Adam Fletcher (bald) and Paul Hawkins at a book fair, in a screenshot from their Denglish video; Paul atop his Batman car in Prague. All photos supplied by Paul Hawkins.
Like other U.S.-based World Cup fans, I’ve been thinking a lot about Germany lately. The nation certainly has been generous in loaning the U.S. national team all kinds of soccer coaching and playing talent. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann is a German soccer legend, and five players on the U.S. squad spent most of their lives in Germany, including one of the team’s star players, Jermaine Jones (his father, an African American U.S. army soldier, met his German mother while stationed in West Germany; they later divorced).
But is it possible Germany should be offering us even more, as in new words and language possibilities? The answer to this question will require the help of today’s guest, Paul Hawkins, a young British expat in Berlin. With his writing partner and fellow British expat, Adam Fletcher, Paul recently produced Denglish for Better Knowers, an illustrated book of German words and sayings that, in the view of this comedy duo, ought to be imported into the English language.
(German, really? Doesn’t it have lots of rules and too much grammar??)
AND WE ARE GIVING AWAY A SIGNED (PAPERBACK) COPY! Just leave a comical comment on this post, to be eligible.
Paul and Adam may be expats but they are tapping into the long and great British tradition of finding comedy in the quirkiness of everyday life, something I came to value during my expat years in the UK (and still miss). What’s unusual about this pair, however, is that they aren’t afraid to dig for material in a country that has long been reviled by the English (see my recent post on the World Cup). It helps, no doubt, that they’re Millennials. But has their creativity also been sparked by the sheer act of being displaced, of having to navigate another cultural and linguistic tradition? Let’s hear what Paul has to say.
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The book was published in German and English, each language beginning at either side of the book, by C H Beck.
Hi, Paul, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Before you and Adam came out with Denglish for Better Knowers, Adam produced an earlier work, How to Be German in 50 Easy Steps. What exactly was the impetus for this series?
Well, How to be German was sort of this big, happy accident of Adam’s, where he poked and prodded the various eccentricities of his long-suffering German girlfriend, Annett, and then extrapolated his findings to about 80 million people. But to be fair, he’d also lived in Berlin for seven or so years, during which time he’d had lots of humorous experiences with the curious creatures known as Germans. In fact, the book grew out of an article of the same name Adam wrote, full of his observations about what makes Germans German, from their love for sparkling apple juice to collecting insurance contracts and tilting their windows. His post struck a massive nerve and went viral. Adam describes the book as a “love letter to the German people,” who had somehow adopted him for having such profound insights into their national character. Thanks to him, they were no longer being portrayed as eating sausages, drinking beer, and wearing leather shorts…
Is your German not the yellow from the egg?
Denglisch for Better Knowers is a follow-up of sorts, a kind of “love letter to the German language,” where we get to celebrate and poke fun at Deutsch (even as we struggle to learn it!), in hopefully a way that only dumb aliens to the language could. Oh, and although I’d assisted Adam with the first book, this time around he roped me into being a co-author. I don’t remember why, but I think it might because I have hair.
And the pair of you also run an online business of sorts, called The Hipstery. In fact, that’s how I first discovered you. How does your entrepreneurial venture fit in with the book writing projects?
Adam and I are creative, but we don’t have very long attention spans.The Hipstery has proved the perfect way to exploit these independently useless character traits. It’s a kind of long-running shambles of a gift business. In fact, it’s been a few different things at a few different times, depending mostly on mismanaged excitement, deluded whims, and confused expectations—perhaps the least impressive of which was an actual shop in Berlin, which, by the end of its short, lazy lifespan was only open for about two hours a week, on a Thursday afternoon, sometimes, maybe. We would get excited, make a little product (a poster, a T-shirt, a game, for example) and quickly release it, after which we got bored and moved on to the next thing.
Published in German and English, each language beginning at either side of the book, by Ullstein Verlag.
And at some point the “next thing” became Denglisch for Better Knowers?
In fact, the book began its life as a nice design on a poster, and then one day we saw a lot more humorous potential in the concept.
Let’s talk about Denglisch the word. What does it mean exactly?
Denglisch refers to the increasing amount of English words sneaking into the German language, in place of working, pre-existing German alternatives. It gets used a lot in the German media and tends to consist of ‘”cool”, buzzy, international, marketing-type words such as upgedated, downgeloadet, outgesourcet… Well, our idea was that German has so many great and often humorously unique words that English doesn’t, it should lend us some words, too. In the book, we make a case for our favorite “German” ways to enrich the English language.
With the German language is very good cherry eating
I visited the picture gallery of ten colorful German expressions, watched the promotional video, and even took the Denglish Quiz (got 70%) on the book site. Of all the German words and expressions that appear in your work, which are your top three faves and why?
I guess my three personal favorites would be:
1) Ear worm (Ohrwurm)—describes the phenomenon of getting a song stuck in your head. It’s such a simple, perfect word, it’s amazing English has nothing like it.
2) Hand shoes (Handschuhe)—German for gloves. It’s so lovely. I know this flies in the face of everything I just said about German words that English doesn’t have, but I don’t care. I want it!
3) Is it art, or can I chuck it? (Ist das Kunst, oder kann das weg?)—a wonderful idiom and great example of German humor. I don’t think it needs explaining. It just needs using. It becomes especially useful whenever the British artist Tracey Emin is selling something…
Hmmm… Were there any German words or expressions that didn’t make the book, as the concepts they express are too foreign to be used in English?
There’s quite a lot which didn’t make the book, but I have the time-bothered memory of a deranged old lunatic, so I can’t think of that many examples now. Oh, there was that expression Himmel, Arsch und Zwirn!, which we didn’t include for some reason. It translates literally as “Sky, Arse, and Thread!” and serves as an exclamation of annoyance, like shouting “Damn!” or “Blast!” or “Bollocks!” (if you’re English). It’s pure nonsense (or “nonsense, with sauce,” as you’d say in German), and I guess that’s why we couldn’t include it. You can’t fight fire with fire, and you can’t write nonsense with nonsense, because galactic haircut trouser squabbling. Indeed.
OooKay! Probably I need to read the book to interpret that last statement. I’m curious, how did you and Adam meet, and was it “collaboration” at first sight?
Despite us both being English and both living in Berlin, in fact we first met in the Czech Republic. Basically, I flew out to Prague on a whim in 2012 because friends of mine were driving a convertible painted like Superman there as part of a car rally, after which they planned to dump it. I told them to give it to me. I didn’t have any plans or ideas what to do with the car… all I knew was that if you can get a Superman convertible for free in Prague, you’d be an damned fool/respectable citizen not to do so. Not long after my arrival in the Czech Republic capital, I posted a message on CouchSurfing…something like, “Hello, I’m an idiot who came to Prague, and I don’t know any one, and I’m bored, and do you want to meet for a coffee or a beer?” Well, Adam, who was also in Prague with a friend, replied to my message, and we met up. We soon got talking about what we did: writing, well, actually comedy writing…actually, fairly absurd comedy writing. And upon realizing we were pretty much writing the same kinds of stuff, in the same kind of style, with the same kind of humor, it wasn’t long before we decided to try something together. Pretty weird, right?
Um, what’s the best and worst part of working as a team?
Writing as a team is mostly very fun. The best part is getting to make and hear jokes all day—as opposed to sitting alone, typing gibberish, and always wondering: “Is this funny…? Maybe it’s funny… I don’t know…” The worst part, however, is when you come up with a hilarious punchline like “Congratulations, Binky!”, only to find Adam wont let you use it for some boring reason like: “It doesn’t make any sense.” Which might be true, of course, but let’s not take Adam’s side here.
Is your English all under the pig?
Which part of the UK do you and Adam come from?
I come from London, or North London, or North of London, or Broxbourne, depending on whether I think you know where it is. Adam is from a different place, most notable for it being totally unmemorable. I guess he’s told me about forty times where he’s from, and the only thing I can tell you about it for sure is it has a dreadful school and might be vaguely near Norwich.
And how did you end up choosing to live in Berlin?
Adam moved to Leipzig for a job around seven years ago and then to Berlin about two years later when he became self-employed. I moved here a year and a half ago, for similar reasons. It’s a great place to live and roam free amongst all the freelancers. We call it the Mecca of Delayed Responsibility.
Do you think you will ever repatriate back to the UK?
I don’t think Adam will repatriate because he was never a big fan of England (small talk, weather, having to think before speaking, etc.) and because he’s increasingly becoming somewhat of a reluctant, and highly unqualified, pundit of German culture—something he’s trying to correct throughout his next book, Make Me German. As for me, I could still imagine living in London, just as soon as I become a mega rich oil-baron oligarch with unlimited Oyster card funding. One key difference between me and Adam is the amount of German we’ve learned. The more time you’ve invested in the language, the less you can bear the thought of wasting it by leaving! He’s a lot more invested than I am…
You said that Adam is working on another book. How about you: any more creative projects in the pipeline?
Yes, Adam is hard at work on his next book, Make Me German, which entails undertaking a series of amusing challenges in pursuit of finally learning enough about Germans and Germany to justify his nonsensical position as a spokesperson for their sense of humor. He was last seen trying to write a Schlager song and Nordic-walking in the most German place of all German places, Majorca. As for me, I’ve just finished a book, which comes out in Germany at the end of August, called How to Operate a Human (Gebrauchsanleitung Mensch, in German!) It’s a fun little book rather like an iPhone manual (except for people), which I won’t be able to read.
What do you mean you won’t be able to read it? How is your German coming along these days?
Mein Deutsch hat sich verbessert, aber ich kann meinen eigenen Unsinn immer noch nicht lesen.
Which leaves me with only one thing left to say: Alles klar!
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So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Paul? Or do you find yourself nonplussed, without words, for what you’ve just heard? In case his rants have made you curious, be sure to:
YOU CAN ALSO LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW to be eligible to win your own free copy!
Can’t wait to order the book? Paul suggests doing so from the Hipstery site, which offers worldwide shipping.
Finally, should you wish to follow Paul’s brilliant career, he can be found at his author site, Hencewise, on Twitter and on Facebook.
To reiterate, alles klar!
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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One of my favorite Germanisms is “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.” I only understand train station. I don’t know the official origin, but I like to think it is the idea of sitting on a train or at a station listening to the announcer. It is obviously important, but often the only word you can manage in the echoes is “train station”, which, if you are sitting there, is really the least usefu word.