We all know the power of gifts as well as of weapons. But let’s ponder that of words. Because there are so many nuances to what has to be ascribed to something Germans call Sprachgefühl (approximately pronounced ‘spruh-ga-fool), the feeling for language. This term has actually made it into the English language because it describes what’s going on in use and abuse of language.
Basically, it all starts with our own mother tongue. We know (or don’t know) when to use which kind of words and expressions. We do so already as a child, as we learn our language from our guardians and peers, later from the social contacts we have. The more intricate the Sprachgefühl of our social surroundings, the more intricate is ours. Which makes Sprachgefühl something that belongs to the fields of sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics. We know which language to use in which circles of society (sociolinguistics) and to what purpose (psycholinguistics).
Basically, we use words as an agreement whether we approach a person as a friend or foe, on the same level or in a hierarchical one, and we can use them – to put it bluntly – to manipulate others. We will use more deferential language with somebody whom we look up to, unless we lack Sprachgefühl. This morning, as I’m writing this, I received an email from a German company; they addressed me as “du” – a no-go between people you don’t know. The young lady obviously is either manipulated by a misled company code to say “du” to anybody, even to people not belonging to the company, or she lacks the Sprachgefühl of politeness between strangers. And no, she spoke her mother tongue; anybody with a foreign mother tongue would be forgiven the lack of linguistic finesse.
Sprachgefühl is also a matter of tenderness towards friends. It is a weapon against political opponents. We can smite our foes with such fine abuse that they will find it hard to put anything against it. Or we can do it so bluntly and in sub-par ways that manipulation fails even with those on the same side of the aisle. Manipulation is hitting home in bribing somebody by the right choice of words in the right situation. Sprachgefühl lies at the roots of a functioning group of people.
Sprachgefühl is not a means to learn foreign languages though it will be helpful, for sure. In recognizing the mechanisms of our mother tongue and, therefore, its finer details, we are able to discern those of a foreign language as well. As you all know by now, my mother tongue is German, and I started learning English only as of 5th grade. As I started watching subtitled BBC Shakespeare plays on TV as of 8th or 9th grade, I realized that there is a difference in English and German wit.
The German language uses words that pretty much come to the point for everything. Some might call this precision, others bluntness. The English language has a lot of homophones, words sounding the same but meaning different things (e.g., bare as in nude and bear as in carry) and homonyms, words with the same spelling and different meanings (bear as in the animal and bear as in carry). Which means that the level of double entendre is way higher in English than in German. Try to translate an English double entendre into German, and it will most often fail unless you change the entire imagery involved. Most German jokes don’t translate one-to-one into the English language either.
Sprachgefühl is something that is needed to hold peace. It is a means to inclusion as it is to exclusion. A community only functions via communication, aka language, after all. That is based on an agreed set of social and psychological rules. And as with any set of rules, some people know them, others don’t. Let’s say, I don’t hold with those who know the rules and don’t play by them. How about you?