and the intervocalic <g> is pronounced that creates some articulatory problems. For Swissgermans the voiceless velar fricative <g> [x] or [ɣ] for the <ch> or the uvular fricative [χ] are very well known. They sound similar to the German in “ach”, “Bach”, “Fach” etc.. Therefore this is not something Germans or Swissgermans would find difficult to pronounce. In the southern Dutch dialects these sounds are softer and <g> and <ch> represent the palatal fricatives ([ʝ] and [ç]).

Something I personally found important to learn are the false cognates or false friends. People already fluent in German when learning Dutch, need to be aware of words that are phonetically similar and sometimes even have similar roots but are different in meanings:

The Dutch aandacht means “Aufmerksamkeit” (attention) in German, and the German “Andacht” means “devotion”.

The zetel is a seat and not a saddle (German “Sattel”), the winkel is a shop (“Laden”) and not an angle, like in German.

With vaart you don’t design the journey or trip (“Fahrt”), but only boat trip and varen refers to the movement of ships only.

Tot is not “tot” (dead) but only means “until” and is pronounced with a short /o/ (whereas the german “tot” has a long one /o:/.

A postbus is not a public means of transportation but a P.O. box (“Postfach”).

The kwartier is not a quarter or accomodation (germ.”Quartier”) but defines a quarter of an hour; and it’s often used in its diminutive form kwartiertje.

Glazuur has nothing to do with baking (germ.”Glasur”; icing) but is dental enamel (“Zahnschmelz”).

Blaffen does not mean to snap at someone, like the German “anblaffen” but the barking of the dog. In German this way to snap is comparable to the barking of a dog though and both words have the same etymon. When a Dutch says that he’s going to call you on the phone, i.e. bellen (ik ga je bellen), which is the abbreviated form for opbellen, or ring at your door, a German would think that this person would bark at him (germ. bellen). For an English speaking person it doesn’t seem too weird, as the English bell (noun) is producing a similar sound although the English verb to bell has a different meaning i.e. the semantic fields for the Dutch bell and the English one are slightly different.

The sale signs for houses and flats puzzle every German speaking person who visits the Netherlands for the first time: te huur (which means “to rent”) seems very similar “to whore” (“huren” in German), but once you learn that <uu> is pronounced like [] you’ll get over it. A similar misunderstanding could occur with the verkocht sign, when a property is sold, since it really sounds like the word for “overcooked” in German (“verkocht”).

Te huur in Huizen

Te huur in Huizen (Photo credit: CorporatieNL)

Verkocht onder voorbehoud

Verkocht onder voorbehoud (Photo credit: the_riel_thing)

What were the analogies or similarities you found between German and Dutch? Or another language you know and Dutch?

Enhanced by Zemanta

“Guten Rutsch!”: what does this German wish really mean?


When your German friends wish you a “Guten Rutsch!”, “Einen Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!” or say “rutsch guet übere” (Swissgerman), they don’t want you to “slide” or “slip” (rutschen=to slide; (aus)rutschen= to slip). They simply wish you a smooth start into the New Year.

Can’t they just say “Gutes Neues Jahr”? Yes, they can and they do. But it’s common that we wish a “guten Rutsch” to eachother.

Where does this expression come from? Is it somehow related to the fact that this time of the year people did “slide” into the snow (or on the ice)?

Since 1900 people wish “guten Rutsch”. Some think that “Rutsch” comes from the Rotwelsch language, a substratum of German “containing numerous words from other languages, notably from various German dialects, including Yiddish, as well as from Romany languages, notably Sintitikes“. But it is not very clear if the expression “Rosch ha schono” is Jiddish or Rotwelsch (cfr. Adolf Friedrich Thiele). Anyways, this expression seems to originate from the Hebraic ראש השנה טוב – Rosch ha schana tov, which means “a happy head/beginning of the year”, as the Jiddish “rosch” means “Head” since the 18th century.

There is an other fact to consider: the Jewish Newyear doesn’t coincide with the Christian one and the Jiddish expression for the Jewish and Christian holidays differ.

Carl Wilhelm Friedrich points out that the Christian New Year is called schone chadosche (lit. new year), whereas the Jewish New Year is called rosch haschone (lit. beginning of the year). Johann Heinrich Callenberg testifies in his Jüdischteutschen Wörterbüchlein (Halle 1736), that the New Year’s calling for Christians is schone chadosche (lit. that God may provide you a good New Year), and Walter Röll wonders how this schone chadosche that Jews would wish their Christian friends became a “guter Rutsch” also among Christians.

The fact that neither the Grimm brothers didn’t mention the expression “Guten Rutsch” in their Deutsches Wörterbuch, nor Daniel Sanders in his Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Leipzig 1876) indicate that this expression entered into the German language around 1900, probably through postcards which started to circulate around 1890/1895. After 1900 the market of openly and commercially sended New Years greetings mushroomed (cfr. Simon Neuberg & Walter Röll 2002).


In the German dictionary or Deutsches Wörterbuch from the brothers Grimm, “rutschen” has the meaning of sliding: “gleitend bewegen” (gliding), “freiwilliges und unfreiwilliges Gleiten”, “kriechen” (creep, crowl) but it’s also attested in the expression “da rutscht’ ich fort” and “Sonntag rutscht man auf das land” cfr. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as in the lemma “anrutschen” in “ich werd nächstens bei dir angerutscht kommen”, a more humorous way to express the “travelling” and “riding”.

Johann Andreas Schmeller gives another evidence for this figurative meaning in his Bayerisches Wörterbuch from 1836, where you’ll find under rutschen among others “Irgend wohin rutschen, im Scherz: fahren. An Feyertagen rutscht das lebsüchtige München gerne auf Bering oder ins Hesselloh”.

In Grimms Wörterbuch, the feminine form “die Rutsche” (the slide) occurs in the phrase “glückliche rutsch” with the meaning “travel”, “journey”. Heinz Küpper attests the form since 1800 and confirms its use in “auf Rutsch gehen” (go on a travel/journey) for the 19th century.

The masculine form “der Rutsch” is attested in the phrase “guten (glücklichen) Rutsch” for “safe travel” since 1820. – Since the 19th century, “der Rutsch” stands for a short travel distance, where the verb “rutschen” (lit. gliding) originally referred to the gliding of the sledge (in the Winter) and later to the rail ride. Küpper assumes that the wish for a “guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr” suggests a good transition into the New Year, a effortless slide into the New Year, like on a sledge. And Lutz Röhrich says that the underlying idea is the slow, almost imperceptible sliding that is also expressed in the common short version of “Komm gut rüber!”

And here is an explanation for children (and adults) about the meaning of “Rutsch” today (from “Die Sendung mit der Maus”; © WDR VideoPodcast 27.12.2009):

Unfug= mischief

Along these lines I wish you all “einen Guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr 2014!

Bibliography mentioned in this post:

Friedrich, Karl Wilhelm, Unterricht in der Judensprache, Prenzlau, 1784.

Küpper, Heinz, Wörterbuch der deutschen Umgangssprache, 1. Auflage, 6. Nachdruck, Stuttgart, München, Düsseldorf, Leipzig 1997, Seite 684, Lemmata Rutsch I und Rutsch II

Neuberg, Simon & Walter Röll, Anmerkungen zum „Guten Rutsch“, in Jiddistik Mitteilungen, Nr. 28/November 2002, pp. 16–19.

Röhrich, Lutz, Lexikon der sprichwörtlichen Redensarten, Band 4, 4. Auflage Freiburg, Basel, Wien 1999, p. 1266, Lemma Rutsch.

Röll, Walter, Guten Rutsch?, in Jiddistik Mitteilungen, Nr. 27/April 2002, pp.14–16.

Schmeller, Johann Andreas, Bayerisches Wörterbuch, Theil 3, Stuttgart, Tübingen 1836, Spalte 191, Lemma rutschen.

Thiele, Adolf Friedrich, Die jüdischen Gauner in Deutschland, ihre Taktik, ihre Eigenthümlichkeiten und ihre Sprache, Berlin, 1840

German? Really?

I just read a post by Olga about a conversation she overheard about Germans during a flight.

It’s been a while that I wanted to publish something about the fact that being a German expat is not very flattering. I’ve spent several years, trying to avoid being cathegorized like German and the fact that I’ve never lived in Germany makes it very difficult for me to really feel or even appreciate the fact to be German. I always wanted to get another nationality, but up to now, I am German. So I have to do the best out of this.

Germans are not allowed to show National Pride…

Recently I got involved in a discussion about the fact that in Germany, it seems to be some way forbidden to feel or even show National Pride because of the Nazi Regime and some sterotypes related to this. A former collegue of mine even resented that ancient Rome fell under the invasion of Germanic tribes (and Mongols).

If I see my French, US, Canadian etc. friends showing their National Pride during football matches etc., I feel sad as I never had this feeling. Or I never felt that I had the right to feel that way.

Why I feel even guilty to be German

When I was 6, I happened to be called „Hitler’s daughter“ by a 7 year old italian boy. We were living in Italy and we just moved to a new place. I remember my mum approaching the mother of this boy and introducing us as new neighbours. I didn’t hear the reaction of the woman, but I remember my mum turning towards me and my sister and telling us that we had to leave. I also remember how the boy looked at me with disdain and called me „Hitler’s daughter“. He also added that he would never ever play with a German girl. I didn’t understand and asked my mum what he meant. My mum explained us what happened during 2WW and why some people were so upset and angry towards Germans. – Since then I’m very aware that being German is not something to tell out loud let alone to be proud of… I felt responsible for what Germans did during 2WW and this guilt did somehow become part of my life. Not only because of this incident, but because of many more that followed when I was much more aware of what it meant to be German.

When I was a teenager I refused to tell people that I’m German for several years, as I had Italian friends who had typical prejudices towards Germans, especially blond blue-eyed German girls. I did everything to look more like my Italian friends and the fact that my sister had brown hair, brown eyes and really looked like an Italian did help a lot. Also, our italian is native, so nobody would have thought that we were German…

The life as a German expat

When someone asks me where I come from, I always tell that I come from Italy (it’s true), Germany (as my parents are German), Switzerland and the Netherlands. I just list up the places I’ve lived in.

The fact that I still have a German passport doesn’t mean that I feel German. I feel German when I speak German. I like German literature and the German culture, I have great German friends and love to teach German. It’s the language of my family, the language of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Schlegel etc.

What I really dislike are stereotypes and prejudices about Germans, but I dislike stereotypes and prejudices of any kind.

As my children are growing up as German expats too, I would like to give them a positive feeling about being German. How? By teaching them that the German language is worth to be learned – it doesn’t have to sound “hard” and bossy. I teach them German history, yes, also about the 2WW. I teach them that people in a certain political and social condition, tend to follow a strong leader no matter what, as history has shown us several times. When they will be old enough, I will watch “The Wave” with them, in order to make them understand the social and political mechanisms of that dark period for Germany.

Sometimes, when we watch cartoons like Phinneas and Ferb, I feel very uncomfortable about characters like Doctor Heinz Doofenshmirtz: he talks with a strong german accent and he is „the routinely bumbling, incompetent and forgetful evil scientist“. My son already noticed that evil characters often have german accents in films and comics and he doesn’t like to be called German. But I guess this is something he has to live with…