August 31st, 2020

Why it's okay to be the world's ugliest language

People who like using command-line interfaces on computers are probably aware of the | character, often called the "pipe", or more descriptively, the "vertical bar". This character is most commonly used to "pipe" the output of one command into another. For example, if you have a text file and want to search for the word "cucumber" in the file, you can use a command like "type filename.txt | find cucumber". The command "type filename.txt" causes the text in filename.txt to be output, which would normally just show the content of the file on the screen, but piping this output into the "find cucumber" command instead tells the find command to look for any instance of the word "cucumber" in that content. (This command works under DOS/Windows; the same principle applies in Linux if you change "type" to "cat" and "find" to "grep".) The other day, one of my co-workers referred to the pipe character as the "Befehlsverkettungszeichen", which literally means "commandchainingsymbol". This struck me as such a stereotypically German word that I felt like the world is a better place for having such a word in it. Seriously, in what other major world language would people use a word like "Befehlsverkettungszeichen" conversationally in normal everyday speech? What other language uses an entire dictionary description to form a noun?

Okay, to be fair, Germans often also simply call this character the "Pipe", because they are fond of borrowing words from English, especially in the context of using computer technical jargon. Then too, English doesn't always call this character the "pipe": As mentioned, it's also sometimes called the "vertical bar", because English still has a lot of German in its DNA, and indeed, German also sometimes calls it the "senkrechter Strich", a literal translation. But my point is that when Germans coin new words, they often prefer to have the most descriptive term possible, something which actually describes what something is or does rather than just making up a new word unrelated to any previous words. This is what leads to those elongated words that have become a stereotype of the German language. People who don't speak German are often astonished at the length of these compound words, but in fact, the words are quite simple to understand because they are formed of several smaller, recognizable words. For example, the German word "Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih" is something of an Internet meme because there's a photograph of a shop with this word on it, but in fact, this word simply means "floorpolishingmachinerental", which is not a word in English but which any English speaker can reasonably easily interpret. This is a good word because it succinctly describes the function of the store in question; had this store been located in America, it would have borne a sign saying something like "Kwik-E Wax" or something similar, leading consumers to scratch their heads and wonder "Huh? What is that?"

Many languages, when coining new words, feel the need to make words somehow "cool" or "stylish" because they have an inferiority complex and feel that they are inadequate if they don't come up with some flashy, catchy word for every imaginable concept. This is particularly true of Romance languages: Had the English term "pipe" been carried over into French, it would probably be called the "phippaeiou" or something similar. A prominent real-world example of this is the French word "courriel", which was coined as a word for "e-mail", although this word is mostly used in French-speaking Canada rather than in France itself. Nearly every other major world language is content to just say "e-mail" or some literal translation of "electronic mail", but apparently the French regulatory authorities felt that doing this would be too boring and pedestrian, feeling the need to instead make up a new word that sounds creative and clever. "It is a courier that is electronique, you see? Le smart!"

To be fair, German does this sometimes as well, and many German words are similarly Germanized forms of English words, because German and English descend from the same proto-Germanic language, and so most English words which are not modern neologisms already exist in long-established forms in German. For example, I once saw a Polandball strip in which Germans called a shovel a "Sandbewegungsgerät" (sandmovingdevice), but the actual German word for a shovel is simply "Schaufel". Like English, German derives many words from Latin, Greek, and other international languages. But if you're making up new words, why shouldn't a language use descriptive names for objects? Is it really so bad to use a description as a name? This process simplifies language because instead of trying to memorize a word which has no relation to what the word actually describes, remembering the word is easy because the word literally is its own description. "Hmm, I forget, what was the word for the floor polishing machine rental? Oh, wait..."

Many, many people have accused German of being horribly ugly for this simplicity, insisting that the only way to live is to name objects the same way car companies name cars: Take an entirely random word which has no contextual relation to anything whatsoever, or better yet, say something completely nonsensical which is not even a word but which sounds good, then assert that this is a new word. People are awestruck by the "beauty" of this process, proclaiming the nonsense words which come out of this process as works of genius: "Wow, this word is so cute and cool and stylish! I'm sure glad that we speak this civilized language instead of those mean old Germans who only name things descriptively. What an awful, ugly language they have!" Sorry, English and French, but with all due respect to what are two fine languages, it's okay to be "the world's ugliest language" if it means that the language can be simplified because things are named descriptively. One of the nice things about Germans and the German language is that they have nothing to prove: While other languages feel the need to strut on a stage and show off how modern, trendy, and stylish they are, German and Germans are fine with quietly attending to their own things and calling things as they are. If that's not good enough for you, you can become awaymoved.