There is a lot of truth to this Economist article about German humour and I refer back to it a lot.

Shortly after moving back to Germany in 2012 after decades of absence, mainly in Anglo-Saxon countries, I took my kids to the Berlin zoo. The children were two, four and seven at the time, and had already developed a keen sense of irony – or at least they understood that dad doesn’t always mean things literally, because, you know, it’s funny. So we queued for our tickets, trading silly jokes. Like me, the kids are dual citizens of America and Germany, though at that time, fresh from California, we still felt more American and more at ease in English. But we deliberately spoke German, to help us acclimatise to our new home. In a mood of levity, we approached the ticket window.

The lady behind it informed me that the price for the elder two was such-and-such and the littl’un was free. “What if I pay you a bit extra and you keep them?” I suggested. The kids chortled and started naming prices that might clear the market.

The lady stared back, horrified. Then, slowly, she leaned forward to look at my children, who stiffened. “Your dad does not really mean that,” she said. “He does not really want to sell you.”

That pretty much killed the mood for all four of us until somewhere between the giraffes and the polar bears. “Why did she say that?” my daughter asked, in English, as though out of an instinct for cultural self-preservation. As I pondered the question, I couldn’t help but think there was something peculiarly German about the lady’s reaction. First, Germans really, really struggle to grasp non-literal meanings. Second, Germans really, really can’t help but say when they think you’re wrong.


This opening story on literalism is great but there are more points in there, like the need to correct people and how isolating and grating this is for foreigners.

The point I take from it which also relates to the fact that street slang is segregated in Germany (as opposed to France). Educated Germans will not use words from the street register in normal conversation for fear of looking uneducated. You can see this for instance in the criticism Rezo gets for his use of mixed language in his serious videos. ‘Wrong’ use of language is used as an excuse to put people down. This happens to me as well every time I make a mistake.

The counterpoint is that anything said in High German is considered to be true or at least intended to be a statement of fact. The literalism is the baseline for all interactions at that level. They are literally incapable of feigning.

You can imagine the problems this creates and how unfixable they are because they are so deeply embedded in the culture. The only way out is through. The Rezo generation needs to create a new culture and the old needs to die off.

Tram lines

Looking at this map of expansions we may have a tram line in front of our house in the near future.

“dass deutsche Behörden und bürokratische Prozesse mitverantwortlich sind am Scheitern des Start-ups.”

A kind of magical thinking that would rely on collaborating with German government institutions for your startup. The only way that is going to work is if you have a very special (paid for) in into the CDU. Also otherwise a hilarious story about the weird world of cyber.,Sbzq3WP

German adjective inflections demystified

I see lots of people still struggle with the German adjectives and especially the fact that there are three tables, one for each of definite articles, indefinite articles and when there’s no article, for 48 separate inflections.

The German inflection table with the cases in the wrong order.
The correct order is: nom./gen./dat./acc.

It looks pretty intimidating and back in school my brain refused to do learn this. I crammed it for a test, immediately forgot it after and German classes turned into agony.

There are various mnemonics going around to make the table easier but I’m not in favor of rote memorization if there’s also a logic behind something. As with all language, the entire thing is based on the principle of energy conversation while maintaining essential information and harmony. That’s my non-linguist intuition. Linguists feel free to chime in.

The entire table can be boiled down to five rules.

  • Definite nom./acc. singular: all -e (because a definite article has all the information and is leading, so no further decoration or information required on the adjective) except for masc. acc. which is -en (because acc always has -en and it sounds weird without it)
  • Indefinite nom./acc. singular: all congruent with the article: einer guter Mann, für einen guten Mann, eine gute Frau, für eine gute Frau etc. (because the article still has all the information but it is weaker/indefinite so the adjective helps out)
  • Definite and indefinite gen./dat. singular: all -en (all the information is in the article so no need to repeat it but good to have some differentiation from the nom./acc. cases)
  • Definite and indefinite plural: all -en (because it’s plural)
  • No article: the adjectives take the endings that would normally have been carried by the article (because there is no article and otherwise the case information would not be there) except for masc./neut. gen. where the -s is on the noun

That’s it. I hope this adds some logic to something that otherwise feels totally random for German learners.

With practice you can look these inflections up in your head and with even more practice, anytime somebody uses the wrong inflection, it starts to sound wrong (that lack of harmony), just like it would to a native speaker.

Drastically lowering the voting age as Germany is considering here would solve a huge amount of problems (which is why it will of course not happen).

David Runciman has argued along similar lines that rejuvenating democracy usually happens by expanding the franchise, in this case to children.