Gaurav Monga (India) is a writer and teacher originally from New Delhi. He has 7 books to his credit. His work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including B O D Y, Fanzine, Juked, Tammy Journal, Spurl Editions, Queen Mob's Teahouse, Birkensnake amongst others. He is a regular contributor to Outlook India. He teaches English, German, literature, epistemology and creative writing, and has taught at schools and universities in India, Nepal, Switzerland, Dubai and the Czech Republic. He is currently translating selected works of Robert Walser, Peter Bichsel from German to English and Urdu. He is a member of an international art and lifestyle movement called Neo-Decadence. His current literary work looks at the relationship between fashion and literature.
Eine Sprache in Migration
Sprache is mehr als Blut—Franz Rosenzweig
It is worthy of note (noteworthy) to notice that a book entitled Stilistische Deutsche Grammatik is written by Wilhelm Schneider, a German tailor with a name like Wilhelm who clearly likes to stitch together sentences. He begins his book by interrogating Das Wesen des Substantives, the being of the noun, contending that the noun is by far the most important of the three Hauptwortarten, the trinity of main word types. According to Schneider, the noun describes not only living beings and inanimate things in space but also serves as the grounds upon which verbs operate in time. He continues by asserting that it is also the most important because it stands alone, independent, self-sufficient, unlike a verb or adjective whose function is subordinate and dependent on das Wesen des Substantives.The noun, Schneider contends, is a closed unit unto itself. It names things, states of being, processes concerning the world and the spirit and as a result, it’s being, the noun it stands for, allows for it to emerge as the word of words.
In Deutschstunde, by Siegfried Lenz, we encounter in the first chapter an adolescent boy, Siggi Jepsen who, growing up in Hamburg during the Nazi era, refuses to write an essay on the ‘joy of duty’, while his father, a police officer is called to duty by being compelled by the authorities to visit a friend, a known expressionist painter of the time, who in the Jepsen household goes merely by the name, Maler (painter), with strict and clear orders that the latter should cease all artistic creation, that his work is degenerate. Siggi’s father, however, follows commands, but does so hesitatingly, by postponing the moment, in die Deutschstunde.
The Germans have a fascination with the grammar of ancient languages, particularly that of Sanskrit. Perhaps, unlike their European brethren, their form of colonising entstammte aus einem intellektuellen Neugier. Max Mueller never visited India, even once, but thrived at Oxford translating The Vedas. In a sense, the Germans must feel related to ancient Sanskrit linguists, such as Panini, who gave much credence to grammar, so much so that Alexander von Humboldt cites Panini in his linguistic work. Manfred Mayrhofer wrote a Sanskrit Grammatik. In his introduction, he first probes the etymology of the word, Sanskrit, stemming from, Samskrita, which means ‘preparation for sacred rites’. For these German grammarians, learning Sanskrit must have been a preparation for a sacred rite, in itself, like following a holy grail.
In Schneider’s Grammar, he often references other grammarians, such as Theodor Kalepsky who wrote Neuaufbau der Grammatik, a book that was published in Leipzig. When discussing the adjective, Schneider draws a comparison between the adjective and the noun, and contends (again) that unlike the latter, the former cannot stand on its own two feet—these are things I teach my students. Kalepsky argues that the adjective can not only not name an object, it cannot even render a characteristic, aspect or feature, even in its broadest sense; it only ‘carries’ or ‘wears’ (tragen) an attribute conferred onto a noun. When teaching young children German grammar, I often ask them to use the adjective in an absurd way, as a mnemonic device. I tell them that I don’ t need to necessarily be ein dummer Mann, I could as easily be ein dummes Buch , eine dumme Kartoffel oder ein leeres Zimmer.
Erich Fromm devoted an entire study—a book— to Haben oder Sein, the two basic verbs we teach our students when introducing them to a foreign language, any language, even German. I ask my students to write five sentences beginning with Ich habe and five sentences with Ich bin, forming at a very early stage in foreign language acquisition, an exercise in self-portraiture. A close friend of mine often refers to Fromm, when describing me. He contends that er hat nichts aber er ist vieles.
In the last twenty years, I have taught the German language many a time, but most experiences have led to failure, not because of poor teaching—although my students may feel differently—but due to surrounding circumstances. Either, the school shut down, or the school did not have enough students who wanted to learn German—they all wanted to learn Spanish, for some reason—or in one case, whilst teaching German to an American couple, I was told that I could not continue teaching without the necessary papers. Instead of teaching German, I sold shawls in fairs. I have, however, taught German privately to individuals who have admired, more than anything else, how I present her Grammatik as a perfect system. Perhaps, for me learning the German language and the role it continues to play in my life is not so different from the way Max Mueller translated The Vedas, the enactment or rather preparation of sacred rites that have very little to do with ever visiting Germany or spending time with people from there. It is afterall, following a holy grail, perhaps to a past that is murky.
Once two brown boys—my friend and I— both dressed in Kaftans, walked into a bakery in the suburbs of Stuttgart (the locus of Jud Suess). Jemand hat uns gefragt, woher wir kommen? Ich habe gesagt, wir sind gestorbenen Juden, die durch ein Wunder wieder entstanden sind, oder vielleicht eigentlich aus Versehen.
Martin Buber, the Jewish-German philosopher, apart from compiling Hasidic tales from the Baal Shem Tov and being essential to the revival of the Hasidic movement, developed theories on relations. In his book Ich und Du, Buber contends that there is no ‘I in and of itself, that an ‘I’ can only exist in relation to ‘you’ or for that matter ‘it’. He speaks of life via these essential pronouns, and in my mind accomplishes marvels with his grammar. He distinguishes I-You as a word-pair being different from I-It.
People often ask me, what kind of woman would you like to spend your life with, could you perhaps enumerate her characteristics. My only answer to that is that I would like to be with a woman whom I love, whose characteristics are incidental, no matter what they are. Buber contends that when ‘I’ proclaims ‘you’ that ‘I’ does not have something for his/her object, for wherever there is something, there has to be something else. Every ‘it’ borders on other ‘its’, but with you (darling) there is nothing, no borders. With you, Ich habe nichts aber Ich bin, I remain in a relationship, and therein lies, Buber says, the cradle of actual life.
In a German classroom in Basel, I was once accused of being racist by a gifted Minnesota Mädchen of German origins. She said that the witch’s hat made by one of the students to perform the Märchen resembled a Klu Klux Klan disguise, and all this happened under my watch in Die Deutschstunde. Die Deutschstunde muss nicht notwendigerweise eine Stunde dauern, die Deutschstunde ist ein Geschichtsprozess.
I should not have tried to march backward in search of the holy grail, following Hänsel und Gretel’s breadcrumb path. One of the reasons I teach them Märchen, in the first place is to demonstrate the extensive use of the diminutive nominal forms by virtue of the suffixes, chen and lein. I often start with a Märchen—not coincidentally the German fairy tale transpires in a diminutive setting comprising kleinvölker—called Libussa, the opening lines of which run as follows: Tief im Böhmer Wald, wovon jetzt nur ein Schatten übrig ist, wohnte vor Zeiten, da er sich noch weit und breit ins Land erstreckte, ein geistiges Völklein. The Maerchen, in my mind, plays a central role in German history and letters. Apart from being a great language resource to teach my kinder diminutive nominal forms, it is my belief that much of the modern German imagination stems from the German fairytale, whether in literature, film, philosophy, opera, science and political thought, it follows the traditions and laws of the brothers Grimm.
German Literature is endlessly teeming with suffering school children and (even) teachers. The 18th century Swiss writer, Jeremias Gotthelf, wrote a veritable tome dedicated to the joys and sufferings of a school teacher. Written in the first person, the narrator speaks of his journey through school(as if through a dark night) first as a Lehrbube, a school going student, the poor son of a weaver, to a teacher. In the same (Swiss) spirit we encounter much later, Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, a riddle of a boy whose existence in the context of the novel is defined by a deliberate ambiguity and darkness emanating from a school ridden with absent teachers, a cruel headmaster and children with no aspirations, school as a kind of swamp, a kind of Maerchen
Peter Bichsel, a Swiss Schulmeister and author of Eigentlich moechte Frau Blum den Milchmann kennenlernen, compiled essays in a collection called Schulmeistereien. In the opening essay, he gives much credence to the verb werden. He contends that he would rather say, Ich gehe morgen nach Aarau than Ich werde morgen nach Aarau gehen. Werden, though in the latter sentence merely means I will go tomorrow to Aarau, also references becoming, sein und werden, being and becoming. Du wirst in Militär Ordnung lernen, you will learn a sense of order in the military, becoming as a kind of threat (at school)
To lighten the mood, Bichsel contends that unlike the wisdom of pedants reserved for the future tense, children like to remain in the conjunctive, in the ‘was-waere-wenn’, and in this connection are content asking a question like this: A child asks his mother what day it is, and his mother says, Wednesday, to which the child says, Was waere, wenn Donnstag waere, what would it be if it were Thursday?
One of my favourite German verbs is ‘kennenlernen’, to get to know. German, in fact, has two verbs that mean ‘to know’. Ich weiss, was deine Frage bedeutet (I know the meaning of your question.) Weiss comes from Wissenschaft (science, scire, in Latin, to know). Kennen, on the other hand, is the kind of knowing that involves, let’s say, to know what your girlfriend is all about. Kennenlernen, as a result, is to get (learn) to know (the milkman) that gets so wonderfully split across the brea(d)th of a sentence, like other trennbare verben (separable verbs). In den letzten Jahren, lerne Ich meine Freundin, ihre Familie, und ihren engen Freundeskreis kennen.
In my study, there is a bookshelf replete with language learning material, many of which are German Grammar books. Sometimes I feel I should write my own book, entitled, Gaurav’s German Grammar, perhaps only for the alliterative effect. I often teach case declension using examples in Latin, primarily because Latin is inflectional, where the syntactical function of the noun is explicitly manifest in its morphology. Oswald Spengler wrote Der Untergang des Abendlandes, Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte. To perceive (wahrnehmen, to take as truth) world history as a formal process might smack of a predisposition German in nature, one of the reasons perhaps I was drawn to the language in the first place. It is no accident that German philosophy is written in German. The ability to nominalise, to form a noun (word of words) is essentially the ability to construct concepts
In German, prepositions even affect case. There are certain prepositions that give rise to the dative case, whereas others that are associated with the accusative case, the former designates an indirect object, whereas the latter a direct object. In sentence constructions where there exist both, we teach our students the rule of N-D-A, nominative-dativ-akkusativ, nur in dieser Reihenfolge. Ich würde immer sagen, Ich gebe meinem Vater einen grossen Kuss. This rule is fixed and (f)rigid.
There are also prepositions that go with both cases, known as wechselpraepositionen, changing prepositions that can either align themselves with the accusative or dative cases, contingent on whether there is movement or not. Ich bin in der Stadt (I am in the city) aber Ich fahre in die Stadt (I drive into the city). It’s interesting to note that how to be inside something—like to be inside the world, argues Heidegger, though on a surface syntactical level appears no different than for tea to be inside a cup, is essentially different, for to be inside the world is a characteristic inherent to us, for which very reason we are here, in the first place.
In the case of Wechselpraepostitionen there is no apparent logic as to which prepositions go with which cases; much like many other phenomena in language, it’s arbitrary. Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist and ur-semiologist who died before penning down a book and whose lectures were collected by his dear pupils, pointed out very early on, on the arbitrary nature of the sign. He contended that most signifiers have an arbitrary relationship to their respective signifieds, that apart from words that are onomatopoeic, there is no inherent reason why certain words sound or are s-p-e-l-l-t in a particular manner. He, however, does speak of the case of the compound noun—something teeming in the German language— contending that when constituent units strung together comprising a compound noun bear meaning, there is to some extent, not an absolute but a relative semantic connection between the s-i-g-n-f-i-e-r and what it signifies.
The German language allows for endless Komposita (compound nouns) . Although I am not completely certain why, it is my contention that it is because it’s roots lie in a largely single-line etymology. Words in English, such as depend hang onto the thread of another language. Depend, to literally hang from, from the Latin infinitive form, pendare, which means to hang. Hence, words like these: pendent, pendulum, pending. How is one to build larger compound nouns from building blocks nestled in the lexicon of another language, and how many people speaking English would even know the roots of which many of the words they utter lie? I can’t be certain as to how a German, Swiss-man or Austrian feels about his own language, but I would reckon that he would not be able to miss that the German verb, ‘Abhängen’ literally means to hang from, the constituent parts of which exist in the same language. The German language, as stiff and rigid as it may appear, is also at the same time malleable in regard to constructing compound nouns, and as result, concepts. No wonder that a language game like philosophy thrived in German letters. In Die Deutschstunde, I ask my students to make their own compound nouns, often words no-one has even heard before, their own novel concepts in a language they barely understand.
Heinrich von Kleist wrote a play called Der Zerbrochene Krug, which is conveniently translated into English as the broken jar. The Broken Jar could also merely be Der Gebrochene Krug. The prefix ‘Zer’ appears to be stronger in effect as far as the breaking is concerned . Packed in ‘Zer’ there is a hidden ‘Zwei’, the number two, much like the prefix ‘di’ as in the Latin divisere. A speech (Vortrag) in German can be split (zerfaellt) into theoretical and practical components. Zerfall also refers to decline, decay, the (zersplittern) splitting of which results in a fall, der Zerfall der Werte (a decline in values), perhaps even a splitting of unity, von Einheit zur Zweifalt, much like falling into a double life. Der Zerbrochene Krug, hence must mean more than just a mere broken jar.
As teachers, we are trained to use ‘initial representation’ as a pedagogical tool; students learn via the prism of the self. The self, in the most tangible and concrete way is crystallised via the body. Ich bin Gaurav. This body which I am is also me. Hence I start a unit with Mein Koerper, where they study their body parts. Mein Kopf, Meine Hände, Meine Beine u.s.w. I begin with ‘Mein Koerper’ and then proceed to the following unit, ‘Meine Kleider, the clothes that are worn on that body. One could go on and learn possibly everything in this manner, everything that pertains to ‘Mein . ‘Meine Familie’ is often taught in der Deutschstunde, a module that invariably involves creating a family tree and decorating the classroom walls with photographs of one’s own family members.
In a foreign language department meeting right after the war, we assemble at a large table to discuss lesson plans, during which an American colleague asks me how I spent my weekend playing with my kids. The head of the German department gets straight to the point, to which an Englishman retorts that the German language lacks a sense of melody. As a defender of this foreign tongue, I immediately reference Mozart , Schubert and even Wagner; our head of department cuts to the chase by contending that the Germans (at least) separate, like many of their verbs, speech from song, that unlike French, American, English, all syllables in Deutsch are ausgesprochen and nothing is left silent. She goes on to say that it is not important in a meeting right after a war to go on chirping endlessly about weekends spent with kids when you don’t have any, that instead of all this Harmonie, let us concern ourselves with Wahrheit.
This throws the American and Englishman (sounds like the beginning of a joke, but where is the Jew?) into a feigned state of shock, after which they decide to set up trials in Nürnberg followed by a similar protocol assembled in Tokyo. Die Wahrheit is that no-one is bathed completely in milk, and it is a little unfair, perhaps, that men who raped continents should speak in meetings about weekends spent with children, singing all along in key. Die Deutschstunde is ridden with infinite Schuld, (guilt and debt) where young Germans silence their grandparents for belonging to a Nazi nation, while these (Berlin) hipsters—representatives of an absent nation—fall into a missing blank between the past and the future, with no grandparents to speak to or get comforted by. One could venture so far as to say to say that they have been (ent)deutsched, that their so-called Germanness has been taken away from them by virtue of the prefix ent. The Jew in this instance is missing from the joke, for much like me in the meeting, he stood up for a club he did not even belong to, a club that he’d never belong to would they have him as a member.
I spent the first fifteen years of my teaching life, teaching children not only German but a whole lot of nonsense, both in my German and even English classes. In fact, in order to stress syntax, I ask my German students who have recently learnt relative clauses, to form complex German sentences, following the rules of German grammar, ensuring at all times that they use words and not gibberish. By stressing morphological and lexical aspects and excluding semantics, altogether, their attention gets naturally directed to form and content.I think that perhaps it is for this very reason that much of the content they do end up producing, as nonsensical and non-sequitur as it may be, is nevertheless often about what things are made of, form that is content.Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish philosopher contended that neither the envelope nor the enveloped object constitutes what is beautiful, but rather the enveloped object in it’s envelope, weder die Hülle noch der verhüllte Gegenstand ist das Schöne, sondern dies ist der Gegenstand in seiner Hülle. The students, while dabbling in nonsense, often produce sentences like these: (in English Translation) the seas are made of photo albums, doors, or tea-pots, or a home is made of broken horses. Form that is content, like looking into a pool of water.
Franz Kafka spent much of his short life writing and waiting for letters. His loves were largely epistolary and he even wrote a short story addressed to his father in the form of a letter. Once there were rumours about a railway strike which could have impeded Kafka taking a train to meet Milena, something which Kafka did not fail to mention to her in a letter, contenting that the railway strike could serve as an obstacle to sexual intercourse. Although the strike never happened, Kafka put off train travels and continued to incessantly write Milena letters, and in some of them spoke in detail about train schedules from Prague to Vienna. In one of his letters to Milena he confesses that letter writing is like ‘traffic’ with ghosts, not just the ghost of the addressee but also the ghost of the person writing the letters.
My thoughts naturally go towards the plight of the thankless mailman, and especially to one Otto Kranewitzer from Klagenfurt referenced in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel, Malina, a mailman, who having spent his entire working life delivering post enters in old age a moment of self-doubt causing him to hesitate to deliver letters, cheques in unopened envelopes sent from mothers to sons, resulting in a ‘mountain of post’ he needs to clear the furniture in his small apartment to accommodate for. One of the last letters, however, that Kafka did write was interestingly enough not written in German, or for that matter in Czech, but in Hebrew.
Puah Ben-Tovim, a twenty year old Jerusalem-born native speaker of modern Hebrew who had moved to Prague used to visit the already ailing Kafka twice a week to initiate him in the subtleties of of her native tongue. Kafka was veritably learning from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, for there were not even any schools yet in Palestine who taught modern Hebrew.
He had already expressed his desire to move to Palestine in a letter written a decade earlier to Felice Bauer, a woman he would get engaged to three times. Settling down in an inn— where according to his diary entry, the receptionist entered his name in the log as Josef K., the protagonist of another novel— in Spindelmuehle during the winter of 1922 , Kafka began work on Das Schloss,, a novel that revolves around waiting for letters of permission to enter foreign territory.
Puah Ben-Tovim, twenty years younger to Kafka and in much better health had recently crossed boundaries from Prague to Berlin without official permission from her father, Zalman Ben-Tovim, in the hope of pursuing studies that would enable her to become an educator in British mandate Palestine. In June, 1923, Puah Ben- Tovim awaited a letter from her father with express permission to continue traversing territories and borders.
Her situation, Kafka wrote to her in his only extant letter in Hebrew, was not so different from that of the (supposed) land surveyor in Das Schloss, for like K. in
the novel, Kafka, the letter writer, himself knew the feeling of having to wait in frenzied panic for an important letter wandering on its way.
I started learning German initially in school and stumbled upon it quite accidentally. I never learnt much in school like all other children. It was only after school when I discovered Kafka that I felt I should truly learn the language. Although I did not spend much time in class, I used to spend days on end reading Kafka in the institute (Goethe) library. I started with his diaries but was most drawn to his letters, particularly to Milena, although I first read his letters to Felice, a woman who, contrary to the meaning of her name, did not appear to be too happy, perhaps even unhappier than Kafka, himself. I would like to believe that K. was not truly unhappy, perhaps anxious a lot of the time. The fact that he was amusing and could make people laugh—when he read out the first draft of Der Prozess in Cafe Arco, his (Jewish) friends all laughed— convinces me that he must have had, in many instances throughout his short life—strong bursts of joy; he compared the last scene of Der Urteil where the protagonist hurls himself into a river of traffic to an orgasm, a burst of joy. Once he even burst out laughing at his boss’s face and was later compelled to write him a letter of apology for laughing which might have even been funnier than the laughing itself.
The German reader may not in fact even know what is happening, for instance, to Gregor Samsa till the very end of the sentence, for the verb, verwandelt (transformed) makes a tardy arrival, at the very end of the opening line, like the Messiah who arrives when he is no longer necessary.
In an application letter for a German teaching position at an International school in Dresden, I hardly even spoke about my German teaching experience—that should be clear from my CV—but put more emphasis on the bombings of the city. I mentioned that I would love to live in a city that was once destroyed. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, wrote an essay on ruin value, convincing Hitler that for the purpose of posterity, the German Reich must be built of materials that would not fall but rise to ruins. After the bombings of cities like Dresden, in order to put the city back together again, Germany’s new post-war architects and city planners had no choice but to rely on Speer’s plans—in a sense, Hitler’s vision was, in fact carried out—while Speer was rotting away in a prison cell writing his diaries which would later be published as one of the many censored footnotes to the war. One often, whilst roaming small towns in Germany, confuses a new church for an old
one, a church that rises to ruin, as if a war never happened here, in cities like Dresden, perhaps where the International school is situated. I tell the director of the school who interviews me on Zoom that the main motivation to teach Deutsch, especially in a city like Dresden stems from the comfort and familiarity I feel to live amidst ruins.
I imagine myself an ageing teacher of German in America (Kafka’s original title for his novel Amerika was Der Verschollene, the man who disappeared) growing old in a veritable melting pot, lonely, teaching the genitive case (a case of belonging) to a multicultural classroom in an International School as a form of self-exile, to enter this German priesthood, which in some bizarre, pathetic way provides a strange sense of previous comforts, laurels already achieved, strengths already gathered, grammar rules already learnt. Die Deutschstunde comprises resources gathered from the internet, student generated work and old textbooks, one of which belonged to my father, an old German textbook my father must have bought in his boyhood with the intention of learning German in just twenty lessons. Like him, I too have tried learning many languages, imagining myself a hyper-polyglot, but somehow I cannot go behind German—it seems to encompass my life—because I have yet to perfect it, it still suffers from blindspots and full-stops. My vocabulary is limited, though I manage saying quite a bit with the little I know. I don’t have the necessary German language teaching qualifications, and so all the German teaching jobs I have had, have been mere flukes. Die Deutschstunde taught by a man of Punjabi origins who fancies himself an extinct Jew, a replica of Kafka in terms of appearance. He let’s slip foreign jargon into the Wortschatz ( treasure of words ) providing the German language its secret heft, like an animal in a synagogue, a Leopard who breaks into the temple and drinks to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers, which is repeated over and over again(like grammar rules); finally it can be calculated in advance and it becomes a part of the ceremony.
 Gleaned from a parable by Franz Kafka