RECENTLY, at a friend’s birthday party in Austria, I turned to the cultured Italian sitting next to me and asked his nomination for Europe’s most exciting city. ‘‘ Berlin,’’ he offered without a moment’s hesitation. Others at the table disagreed. ‘‘ Prague,’’ chirped one. ‘‘ Budapest,’’ countered another.
An interesting general consensus soon emerged: the centre of European cultural intensity had shifted from Paris and was edging its way eastward like a weather system. It now lay, to adopt a satellite view, over a world in which German is either the mother tongue or a favoured second language. The northern Italian powerhouse of Milan could also be considered an honorary member of this zone, as it’s a city that once lay within the vast reach of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one in which German is taught widely.
So there are plenty of sound cultural reasons to learn German, not least of which, if you happen to be a classical musician, is the German zone’s status as Europe’s orchestral and operatic hub. Yet only a little more than 2000 Australian school students take German at Year 12, about 10 per cent of the total number of language students at that level. It’s a pitiful statistic in a grim picture of language achievement in a country whose future depends on its openness. Our political and economic leaders bang on about open markets but nowhere near enough is done, from a language perspective, about open minds.
Of course one feature of the German linguistic landscape that does no good for its international presence is the Germans speak English.
German, as it happens, is the first language I was taught. I learned it at a Queensland school and, while the tuition was pretty risible, I consider myself fortunate not to have been born a few decades later. Queensland schools in the 1980s and 90s ripped out German as if it were a linguistic weed; it was replaced, with disastrous consequences, by Japanese: a language that the Japanese themselves, if you catch them after a few sake or Sapporo, warn foreigners to leave well enough alone.
The German I learned was threadbare and my attempts short-lived. More indelibly scored on my mind than its tenses and cases were the attempts of my first German teacher to endear us to the language. The second German word I learned was father or vater, pronounced to a schoolboy’s ears like farter. And in that first lesson I also imbibed the German for sleighride: schlittenfahrt, which was pronounced by my teacher with a silent ‘‘ l’’. I can’t say I blame the chap, for his Teutonic gutter-talk was an immensely effective piece of classroom control. But it was a rather off-key introduction to the language of Goethe and Schiller, Rilke and Heine, the mother tongue of Bach,
that most Mozart and Beethoven. German was also the language in which the Weimar Republic, bauhaus and the Austrian Secession were forged, in which both modernism and, via Heidegger and Husserl, postmodernism put down their taproots. Of course it was also the language in which Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto; in which — ahem — Mein Kampf was penned; and in which centuries of European anti-Semitism reached their terrible nadir. It is the language in which the 20th century was formed.
Before World War I, the German language’s reach was broad and under the Hapsburg monarchs it was spoken by half of Europe. But its popularity declined after World War I in the anglophone world, partly in a gesture of cultural retaliation. And with the abomination of the Third Reich it became, to some extent, the language of the bad. It is still regarded by many as an unattractive language — harsh, cold and guttural — with none of the romance of, well, romance languages. And yet it was once a language of song, of high culture, of great learning and heartfelt hospitality. It remains, in its way, a beautiful language: a language of great feeling, of passion and humour, and of the most improbably long compound nouns, described aptly by Mark Twain as ‘‘ alphabetic processions . . . marching majestically across the page’’.
I made some of these points to the Germanspeakers at the birthday party and they were, naturally, chuffed. I would have liked at that point to unbottle my schoolboy German but given the polite company, it is probably just as well I kept schlittenfahrt to myself.