Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Sprechen Sie English?

About making another post about language I am afraid.

Helen learning (Swiss) German has been busy and I had have some language learning do myself. However, there can be no book for grammar reading or checking dictionary as I already told was what the rules grammatical are and the vocabulary I know before.

One of the hardest aspects of starting a new job in Zürich has been learning International English. Unlike Americanese this is not a bastardised version of English, rather it is a confusing result of any number of mistranslations. And it varies according to the origin of the speaker.

It is easy to understand how this happens. I have (at least) two similar problems with German.

I really struggle to say 'wann' and not 'wenn' if I want to say 'when'. This is quite problematic, especially in shops and service situations. "I would like a sandwich if there is no mayonnaise in it" begs a response but "I would like a sandwich when there is no mayonnaise in it" can lead to a really long wait.

And whilst in English we use the word 'time' for both instance and duration, in German I often use 'zeit' (duration) instead of 'mal' (instance). It is hard to translate the difference between 'zeit' and 'mal' because we are so used to describing both concepts with the same word. But perhaps it is something like:

Colleague: Greg, are you coming to get some lunch?
Greg: I'm a bit busy today. Next era.
Colleague: [blank face]

This varying use of the English language makes for an interesting mental workout as you can never assume that what you heard is what was meant. And it makes for great confusion in the impersonal assaults that are business emails these days.

But it makes you a bit more humble about your own use of the mother tongue. And a bit more precise. Given my natural tendency to loquacious language this is quite an interesting test.

That said, working with the part of the organisation that sells to and supports customer across Central and Eastern Europe leads to some incredible sentences.

Try this:
  • go to
  • type in (or copy and paste, as you prefer) This sentence really should make sense
  • now copy the text translated into German and paste it over the English sentence
  • now translate it back from German to English.
Admittedly, Babelfish is a notoriously bad translation tool but imagine if that had been a forty-odd word sentence with conditional sub-clauses and complex concepts...

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Expat Encounters/ Swinging Switzerland

Our social life is still a bit limited, and we haven't met many people apart from Greg's colleagues and my German classmates. So we went to an expat drinks night last week to try to make some new friends. Having no idea what to expect, but feeling we really ought to do something, we turned up at a rather smart bar, (feeling rather underdressed), prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. To begin with, conversation was quite stilted and the early arrivals tended to stay for one or two drinks before heading home, but soon people warmed up and were quite friendly. A few of the people I spoke to were really genuine and engaging, but there were also a couple of real fruitcakes in attendance. We swopped tips about house hunting, job hunting, German classes and supermarkets, and it felt like maybe there was some common ground to build from.

As the evening wore on, and the drinks continued to flow, there was a fair bit of flirting in the air and some of the later arrivals of ladies were rather revealingly dressed. Group conversations started to turn into one-on-ones, leaving an ever shrinking pool of those not yet paired off. Not really sure of my social footing, I was chatting away quite happily in a small group, until someone remarked (on learning that Greg and I were there together), that there were plenty of swingers clubs in Zürich if that’s what we were into... and at that point it dawned on me that we were the only couple in the bar! We stuck it out for another drink, and on the way home agreed that whilst it had been great to flex our social muscles a bit, we might give it a miss next week.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Not death, famine, pestilence, war and Fabian (the most popular name for Swiss boys) but the five languages of Switzerland.

Really this is about the use of English in Switzerland but we'll need to cover a bit of background first.

Switzerland has four official languages (you can decide for yourself which one is death, which famine, which war and which pestilence). These four languages are:
  • Swiss German (not German);
  • French;
  • Italian; and
  • Romansch.
Swiss German is distinct from (High) German in more than just dialect. Most notable to the casual observer is the presence of non-German words in common parlance. For example:
  • the hairdresser is a 'Coiffure' not a 'Frisuer';
  • a bicycle is a 'Velo' not a 'Fahrrad';
  • wish someone a good meal with "En guete" (which roughly translates to have a good digestion) instead of "Malzeit!"; and
  • thank someone with "Merci vielmal" instead of "Vielen dank".

French is a language spoke in the part of Switzerland to the west of the Röstigrauben (Rösti ditch) and Italian is spoke in the sunny southern canton of Ticino (over the hills and nearly in Italy).

Romansch is spoken by about 1% of the Swiss population located in parts of south-eastern Switzerland. In fact it is a group of dialects but is officially recognised as a language as it is the closest living relative of spoken Latin.

However, it is the fifth language that is of most interest. This unholy and unofficial half-brother of the four official languages exists for a good reason. Is is not very efficient or cost effective to always use four languages.

If you are trying to shift inventory then designing, producing and placing promotional materials that say
(and a word in Romansch that I can't find online!)
is not a good idea.

A simple sign that says Sale can be understood by all, is cheaper to produce and doesn't take up all that valuable window space used to entice people into your shop.

But beware of thinking that all usage of the English language in Switzerland is so sensible.

In fact, don't think of the use of English at all. It is not like the French adopting English words to create 'le weekend' and 'le parachuting'. This is a (sub)language in its own right - dubbed Swinglish.

The most notable example of Swinglish is the word that the Swiss use to describe what it is to think and behave in a way appropriate to being Swiss - 'Swissness'. An important concept in a country of compromise and agreement.

But there are some occasions where Swinglish provides some confusion and (oft puerile) entertainment for a native English speaker.

Exhibit A is the German for mobile phone - das Handy.

Now, sometimes the Swiss call it a 'Natel' and "mein Handy" doesn't sound quite the same in a Swiss accent. But it's still a bit confusing...


Exhibit B is a popular Swiss German superlative. Through the 20th Century, popular American culture brought words like 'hip', 'cool', 'bad' and 'wicked' to the land of 'super', 'spiffing' and 'ace'. And the Swiss have… 'tip top'.

Exhibit C is the use of the word 'hit' to describe a deal. Remembering that the German language compounds nouns this can lead to some interesting results. Price (Preis) deal is mildly amusing and deal of the day (Tag) a little entertaining. But the supermarket Migros has won my award with this promotion at its cafeteria.


But none of this schoolboy humour can quite prepare you for this range of dental hygiene products. Are you sure you want to put that in your mouth?


Friday, 18 February 2011

Ich mache ein Deutsch Kurs

Thought it was time for an update on my German-learning progress. I started a German beginners course a few weeks ago, and now spend four hours a week at night school bashing my head against German grammar in the convivial company of my classmates. We are a very mixed group, containing 3 Brits, 3 Italians, 2 Serbians, a Slovakian, a Chinese chap who doesn't speak much English, a Nigerian, a Portuguese and a lady from Thailand. Selecting a suitable neighbour to share German dictionaries with is therefore a challenge - the German for vicino (Italian) is nahe, in case you were wondering. Everyone is very nice, and the camaraderie of bewilderment should not be underestimated as a means to bridge our complex language and cultural barriers.

My German has now progressed to the point that I can order a coffee, decline an accompanying pastry, ask how much things cost, exchange greetings with our cleaner and explain that I have only been in Switzerland for 6 weeks so I don't know enough German for anything else. One thing I have not learnt yet, but which is becoming a pressing need, is how to give directions. Apparently I have the sort of face which people like to approach in the street - this is not new news to me, but it throws up some interesting opportunities to cause well meaning chaos. Now that the weather is a bit warmer I am continually waylaid by Swiss people in need of a map. My pointing skills are legendary, however, this week's task is to learn how to differentiate between first and second on the right/left.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Hunt Begins

Well, it is unseasonably warm in Zürich at the moment (again!).

We were not expecting double digit temperatures in early February and certainly not double digits above zero.

But there is a lovely Spring feel in the air that makes for a great opportunity to get out and explore the city.

It comes at a good time as it is now time to start to find somewhere to live once our three months in temporary accommodation finish at the end of March and it isn't so easy to get a feel for a new city when ten to fifteen minutes outdoors is enough to make the end of your nose freeze!

There are many interesting views on the Zürich rental market on the various web sites, blogs and forums. Most of them contain cautions, warnings and horror stories. But I'm not sure that many of the authors have dealt with the rental market in London.

I think that helps. Certainly as far as prices go. Although the volume of available flats isn't what we're used to in the big smoke.

We are expecting some interesting local curiosities in the rental process. Already we have identified that not only does the rental depend on location, location, location but so does the level of taxation and the cost of health, contents and possibly even public liability insurance. Whilst the taxation differences might be worthy of consideration I have never previously selected where to live based on the cost of insurance products so I don't think I'll start now (although maybe the health insurance).

Wednesday will be our first viewing (well, my first viewing as Helen will be on a plane back to Züri) and I'm expecting to be one of many turning up at 17:00 for the public viewing appointment.