15 November 2017

What is liturgy and why is it necessary?

The following was originally posted on Quora as an answer to the question at hand.

I literally just did a workshop on liturgy for my parish last weekend. Liturgy is a big passion of mine. The word liturgy comes from Greek and literally means “public service”. In other words, by doing the liturgy, we are rendering a service unto God and our community.

In general, liturgy refers to the structure and ritual elements of a church service, be it a Mass/Eucharist or daily prayer.

Liturgy and ritual or rites are often (mistakenly) used as synonyms. Actually, liturgy specifically means ritual with a purpose.

The purpose of liturgy is to lead people to God and one another. That’s it. Which sounds simple, but it is actually not. Liturgy should (in a Christian context) take disparate people, with different tastes and beliefs and ideas and backgrounds, and join them together as one mystical Body of Christ.

That is a tall order. And anyone trying to claim that one particular liturgy works for everyone — one size fits all — is horribly mistaken.

Liturgy also seldom “just works”. It requires constant education and catechism of the parish to help them understand the meaning and purpose of the liturgy. The parish ideally should also be active participants in the liturgy, not just passive spectators. By involving the parish directly in the liturgy, they are joined more effectively with one another and with the living God made truly present on the altar in the Mass.

But liturgy does not stop there. All of this is utterly pointless if the people who consume the transformed Body and Blood are not themselves transformed. If the parish members do not take heed of it and go forth into the world to make it a better place and care for God’s gift of creation, then the liturgy has singularly failed to fulfill its purpose.

The liturgy thus should help us to see and hear and feel and touch and taste Christ, not just in the Body and Blood, but in our fellow human beings. “God became man so that man might become like God.” That is the basic sentiment and mission of the liturgy.1 Everything else is just gravy.

1 See Wikipedia’s article on Divinization.

15 September 2016

The simplest explanation for the difference between nominative, accusative, dative and genitive articles in German

The following was original written in answer to a question on the topic on Quora.

Nominative: Subject case. The thing performing the action. Marked below in bold.
Accusative: Direct object case. The thing being acted upon by the action. Marked below in italics.
Dative: Indirect object case. The thing receiving the action. Marked below in bold italics.
Genitive: Posessive case. Marked below with ALL CAPS.

Consider these nouns, all masculine (der in nominative):

Der Junge (the boy)
Der Knochen (the bone)
Der Hund (the dog)
Der Nachbar (the neighbor)

Consider this sentence:

Der Junge gab dem Hund DES NACHBARN einen Knochen
(The boy gave the NEIGHBOR’S dog a bone)

Because of these inflections, German is able to reverse word order while maintaining the same meaning, but creating subtle changes in emphasis:

Dem Hund DES NACHBARN gab der Junge einen Knochen
Einen Knochen gab der Junge dem Hund DES NACHBARN

In each case, the noun that comes first gets added emphasis. This sort of highly flexible sentence structure is virtually impossible in modern English without resorting to prepositions or other constructions.

There are other ways case is affected, particularly by prepositions. The dative prepositions always cause nouns that directly follow to be dative:

Aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber

The accusative prepositions always cause nouns that directly follow to be accusative:

Bis, durch, entlang, für, gegen, ohne, um

Finally, these flexible prepositions can be either dative (if static) or accusative (if implying motion or change) depending on the situation:

An, auf, hinter, in, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen

In dem Zimmer is dative and therefore means in the room, whereas in das Zimmer is accusative and thus means into the room.

There is more to it than that, but that’s it in a nutshell.

17 August 2016

Gender in German: Time to abolish it (or change its name)

After a long hiatus, there was a topic that came up in an online conversation that has inspired me to write about a topic near and dear to me: German grammatical gender. Mind you, I have mastered German pretty well — in fact I can write paragraph after paragraph of flawless German (though for some reason every four or five paragraphs I have one that goes completely all to hell). I also actually think I do get why German has gender — and (hopefully) can show you how it works so that you can appreciate it.

What bugs me is the way grammatical gender is perceived, both inside and outside the German-speaking realm. This is what Mark Twain, in a fit of frustration, wrote about the subject:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. [...] A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female -- tomcats included, of course; a person's mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it -- for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person's nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven't any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.


In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not -- which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds -in, and that stands for Englishwoman -- Engländerin. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: "die Engländerin," -- which means "the she-Englishwoman." I consider that that person is over-described.

So it is easy to make fun of — if you don’t understand what gender is for and what it really is.

Grammatical gender in German actually has nothing — I mean nothing — to do with “gender” in the sexual sense. Zero. De nada. Twain’s observation above that a girl (das Mädchen) and a female (das Weib) are both “neuter”, while a cat is female regardless of its real gender (die Katze), should clue you in on this, but Twain definitely missed the point.

After some 20+ years of speaking the language on a daily basis, I think there is another explanation for the origin and purpose of grammatical gender. If you look at how plurals are formed, they are fairly consistent across each of the three genders. Usually this is taught as “if it is masculine, then it forms the plural like this”. I think that that is actually backwards. It is “masculine” because the plural is formed a certain way, not the other way around.

If a word’s plural adds an umlaut and an -e, like Topf -> Töpfe, then it almost certainly is masculine. Or if it remains unchanged in the plural, then it is also most likely masculine, like der Knochen -> die Knochen or der Knoten -> die Knoten.

If a word’s plural adds an -en or -n, like die Frau -> Frauen or Lampe -> Lampen, then it is almost certainly feminine.

If a word ends in a diminutive (-chen or -lein, such as Mädchen), or adds -er to form the plural, then it is almost certainly neuter. Hence das Mädchen becomes die Mädchen in the plural, or das Kind becomes die Kinder.

In the end, the “gender” is thus a tool for marking words for forming plurals in certain ways. It is nothing to do with sexual gender.

Granted, there are exceptions to these rule above, and Germans reading this will no doubt start posting them in response. The thing is, no language is 100% consistent — English is a particularly sloppy and irregular language. While German is indeed far more regular and systematic than English, that does not mean it is completely consistent. I submit that the plural is the real basis for the so-called “gender”.

So why bother with grammatical gender? Well, it actually helps make the language far more supple and subtle in phrasing and word order. German is able to play with word order in sentences in ways English can not remotely compete with. Consider the following three sentences:

Der Junge gibt dem Hund den Knochen.
Den Knochen gibt der Junge dem Hund.
Dem Hund gibt der Junge den Knochen.

All three nouns in this are “masculine” — der Junge (the boy), der Hund (the dog), and der Knochen (the bone). All three sentences thus mean almost exactly the same thing: The boy gives the dog the bone. The only subtle difference is one of emphasis. Where the first version matter-of-factly says the boy gives the dog the bone, the second emphasizes that the THE BONE was given, and the third emphasizes that THE DOG was given a bone. All this just by swapping word order — something which is impossible in English without adding prepositions. The bone gives the dog the boy means something completely different and only makes sense when we add those prepositions or use passive voice: The bone was given by the boy to the dog.

English had this same system once upon a time, when it was still Anglo-Saxon, before the Norman invasion of 1066. The genders, along with nearly all traces of the cases (dative and accusative), were lost over time as English became the language of simple peasants, while the elite spoke Norman French for some 300 years. We get by without it in English, but I think the language is actually somewhat poorer without it. Yes, it is easier to learn for new speakers, but it is also far less flexible and efficient in expressing complex thoughts.

Seen that way, the “gender” could really just as well have been called the “flavor”, with “der” words being sour words, “die” words being sweet words, and “das” words being salty words. The masculine, feminine, and neuter labels have caused all sorts of misunderstandings — and not just by non-native speakers.

To illustrate this misunderstanding: German and English have diverged dramatically in the way they try to become “gender neutral”. Where English tries to abolish all traces of gender from daily language, such as avoiding the -ess ending and preferring neutral terms instead — flight attendant instead of stewardess, chair instead of chairman, etc. — German has gone the polar opposite way.

German feminists get really offended if you forget the -in feminine ending for a woman’s job position, for example, or forget to use it in the plural. So instead of forming the plural for der Lehrer as die Lehrer to encompass all teachers, whether male or female, they insist on using the plural feminine form of -innenLehrer und Lehrerinnen — or sometimes resorting to the rather clumsy short form of LehrerInnen with a capital I.

This results is some really tortured and clumsy grammar. Where politicians, for example, would address others as a group as liebe Bürger (“dear citizens”), now they resort to liebe Bürgerinnen und Bürger (“dear female and male citizens”).

In our church, this had an even more strange effect — one that I tried to point out at our synod in a debate on the subject, but which unfortunately got nowhere. You see, our church — the Old Catholic Church in Germany — is quite vocal about supporting women’s ordination. Which is fine, I support it, too. But part of the point of women’s ordination, I think, is the notion that a person’s gender should not matter in performing their function as clergy. Otherwise, if there is a difference between the genders, that unwittingly opens up a hole for arguments as to why women should not be ordained.

Either gender matters for the priesthood, or it doesn’t. I happen to think it does not. But if it does…then what? And if it does not, then why insist on it being mentioned?

So ironically, by insisting on saying die Priesterinnen und Priester (“female and male priests”) instead of just die Priester to mean “priests”, the feminists among us are in effect forcing us to note the gender where gender isn’t supposed to be relevant.

This on top of the fact that science is showing us how gender is far more complex than a mere binary of male and female. It just is not the case that a person is solely male or solely female. The two blend into each other, like a continuum. Some people are well on the male side of that continuum, some are well to the female side, but in the middle there is a grey area. What about intersexed or transsexual people in Germany? How are feminists going to label them? Would an intersexed priest — not outside the realm of possibility! — be a Priesterin or a Priester? Would a transsexual teacher be a Lehrer or Lehrerin?

If we simply dump the whole idea of grammatical gender having anything to do with biological or sociological gender, then the whole problem disappears — while maintaining the grammatical flourishes and subtlety that grammatical gender provide.

For those Germans reading this (and I would be happy to translate this into German to make it easier for them to read!), think about it. If you really want German to be an inclusive language, and I hope you do, then let’s stop using “masculine/feminine/neuter” to describe grammatical gender. Or at least stop mixing grammatical gender with gender politics. Because it just makes no sense to do it.

26 January 2016

The “Awful German Language” or How to Remove your Pickelhaube

The following was originally written for my English for Scientists class at the Leibniz Institute in Potsdam for doctoral students. Enjoy.

The following is just my opinion, and should be taken with good humor. However, it is worthwhile for you to consider as students of writing in English. When Germans start to write in English, there are certain habits they keep from how they learned to write in German. This is natural. Nonetheless what may seem like good style to a German will not be appreciated by an English speaker. Instead, it can be very frustrating and annoying.

In the English-speaking world, a very different style is considered better than in the German-speaking world. When Germans write in English — and their Germanness is plainly obvious — and I have to proofread and correct it, I call it “removing the Pickelhaube” from the text.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the culture clash that results from this difference in style than the classic text The Awful German Language by Mark Twain. In that article, the famous American author and satirist savagely (but hilariously) described German grammar.1 He wrote:

There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed [sic] in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose [sic] three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.

This shows the kind of frustration that an English speaker feels when reading a text that is opaque and hard to understand, especially when it comes from a German trying to write German in English. (It is worth noting that modern 21st century editors would heavily criticize even Mark Twain’s 19th century text for being too complicated and not simple enough.)

My observation is that German writers and readers want and expect a kind of intellectual fireworks. It goes like this: If the text is ornate, complex, and elaborate, then the content is also more highly valued. I see it all the time in popular German newspapers and magazines, from Die Zeit to Der Spiegel to Der Tagesspiegel to any given literary or scientific publication. The contrast with English could hardly be greater: The English-speaking world by and large prefers a purely pragmatic, utilitarian, simple style. English texts should be clear, simple, easy to understand: These are the hallmarks of good writing in English, whether scientific, journalistic, or creative.

We must always remember this basic law of writing — you are not writing for yourself, but for your audience. Your readers will probably not be fellow Germans, but English speakers from all over the world. They will be both native and non-native speakers, with all sorts of reading levels. These poor souls may struggle to understand your “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein”, no matter how much effort you may have put into your rhetorical flourishes. Thus you are doing your readers a great service by keeping your text as simple and direct as possible. They will thank you for it.

So how do you do it? What are some signs of Pickelhauben in your text? Here are a few examples:

Run-on sentences. If you have a sentence that contains more than one complete thought — or worse, many — then you probably have a Pickelhaube in your text. Try to keep your sentences short and sweet. Avoid running sentences together with commas, colons, semicolons, or (God forbid) parenthesis. A “complete thought” is generally said to contain one subject and one verb. If your sentence contains more than one of each, it is probably a run-on sentence.

Long paragraphs. A paragraph generally should have one “main idea” and move on to the next paragraph, rather than try to cover too much ground. If your paragraphs take up whole columns and pages, you probably have a Pickelhaube staring you in the face.

Inverted or convoluted sentence order. German is a very flexible language thanks to its complex sentence structure — which is what made Mark Twain tear out his hair trying to understand it. For better or “wurst”, English can’t do anywhere near the kind of varied sentence order and structure that German can. So don’t even try. While you should vary sentence order a little, straying too far from the basic Subject-Verb-Object is usually not a good idea. If most of your sentences don’t follow SVO order, you probably have yet more Pickelhauben in your text.

Mangled prefixes and suffixes. This is a curse for anyone learning English. As one good example, is it “economic policy” or “economical policy”? (It’s “economic”.) For some reason, Germans love to add the suffix “-al” to adjectives ending in “-ic” where the German equivalent is “-isch”. If you have a lot of adjectives ending in doubled-up prefixes or suffixes like “-ical”, you probably have a Pickelhaube in your text.

Gender-specific language. While German values, even requires, naming the gender of the subject — der Lehrer/die Lehrerin — English absolutely tries to avoid it. At one time the feminine ending “-ess” was common and is on rare occasions still used (such as “hostess”), but today should be avoided. Thus steward/stewardess is frowned upon; flight attendant is preferred. Mailman is considered hopelessly sexist; mail carrier is now the “correct” term. Chairman is disliked; chairperson or even just chair is now the norm. In some style manuals, however, sometimes gender does slip through — so you may come across chairwoman — and in some cases simple tradition has preserved older forms, like Congressman/Congresswoman. Still, the trend in the English-speaking world is definitely towards a truly gender-neutral language. You are on the safer side if you avoid gender-specific terms, especially the gendertyping suffix “-ess”, in your writing altogether. On occasion I have seen German writers insist on using gender-specific terms (a favorite was “professoress”). Don’t.

Misuse of the genitive. Germans often try to literally translate the German genitive case into English, such as die Wohnung meines Freundes is translated as “the apartment of my friend”. This is very awkward in English. Instead, English speakers prefer to simply use the apostrophe S for the possessive case, like “my friend’s apartment”. This applies even when it is a double possessive, like “my friend’s apartment’s windows”.

Misuse of the reflexive. German has many reflexive verbs, like sich denken. English, by contrast, generally does not. Thus when a German says “I think myself that this is correct English”, he or she is wrong. The correct form would simply be “I think that this is correct English.” To think to oneself means you think something and keep it to yourself, that is, you don’t tell anyone. Thus “I think to myself that this is correct English” means you don’t actually say it aloud. Similarly, in English you comb your hair, you brush your teeth, and so on — no “self” is needed. “I remember me/myself” is just such a typical mistake. As a rule of thumb, if the German verb uses sich, a reflexive pronoun won’t be needed in English, but if it uses the dative mir/dir/Ihnen, it probably does.

Confusing adverbs and adjectives. In German, adverbs and adjectives can often be used interchangeably, but in English, there is a critical difference. If the word describes or modifies a noun, it is an adjective. If it describes or modifies a verb, it is an adverb. Many adverbs can be identified by the ending “-ly”, as most adjectives can be turned into an adverb simply by adding the “-ly” ending. Thus the sentence “she slammed the door angry” is incorrect; the proper form is “she slammed the door angrily”. We know the adverb angrily describes the verb, bceause it tells us how she slammed the door. Slam is the verb, angrily describes that verb, hence it needs the -ly ending.

Wordiness. The German language is like a highly versatile toolkit of roots, prefixes, and suffixes, with limitless possibilities for new words. That means that German, much more than English, can come up with a new word on the spot and still be understood: Grundgesetz, Vergegenwärtigung, Rentenversicherungsträger, Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitänsgesellschaft. German also loves arcane abbreviations and acronyms much more than English: Kripo, StVO, KaDeWe, Pkw, PS, Hbf, MfG. The problem is that English just doesn’t work very much like that. Where Germans are used to (and expect) long words, technical terms, and obscure jargon, English readers are not. German writers in English therefore often use (or worse, invent) large words and obscure terms that English speakers would rarely choose. If there is a simpler term for what you mean, try to use it. Meanwhile if your vocabulary sounds like you swallowed a thesaurus covered in a sticky Wikipedia sauce, you probably have a Pickelhaube in your text.

Overuse or misuse of commas. Comma rules in English are quite different from those in German. A typical German comma error would be to write “I think, that…” where an English speaker would never use a comma. German generally uses commas to split phrases, but English generally only uses them in lists or to mark independent clauses (an “independent clause” is different from a phrase or dependent clause in that it contains a complete thought, i.e. a subject and a verb).

Overuse or misuse of prepositions. Prepositions in English are a minefield for Germans learning the language. A preposition often modifies the meaning of the verb, sometimes quite drastically. “To knock” means (an-)klopfen, “to knock up” is American slang for “to get someone pregnant”. The sentence “I’m dressing up to go for a run” may seem OK, until you realize that “to dress up” in English means to wear fancy clothing. (The correct form would be “to get dressed”.)

False friends. There are many cases of “false friends” (the proper term is “false cognates”) in German and English. Some of the worst offenders are the verb “to become” (which means werden, not bekommen), “eventually” (possibly, not eventuell), “actual” (wirklich, not aktuell), “delicate” (empfindlich or zerbrechlich, not delikat), “irritate” (reizen, not irritieren), or “objective” (as an adjective, it means sachlich or gegenständlich; as a noun, it means Ziel, not Objektiv, which in English is a lens). There are many, many others.2 Whenever a German says “I am becoming some food”, English speakers wonder if a hungry tiger is lurking nearby.

Mangled prepositions. “Different than” or “different from”? “Since” or “for”? Whenever you use a preposition, keep in mind that you can’t assume that the English “equivalent” to a German preposition is the right one. Chances are it is actually wrong. For example, “seit vielen Jahren”, translated into English, is not “since many years”, but “for many years”. Similarly, “anders als” is not “other as”, but “other than”.

Invented English terms and malapropisms. A famous example of a German “loan word” from English is das Handy. The problem is that no one in the UK or USA calls a mobile telephone a “handy”. Ever. (Americans call it a “cellphone”, the British call it a “mobile”.) In fact the word “handy” in English is never used as a noun. Another example is the bizarre das Basecap, which in “real” English is “baseball cap” or “ballcap” and never “basecap”. There are other examples of this. Beware of using “English” words you know from German. If you do use one, you probably have a Pickelhaube in your text.

A great example of this last point is this gloriously awful text written by a Japanese author, who clearly believed he or she was writing impeccable English. It is so terrible that I memorized it. It goes like this: When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor. No doubt this person congratulated himself or herself on their efforts, but it is a disaster worthy of the Titanic — even though technically it is grammatically correct.3 You can avoid making such a fool of yourself simply by keeping it simple.

Love your Pickelhaube

None of this is means German is a bad language. In no way do I mean to criticize German or the way it is used. German is a wonderful language that I greatly enjoy using, as is English.

However, just like American football and soccer are both wonderful sports that are related and share a common ancestor, it would make little sense to play soccer using the rules of American football. Like those two sports, German and English are closely related and share a common ancestor (Indo-European), but they are still quite different. Thus I invite you to love your Pickelhaube and be proud of it, but it may be a good idea to not wear it when you venture into the Anglosphere. I would be happy to give you a ballcap.

2 See http://german.about.com/library/blfalsef.htm for lots more examples and a quiz.

3 Many more such — ahem — monuments to overly exuberant English may be found on http://www.engrish.com/.