"A very differentiated discussion"

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Today I learned a valuable new phrase. According to Nicholas Kulish and Paul Geitner's description of the recent European summit meeting in Brussels ("Euro Zone Crisis Boils as Leaders Argue, Failing at Pact", NYT 5/23/2012):

“Each of us spoke and put forward our position,” said Ms. Merkel, addressing the discussion of jointly issued debt, known as euro bonds, after the meeting. “François Hollande spoke as he said he would. It was a very differentiated discussion.”

Much better than "frank exchange of views".

I haven't been able to find video or audio of Chancellor Merkel's remarks — perhaps a reader can give us a link in the comments.


  1. Adam said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 3:31 am

    I guess it's the opposite of an integrated discussion.

  2. Paulus said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    In German "differenziert" is often used to describe arguments, criticisms, and so on which involve many "on the one hand … on the other"s. The quote "differenzierte und ausgewogene Diskussion" seems slightly unidiomatic. What Merkel means by "differenziert" is that the exchange was nuanced, discriminating, subtle or many-faceted ("ausgewogen" means balanced). The sentence does not (literally) imply that there were great differences in opinion (though it may suggest this pragmatically). It seems to me "differentiated" is not used in the same way in English, but not being a native speaker I can't be sure.

  3. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 6:47 am

    Yeah, it's a straight (wrong) translation of German differenziert. Differenziert often goes along with sachlich, and it is used to express the information that the discussion was fair, detailed and stuck to the issues.

    What it often means is: "we managed not to have an intemperate shouting match", but it is completely neutral as to whether the discussion yielded any results.

  4. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    The curious thing is that the word differenziert does not occur in Merkel's remarks in the official transcript of the press conference (It's the next-to-last answer):

    Either someone along the line slipped it in in the course of summarizing this answer, or it was an interpreter's mistake.

    It did strike me as untypical of Merkel to fall for such a basic false friend in such an important statement. But of course: on an occasion like this she would not risk speaking English in the first place. Her language in this answer is a model of bureaucratic/diplomatic precision – well, she is in a very, very tight place and the stakes are gigantic.

  5. Craig said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 7:11 am

    @Ben Hemmens

    To me it looks like the word is right where it should be in the link you provided:

    "François Hollande hat sich so geäußert, wie er es angekündigt hat, aber es war hier eine sehr differenzierte Diskussion."

  6. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    Oh, you're right. It's there. Right at the end. Sorry. So they took the first and last sentences.

    Merkel begins with:
    »Jeder von uns hat sich einmal gemeldet und seine Standpunkte dargelegt. Wir haben unterschiedlich über die Euro-Bonds gesprochen.«

    For me, these two sentences form a pair and frame the answer; I wonder if that has something to do with why I failed to notice the last clause of the last sentence.

  7. Jimbino said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 10:01 am

    "Each of us spoke and put forward our position,” said Ms. Merkel, who does not speak such bad English characterized by disagreement between 'each' and 'our.'

    What she apparently said in German is: "Jeder von uns hat sich einmal gemeldet und seine Standpunkte dargelegt," which is grammatically correct and politically incorrect (in Amerika), 'jeder' and 'seine' being fully masculine.

    Sad but true: Germans speak far better English than do Amerikans, having no notion of justification of bad grammar through descriptivism.

  8. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    a) For a lot of people, that sentence is just as undesirable in German as it is in English. It wouldn't be unusual to hear something like "Jede und jeder von uns hat sich einmal gemeldet und alle haben wir unsere Standpunkte dargelegt"
    b) The Duden is, on the whole, a work of descriptivists. There are many instances in which it does not take sides on existing usage variants. It happily publishes a list of new words every year.
    c) If Germans, in general, could speak better English than Americans, I'd be looking at a nice easy weekend …

  9. Andy Averill said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

    My Harper-Collins German-English dictionary gives "subtly differentiated" as the first translation of differenziert. In English, "a subtly differentiated discussion" strikes me as marginally more idiomatic that just "differentiated" by itself, but it would sound rather odd in an official statement. "Nuanced" is probably the best choice.

  10. Howard Oakley said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    "Subtly differentiated" or "nuanced" does not seem to be the reading of others here, and is certainly not the implication of "very differentiated", although I agree that the latter is not an easy turn of phrase.

    Perhaps if the 'very' sense is desired, a more natural expression would be to borrow from the medical "well differentiated", classically used to describe the histological appearance of tumours, and meaning that the cells have undergone substantial differentiation from generic cell types to those of the tissue from which they have arisen. In this context, I would understand 'well differentiated' to mean that there were clear differences between the parties to the discussions, although this is expressed in a neutral and not conflicting way.


  11. richard said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    This use of "differentiated" reminds me of the use of that term in education-speak: "differentiated education" means teaching lessons that are tailored to each student's needs and abilities. However, Merkel's comments as a whole remind me of a comment long ago by John Kenneth Galbraith to the effect that when a diplomat characterizes discussions as "useful," they mean that nothing happened, but when they characterize discussions as "productive," they also mean that nothing happened.

  12. M. Drach said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    Howard Oakley,

    German "differenziert" really does not imply differences between the participants in the discussion. In fact one can perfectly well have differenzierte thoughts all on one's own.
    Google yields sites offering a "differenzierten Bericht (report)", "differenziertes Krafttraining (strength exercises)" or requiring a "differenziertes Qualifikationsprofil", for example.

    I'd translate it as "nuanced" or "many-facetted", depending on context.

  13. sister_luck said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    Another German here who uses differenziert as described above – it's either a pedagogical approach or the ability to discuss arguments in a nuanced way, i.e. showing the differences between viewpoints and explaining them. It does not necessarily mean a frank discussion, just one that presents all arguments thoroughly.

  14. Kris said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    Jimbino, you're quite wrong. The so-called generische Maskulinum does ignite a lot of controversy. Studies show that many women do not feel included by it, and that native speakers in general associate male referents with masculine plural nouns if used in that sense.

    Following the UNESCO guideline for gender-neutral speech, you'd probably have been better off with using "jede Seite/beide Seiten" or "wir alle".

    Angela Merkel does use the generic masculine a lot, which could be due to the fact that she grew up in East Germany, and also that in her conservative party, gender-neutral speech is not as big an issue as in the parties on the left.

  15. djw said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    Since my knowledge of German stops at maybe gesundheit, I have no idea how good the translation is, but from what the German speakers here say, I wish we had a good word to carry this meaning and political discussions that merited it here. I don't see any of the suggestions here quite putting it into a single word. (I think of "differentiated" as being pretty similar to "nuanced," but that's not quite what I get from "fair, detailed and stuck to the issues," which is the phrase I really like here.)

  16. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    If "frank exchange of views" hadn't become a euphemism for a bust-up with shouting and throwing of laptops, it would be quite a decent translation ;-)

  17. Jimbino said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    Hemmens and Chris,

    Y'all have to deal with the fact that a German knows what "subjunctive" means, not to mention nominative, genitive, dative and accusative, and has an understanding of the proper sequence of tenses, while the typical Amerikan has no clue whatsoever.

    Furthermore, the German understands the difference between sex and gender and does not get all bent out of shape to find out that a little girl and a young lady are both neuter.

  18. Kris said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 5:29 pm


    if you keep making sweeping generalizations like that, then I'd like to ask you for citations. If you're talking anecdotally, then I know plenty of Germans who don't have a clue either. I even knew a high school German teacher who couldn't explain the difference between den and dem.

    And you're wrong again regarding the "little girl". There is research by Friederike Braun on the issue, there is a tendency to use the feminine pronoun if the antecedent refers to a woman, even if the noun is in neuter gender.
    You can do the google test yourself and look for "Das Mädchen hat ihre". (Though the effect is more pronounced across sentence boundaries, e.g. "Ein Mädchen….. Sie…..")

  19. Jimbino said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 5:58 pm


    I taught physics in a German gymnasium with concentration on modern language and was impressed that:

    1. All the students had to gain fluency in English, German and French, and they did;

    2. All the students had five years of math, through differential equations;

    3. All the students had to have five years of physics;

    4. The students could drink wine and beer in public at age 14.

    5. My Kameradshaft of students between 14 and 18 regularly invited me to go skinny-dipping with them.

    I returned to Amerika to confront a mighty sad situation regarding both education and liberty.

    Of course there are Germans who don't master proper German, but they don't pretend to maintain a descriptivist language log to offset their deficiencies.

  20. Rubrick said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

    Some words may translate poorly into some languages, but trolls are universal.

  21. Ø said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

    Jimbino, if you can't spell Kameradschaft better than that then I don't think you should be allowed to go skinny-dipping in public.

  22. Tom Ace said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

    I like how the prime minister of Luxembourg put it: "We had a not unheated discussion on euro bonds."

    (quoted by Bloomberg News)

  23. Mark Etherton said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 7:30 am

    @ Ben Hemmens

    I think, speaking as a former diplomat, that a 'frank exchange of views' is just shouting; if the participants throw things at each other, it's 'a full and frank exchange of views'.

  24. Andy Averill said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    @djw, "nuanced" and "differentiated" are perhaps very similar in meaning, but not in usage. A Google search finds almost no straightforward examples of "a differentiated discussion." If you modify the adjective, as in "a more differentiated discussion", or "a very differentiated discussion", then it becomes more likely, but still quite rare.

  25. Eric P Smith said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 7:30 am

    On first reading, I read "very differentiated" as meaning "polarised". In other words, the minds did not meet.

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