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”)
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?
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.