Precious linguistic ignorance

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You know, I don't feel so good today (streaming cold, much work to do, no energy, and a foreign trip coming up on Thursday), but the extraordinarily stupid re-subtitled war film video snippet Mark just posted, featuring Hitler going into a wild tirade over having his grammar corrected, made me laugh out loud. Thank you, Mark. It was perfect for me, because (I have to admit this) I mostly don't understand spoken German at speed, especially when shouted in an apoplectic fury. Having a good passive knowledge of spoken German would kill it stone dead, I would guess. My ignorance made it absolute bliss.

This is not the first time I have reflected on the value of linguistic ignorance. I happen to love the music of the Gipsy Kings, but one day I realized to my horror that instead of just responding to the fire of the music, I was actually beginning to understand the vapid words of one of the songs ("I want to go back to the mountains where I was born…"). Since then I have tried really hard to avoid listening to the words. I want it to be strange, fiery music, with spectacular guitar work, and words I cannot understand at all. Words expressing emotions I can only imagine. But I have found Spanish rather easy to begin to comprehend, so I have to be really careful to preserve my inability to follow along with the lyrics. It is hard, though. As Lady Bracknell says, in a wonderful line in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, "Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone."


  1. John Ross said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    My Scottish father used to say about those heartbreakingly ethereal ballads in Gaelic that when you found out what they were about it was always how she had been hanging the washing out or something. I haven't found this in Spanish, for the most part (Castilian Spanish at least) – pop is just pop, in any language, while Spanish folk musics (is that acceptable English?) like flamenco have always attracted quality poets and writers. So perhaps the problem isn't so much the language as your choice of listening – the Gypsy Kings had a hit with 'Volare,' remember, not exactly "a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted."

  2. rip said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    Thank you for explaining why I didn't find it funny at all (my first language is German). I was beginning to wonder …

  3. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    I was mildly disappointed when I learned that the words to "Du Hast" by Rammstein aren't quite as harsh as I imagined they might have been.

  4. Rubrick said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    I'm glad that my ignorance of German has allowed me to so enjoy this transliteratively subtitled version of Moskau, one of the funniest things I've run across.

  5. Stuart said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

    I made this discovery about my beloved Hindi filmi songs after only about 6 months learning the language. While in the car with a couple of friends from Punne and listening to a filmi song I hadn't heard before I remarked that I could have written it, and they assented with an alacrity that confirmed my suspiciions. Probably because the core vocabulary for the genre consists of just a few hundred words, many of which are not often used in other settings.

  6. Helma said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 12:09 am

    Anyone familiar with the Italian singer Paolo Conte? He sprinkles English into his songs, but insists that he tries hard not to learn the language; that would spoil the effect.

  7. chris said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    Surely this is also the reason for the popularity of opera in languages other than English – and the relative unpopularity of opera in English…

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 5:37 am

    There are numerous cases where a couple who don't speak each others language fall in love, and get divorced when they do learn the language.

  9. Rick S said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:56 am

    SQB: I was mildly disappointed when I learned that the words to "Du Hast" by Rammstein aren't quite as harsh as I imagined they might have been.

    You do realize, don't you, that Rammstein is deliberately playing a joke on the audience here (du hast vs. du haßt)? But I feel you, brother. I chuckle every time I see American audiences spurred to ecstasy by the lyrically banal "(Hier Kommt die) Sonne".

    For those unfamiliar with German techno, "Du Hast" begins:
    Du… (you)
    Du hast/haßt… (you have/hate)
    Du hast/haßt mich… (you have/hate me)
    Du hast mich gefragt (you have asked me; haßt is no longer tenable)

  10. vanya said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    On the other hand Blumfeld, the Hamburg indie group, writes songs with some exceptionally good lyrics – but the music doesn't have the hooks to get them out of the German-speaking world ( or maybe even into the German speaking world, they aren't really that popular even in Germany.)

  11. Michael Tinkler said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    Is streaming video like a streaming cold?

  12. David Marjanović said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    You do realize, don't you, that Rammstein is deliberately playing a joke on the audience here (du hast vs. du haßt)?

    Wow. I didn't even notice — and I'm a native speaker… But, yes, perfect homophones, and the voice in which this is sung (a very deep growl) fits the "hate" interpretation very well.

    Is streaming video like a streaming cold?

    Depends on the speed of your connection.

  13. Brian said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    "pop is just pop"? Delicate exotic fruit, indeed.

  14. TB said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    Rubrick, I'm not sure knowing German would necessarily kill the fun. I showed a Japanese music video with that kind of subtitles to some of my English-speaking Japanese friends, and not only did they find it hilarious, they also said they couldn't hear the Japanese words–the English subtitles were sort of overwriting them in their minds.

  15. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    For people who fear that understanding the lyrics will spoil their listening experience, I heartily recommend Black/Death/"Extreme-"whatever Metal.

    Or for that matter, Opera. :-P (Ah, I see Chris made that observation already)

  16. Aaron Davies said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 1:17 am

    re: Rammstein: this reminds me of a pun found in Lit's "Miserable": "you make come/you make me complete/you make me completely miserable". this was echoed in the other direction a couple years later in the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Tara ends her song by repeatedly singing "you make me complete" to Willow (her girlfriend), and gets cut off one syllable early by the scene change.

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