Friday, 22 February 2013

Danke - a Potential Minefield for Non-Native Speakers

It is one of the first words you learn in any language "Danke - Thank you - Grazie - Merci" etc. And yet it is not quite as straightforward as those Travel Guides with an attached vocabulary section make out. Just think of how certain languages - Irish is a good example - totally go over board when it comes to thanking, and how many gradations there are. Go raibh míle míle maith agat for example, even without understanding  it exactly, sounds different from "cheers". German isn't quite so fulsome, but when it comes to saying "Thank you" in German, there are many shadings you want to be aware of.

Anglophone speakers in particular are at peril here. Firstly, they tend not to credit German (and Germans) with being capable of irony, and therefore take German words at face value. Big mistake! Secondly, English language natives are influenced by the similarity of their mother tongue, and tend to translate one to one. Thus, there is a tendency to use "Vielen Dank" (the pronunciation "vealen dank" is optional) rather inflationarily, and "Danke sehr" is also far more popular than it should be. In fact, neither is used very much in German at all. The former has a sort of non-committal, throw-away character, and the latter having definite unfortunate irony markers attached to it. (Similar to "Oh, thanks a lot." in English)

So what should you use then? Well, as so often, it's the tone that makes the difference. Whilst as a non-native speaker you'd assume that the simple "Danke" is far too plain, and might make you out not to be very proficient, it should in fact be your thanking word of choice. Except - be aware of your tone, how expressive you sound! Spoken flatly, it obviously hasn't got much resonance. With a heavy stress on the first syllable however, and a (gradated) enthusiasms marker, if will be always be appropriate. In German, it is extremely important to sound friendly and approachable. Which incidentally is another cardinal oversight on the part of Anglophone speakers. They are simply not aware that there is an "approachability marker" in the German language. As a result, their German often sounds flat, unfriendly, and near-hostile even when grammatically correct.

In written German, you obviously don't have the intonation factor, and have to convey friendliness differently. A good way of expressing a personal appreciation would therefore be "Danke dir", or adding an extra phrase like "Danke dir, das ist (aber) nett". A fashionable, but to many people slightly over the top way of thanking would be "lieben Dank".

Quite obviously, there's a lot more to say about this topic, in fact I think it might well be thesis-worthy. Here, I just wanted to draw attention to the fact, that there's a lot more to such a small word than at first meets the eye.

1 comment:

  1. So glad to know that one can be and sound friendly when in Germany. I remember when I went to Paris, I was told not to smile too much because the French don't do that. I mean, how can I walk around with a grumpy face! :)

    Danke dir, Margit. With an appropriate heavy stress on the first syllable and a smile!