me + German intonation + Rhys Ifans #richardarmitage


This is Rhys Ifans speaking to the thin white dude (Sabin Tambrea), and he says, “Verdammt. Was hast du getan?” or (more literally than the subtitle) “Damn it. What have you done?”

His pronunciation is perfect here, but this is an easy sentence for a native speaker of English to say, as it includes all sounds that are common in English (and the vowels are more like UK English than American English). Good job, Rhys. I still want to hear you say Würstchen!

Rather than pronunciation, what I want to talk about here, though, is something Germans call Sprachmelodie (a compound word — “speech melody”), which my dictionary translates as “cadence.” I don’t think that is exactly right. So I’m choosing the noun “intonation,” instead, which can translate into German as Tonfall, or “tone of voice,” which is also exactly, but works okay. In both English and German, intonation overlaps with “tuning.” To me “cadence” is about rhythm, whereas Sprachmelodie is also about the pitch, the rise and fall, of speech.

Sprachmelodie is not as easy to write about it, because many more factors influence it. I noticed this once when exSO was visiting me in the U.S., toward the beginning of our relationship. When we ate in restaurants, I would say “Thank you,” and as is the case with a lot of women in the Midwest, I have a particular pitch pattern in that word. “Thank” is just a little bit higher tonally than “you” (about a major third difference, if you’re a musician and know what that means). I noticed that he was copying me. But a man wouldn’t typically put that slight pitch change into the word. I had to point out to exSO that he should listen to men speaking to get his intonation up to speed. So gender of speaker is one factor that influences Sprachmelodie, as is age, mood, context of speech, the purpose of speech, too, and so on.

Every language has intonations that are considered correct for certain kinds of speech. Continuing with the example of thanking, in the U.S., the first person who says “Thank you” in any situation needs to put the emphasis on the first word. “THANK you.” But if you return the sentiment, then you emphasize the second word. “No, thank YOU.” In turn, sentences and paragraphs develop a customary intonation. I’ve found two examples of this from Germany if you’re interested. Note that I’m not interested in pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar, although these are different dialects. (And I should mention that I’d have a hard time understanding the second video without the subtitles.) What I’m interested is the pitch and tone patterns within the speech.

First, someone from Berlin. He’s complaining about gentrification in Kreuzberg (where Armitage stayed while shooting — so dude, you’re part of the problem).

Contrast this to the extreme western border of Germany. Here’s a middle-aged man about twenty-five years ago, speaking Low German in the East Frisian dialect, talking about cramped living quarters in his house when he was a child.

The Berliner speaks in a solidly percussive manner, raising the pitch of his speech in the middle of his sentences and sometimes at the end. The East Frisian, in contrast, raises his pitch at the beginning of his sentences. To me, native Berliners always sound a little annoyed about something, no matter what they are saying. It’s harder to describe my response to the East Frisian intonation, but at the beginning they always sounded a bit like they were appealing for sympathy (no matter what they said).

Those are really complex examples, and I could say more about them, but I hope that you get from listening to them briefly that native speakers of any language have a peculiar intonation that someone who is learning the language needs to emulate. Ifans’ line above illustrates the point about the necessity of getting intonation right quite nicely for me in much less space. Here he is again:


He has five words here:

Verdammt (lit. a participle: “damned” or more loosely, “damned to hell”)

Was (What)

hast (have)

du (you)

getan? (done?)

To my ears, Ifans says:

verdammt, was HAST du getan.

Listening to this sentence reminds a bit of what some native speakers of Russian would say about Lucas North’s Russian back in the day — that because he clearly didn’t understand what he was saying, he would put the emphasis in the wrong places in some sentences. I know this is a particular issue with English speakers in German because the languages are similar enough that some of what is being said is intelligible. For instance, a native speaker of English will tend, in a negative sentence, to find some way to emphasize the word “not,” either by saying it louder, or leaving space afterwards.

I think Proctor did this, too, at least once. And it’s pretty normal. “I am NOT lying!”, for instance. So it would be normal for an English speaker to transfer that pattern into other language situations. But if you wanted to emphasize the negative content of a German sentence, emphasizing the word “nicht” would not be the way to do it, as it’s not very common for Germans to do it.

So I’m going to say, although it’s not extreme, and I’m aware that some native speakers of German might disagree with me depending on what they think is going on in this scene, that the intonation of this sentence would have been more convincing if Ifans had said:

Verdammt! Was hast du GETAN?

or possibly

Verdammt! WAS hast du GETAN?

For a few reasons. First of all, it’s not that usual for Germans in de Jean’s notional social class to be quite as free with obscenities as an English speaker (and certainly an American) would be. You just don’t hear anywhere near as much cursing among educated people in German as you do in the U.S. So the obscenity itself deserves some space for more emphasis, because it is slightly shocking (and accurately conveys the seriousness of the moment). Next, you may or may not know that German has word order rules that differ from English. To oversimplify drastically: the verb in a German declarative or interrogative simple sentence or main clause always has to go either in the second position (if there is only one verb, or if there is a helping verb) or the final one. Here we have a past perfect construction (so this sentence could be translated into English either as “What have you done?” or “What did you do?”) with a helping verb in the second position and the participate in the final position. It’s pretty clear to me that the most important word in this sentence is the participle — in my opinion, it’s the word that should get the most emphasis. Finally — if this is meant as a question (as the subtitle indicates), it’s fairly usual practice to raise intonation at the end of the sentence.

To me, listening to this, it’s as if he were saying in English, “what HAVE you done?”

What he does is not wrong, and it’s not glaring, and I can see room for interpretation and disagreement about this question — but it feels wrong to me.

So. Intonation. Another thing else you have to pay attention to, if you want to get your German (or any other language) right.

~ by Servetus on September 12, 2016.

41 Responses to “me + German intonation + Rhys Ifans #richardarmitage”

  1. Well, I have to admit that I didn’t get anything (only the place’s name) the older guy in the second video said either, and it had nothing to do with him mumbling around that pipe in his mouth. Typical farmer, my gran’s landlord was impolite like that too 😉 Although he would have spoken Plattdeutsch. Then again dialects are always more difficult even if you’re a native speaker.


    • To clarify it is a different Plattdeutsch than my gran’s due to being a different region I guess


      • East Frisian platt is eine Sache für sich, that’s for sure. This guy was recorded in Bunderhee. exSO’s parents lived in Aurich the whole time we were together, so I had quite a bit of opportunity to overhear (they were not East Frisian — they were from different places, too, and met at university). I don’t understand much but I find the way it sounds fascinating.


  2. you’re right about the cadence/intonation. They are doing a good job. You can tell they are not native but it’s not too bad at all


  3. You’re right. But I didn’t find it that bad (if I can actually make out the words of an actor who is supposed to speak “German”, it’s a huge bonus lol. In most movies I can’t.)

    For me the whole phrase “Verdammt, was hast du getan?” just sounded weird. Nobody would say that. It’s the kind of sentence you write in a script but nobody ever says in real life, imo. Also I don’t really remember the last time I actually heard somebody say “verdammt”?

    And I’m stil not over the fact that RA’s character remembers Frankfurter Würstchen from his time in Berlin??? Is that historically correct? It’s just not what I would have expected. I’ve only watched Ep1 so far but I’m still waiting for a Döner or Currywurst & Pommes “Schranke” to appear hehehe. And you know. More climbing out of showers.


    • I think someone would say “verdammt noch mal,” but the sentence “verdammt noch mal, was hast du getan” (which I would translate colloquially as “damn it all”) seems entirely unremarkable to me as something someone would say in real life (or the other way around, was hast du getan, verdammt noch mal). “Verdammt noch mal” was basically the only curse I heard educated adults ever use in my circles (unless you count “Scheiße,” or “Schite,” which are so common in German they hardly seem to be obscenities). I only ever heard other curses (“verpiß Dich,” “du kannst mich mal”) on TV or from teenagers.

      Climbing out of a shower is a universal language 🙂


    • re: Frankfurter Würstchen — we’d have to ask someone who lived in West Berlin ca. 1984. I don’t really know. Also you have to think about what an eight year old would eat (and what his German parent might feed him). I see a Döner as kind of a challenge in that context.


      • I’d say it is okay. If memory serves that it is just about the spices and other ingredients as well as the shape of the sausage that makes a Frankfurter a Frankfurter rather than the region. Although I’d say it originated there.


      • Hi,
        I,d say yes. Frankfurter (or in my area Wiener) Würstchen were more common around that time (beginning of the 80ies) than for example Döner or later Sushi or (insert any other “exotic” food here). Being a little bit older than the character he plays I wouldn,t be surprised if he,d mentioned “Fischstäbchen” 😉


    • Statt ‘verdammt, was…’ wuerde ich wohl auch eher ‘was zum Teufel hast du getan’ sagen


      • Aber er ist Amerikaner und kein Muttersprachler und so sagt er “verdammt” vielleicht auch in Anlehnung an das amerikanische “damned”. Nur so ein Gedanke.


        • I thought he was supposed to be bilingual? Am I confusing something here?


          • Daniel wuchs bis zum Alter von acht Jahren zweisprachig auf (dann starb – laut seiner Aussage – seine deutsche Mutter). Ich dachte nicht, dass das auch auf Hector zutrifft. Aber vielleicht irre ich mich?


            • No, that’s correct. That’s why the bar is higher for Armitage (potentially) than for the other actors. All the other characters are Americans, I think. I suppose maybe Kirsch could have heard some Yiddish at some point, but spoken Yiddish these days in his generation is limited almost exclusively to ultra orthodox Jews and a few university professors who study it.


      • That probably would have been a more idiomatic choice.


        • Er ist eindeutig sehr wütend und spricht impulsiv. Die Betonung von “hast” klingt in meinen Ohren auch zorniger als jede andere Variante. Aber das ist natürlich total subjektiv.


  4. I’m surprised about how genteel Germans are supposed to be with regard to swearing 😉 Speaking as a well-educated person from the south-west, I can say that swearing is very common, Verdammt included. I was actually taught that we’re a lot more relaxed about this than native speakers of English. Interesting, this. We definitely have different areas with regard to swearing, with less use of sexual swearwords and more Fäkaliensprache (swearwords to do with feces) in German. Both languages share religious swearwords, but those seem to be a bigger problem to English speakers than to Germans.

    The emphasis on hast works for me depending on what you want to stress. The meaning is slightly different to stressing getan, at least to me, though I’d find it hard to put the difference into words. Maybe not what you did but that you did it? But such examples of intonation are so subtle that diferent people might well see them differently.

    Since you mention Lucas North’s Russian: Did native speakers say that his pronunciation was good? This is just curiosity, but compared to other non-native speakers in films etc. I always felt he sounded pretty good, but I can’t really estimate this since I don’t speak Russian.


    • I can only say that my German friends swear a great deal less than my American ones in the same social class. By a factor of four probably; when I’d switch continents after a research period in Germany it was always a shock now much people in the U.S. swore and in the other direction I’d find myself scrambling for words to express my annoyance because the vocabulary was so (comparatively) limited.

      I agree that different stresses create slightly different meanings, but I don’t see what other meaning is created in this particular situation. I think this is just not well done (and distracting, frankly, to the point that the first time I heard it I was shaking my head).

      re: Russian — opinions were varied. There were Russian speakers who said some of what he said was incomprehensible, but there were others who said he was pretty good. I had a semester of Russian in college (due to a boyfriend, lol) and I hung out around Russian émigrés at the German synagogue I attended, but I don’t know enough to say, otherwise.


      • Which is a credit to Germans I think. The fact that foul language has crept into not only more social classes, but is so common in all ages and aspects of life now is unbelievable to me. I don’t understand how it became acceptable or necessary for it to be a part of every sentence out of so many people’s mouths. Personally, I’m still offended by it.


      • A ratio of 1:4 sounds quite plausible. From what I could gather through the internet, I was quite overwhelmed by the amount of swearing of Americans or other English speakers at the beginning of delving into the english part of the web. So in comparison we are way tamer, but to us it doesn’t feel that way because it’s our normal.


        • That’s a good point, along with the possibility that my major contacts were potentially more disinclined to swear than other Germans.

          I will always remember this story my exSO told me about his grandfather, a platt speaker — he would only swear in Hochdeutsch, so when he did it, the family was always shocked.


          • Not sure if I follow you. I assume it was shocking to suddenly understand him and especially when he was letting off steem at the same time, but how on earth did they communicate then? Through another person? And wouldn’t they get used to a change of language when he swore? Interesting that he changed languages for emotional stuff though. Did he simply like swearing in high german better? ‘^^ Sorry if I’m being dense.


            • Sorry; they all spoke platt and understood him. I didn’t. I never met the man; he died well before I met exSO, so this is just a story that I heard about him. My understanding was that he swore in Hochdeutsch because it somehow seemed more forceful.


              • Now I get why you mentioned it, didn’t think carefully enough though. Poor family lol. Like this it makes a looot of sense that they were shocked.


    • Yup, the emphasis on “hast” works for me too, very well even – I like it. Alongside the acting it communicates disappointment (so yeah, THAT he did it) and a high chance of unpleasant consequences for the “thin dude”. With the stress on “getan” (and “was”) the focus is more on the bad situation they’re in now and how they’re gonna get out of it (the WHAT). But also it would make Rhys Ifans look less in control of his emotions, thus weakening his image as a bad guy.

      I guess the usual emphasis and intonation on “have” in English doesn’t convey the same message as in German… that’s one of the things I haven’t puzzled out yet.

      Linguistics is great! 🙂 But Plattdeutsch? No chance!

      Concerning Sprachmelodie, the other way around: Game of Thrones has a german actor who speaks English a lot better than many Germans, yet he doesn’t have a firm grasp on the english Sprachmelodie. There’s something interesting about where he unconsciously or for lack of better knowledge slips into the german Sprachmelodie. It’s rather low key but once I found out he was german, I couldn’t help anymore but to notice it. He also struggles with the “r”,”l” combination in “girl” considerably. There are compilations of his scenes on youtube, search for “jaqen h’ghar scenes”, you’re looking for season 2 and 5 (he also was in 6, but I haven’t seen a video yet and I also consider 2 and 5 more interesting. Beware, pure spoiler). One video for each season, the first around 10 minutes, the other around 20 min. long (the lighting might be quite dark). Also, his storyline is rather light on onscreen violence for GoT, so that shouldn’t be an issue when watching.


      • I lived in Germany for more than a decade, in Göttingen, Berlin, Mainz, Wolfenbüttel, Erlangen, and Erfurt, in addition to long vacations in Emden and Aurich, as well as traveling to many other places including Switzerland, and I never heard an intonation like Ifans’ from a German, even once. So sorry, I’m sticking with my assertion. I agree there is room for disagreement but I’m calling this atypical intonation, at best. It stuck out for me as unusual.

        I agree with your implication that it may not matter for the role in that he’s not supposed to be a native speaker, though he’s not playing a fantastical character, either.


        • I can agree on atypical and unusual. But it didn’t make me cringe at all, it just made sense there for the tight situation. Not trying to convince you here, just baffled sharing. (BS had some other german words that I didn’t even catch, so I’m grateful for sentences like this in general.)

          Additionally I’m not sure if it wouldn’t be considered outright hostile and too forceful to talk to someone like this in real life in many, many interactions even in the somewhat direct Germany. In my mind it really only fits for criminals and other lowlifes.


  5. In my opinion with the accent on “hast” is this a rhetorical phrase in german without expecting any answer,because Rhys -deJean realizes not what the guy did, but That he did it. I heard also ” verdammt” very often in combination with “once again”- Verdammt nochmal. Intonation- what a difficult theme to learn a foreign language.


  6. Richard does tend to emphasize the negative in that sort of scene. It’s one of the earliest patterns to stand out to me. From Gisborne saying “You do NOT” to Thornton’s “No, NO thanks”, or “I have NO desire to pry” to Margaret, even Standring saying ” He’s NOT well”. I’m sure I could think of many more examples if I thought about it.
    I was glad to see a post this morning. I’m happy that you had better things to do yesterday, but I had a little withdrawal after all the flurry of the last few days.


    • He does it noticeably but it’s also a general pattern in English. I just really like the vowel he uses 🙂

      I have lots of things to say, still, but I spent most of Saturday helping people outside the US figure out how to see Berlin Station. And yesterday I had car issues, which are ongoing today (waiting for the AAA guy).


  7. I thought Rhys was a bit of an odd choice when the cast was announced. I had only seen him in more comedic roles, or as Rom-Com sidekicks. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how good a dramatic actor he can be, and how much effort he has put into his American accent.


    • yeah, the only thing I associate him with at all is Notting Hill. This is a really different character. He’s also notorious for having giving one of the rudest interviews ever (apparently) and for dating Anna Friel.


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