Monday 28 May 2012

Berlin notebook: on German sentences

I was brought up proper. So I know that, in conversation, you should always interrupt the other person halfway through their sentence. It is how you show you're really interested. Speaking is the most enthusiastic form of listening. If your conversation partner says something you like, something you agree with, something you find exciting or important or objectionable or just mildly fascinating, all at once you must sweep into action with a sentence of your own. And if all goes well, you will never have to finish that sentence, because your conversation partner will reciprocate with another good energetic interruption.

Every conversation is a minefield. The things that interest me lie buried just beneath the surface, waiting to detonate as soon as they are touched. The moment you trigger my interest in what you are saying, you can be sure that your own sentences will be blown to smithereens. And, in turn, if I have said something interesting and worthwhile, I naturally expect my sentences to be left unfinished too. Why finish a sentence – finishing things is such a bore – when there is someone else around to start a new one?

And so the whole conversation is carried not by even turns but by a series of abrupt lurches, collisions, and transitions. If nobody does me the courtesy of interrupting me, my statements tend to trail off inconsequentially: as though, without being interrupted at just the right moment, I lose all interest in my own sentences and cannot be bothered trying to finish them. As far as I am concerned, there is only one rule of conversation: the more violent the interruption, the better. 

Such conversation is less like tennis than like a game of rugby – not an orderly to and fro, but a wild haphazard flinging back and forth, punctuated by an occasional mad dash or brutal tackle or, if the ball is dropped, a quick ungainly struggle of seizing and grabbing, limbs flailing everywhere. That is how I expect any ordinary conversation to unfold.

My grandmother is a great talker. My mother is a great talker. I am a great talker. God willing, my children and my children's children will be great talkers too.

If my wife is angry with me and wants to torment me, she only has to practise what is called 'active listening': a horrible insulting procedure in which the listener politely nods, raises eyebrows, makes small encouraging indistinct sounds while you are speaking – instead of the proper thing, which is to contradict, expostulate, ridicule, vociferate, interject. Even when I am giving a lecture to my students, I feel restless and deflated if ever fifteen minutes passes without an interjection. It is a sign that I have failed to engage anybody; if they were really interested in what I had to say, they would all be talking right over the top of me. Polite, silent, attentive, 'active' listening is intolerable: it depresses me the way some people are depressed by cursing and shouting and thumping on tables. Hyperactive listening is the only kind I like.

Which brings me to that difficult and delicate subject: the German sentence. For all its elegant clockwork precision, for all its gothic poetical homeliness, the grave disadvantage of the German language is that it cannot be interrupted. For if you interrupt a German sentence halfway through, you might never get to learn what the verb was – whether she agrees to marry you or doesn't; whether their house was destroyed by fire or was saved; whether the person who invited you to dinner is horrified by cannibalism or is an eager practitioner. With the verb coming at the end of the sentence, and with the ever-present possibility that even the most vehemently opinionated sentence might end with that astounding little word nicht, interruption is, for all practical purposes, impossible. There is nothing else for it. You are in for the long haul. You will have to speak in entire sentences, and, what's worse, listen to them too.

Presumably that is where the impressive seriousness of German scholarly discourse comes from: from the habit of listening to a person all the way to the end of the sentence. Academic conferences in English know no such foreign niceties. For us, a gathering of scholars is judged not by who can speak and listen the best, but by who can provide the best and most brilliant interruptions. 'I have heard your subject, I have heard your verb, now let me tell you, sir, what I think!' This is excellent, and it is why our conferences are, as a rule, much more entertaining than the ones in Germany.

You can see the whole difference between these two languages if you walk into a Berlin bar around midnight. In any respectable English pub at that hour, everyone is talking, all together, all at the same time, all constantly and without ceasing. It is not so much a con-versation as a pan-versation. But at this cosy Berlin bar, you find people gathered respectfully in little huddles, speaking and listening in earnest, one voice at a time, everyone taking turns as if the whole thing were supervised by an invisible referee.

I will grant that the Germans invented quantum physics and psychology and moveable type and computers. Fair enough. I will grant that German is the language of science, of philosophy, of theology, of carefully crafted intellectual exchange. Like Latin, it is a language ideally suited to the university. But English – English! – is without rival as the world's great language of magnanimous interruption. A Christian woman I met in Berlin told me she likes to read theology in German, but to worship in English.

English is the language of dialogue – that haphazard rambunctious teemingly unpredictable grand good stuff of human speech. It is the language of Shakespeare and Dr Johnson, of Hollywood and Huck Finn, of Jerry Seinfeld and Jane Austen, of Facebook and Faulkner and Fawlty Towers and the glorious tumultuous clamour of the local pub.

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