Sunday, August 29, 2010

Die Schultüte und Mehr

This Saturday was the first day of school for many German children.  As I recall, I couldn't wait to start school.  In some respects, it was my first real taste of independence.  I can still remember walking to school with my mother as she pointed out the stop signs, introduced me to the crossing guard, and reminded me never to talk to strangers, even if they offered me candy.  Mothers are like that.   

A Group of Children Carry Their Schultüten
In Germany, the first day of school is a very special occasion marked by an official welcoming ceremony.  It occurs on Saturday before the official start of school on Monday; and most importantly (a least for the kids), each new student is given a Schultüte by his or her parents.  A Schultüte is a large decorated cornet of cardboard filled with sweets and little presents!  As I was watching the children in the school yard, I couldn't help notice how they were comparing their Schultüten to see which one was bigger, had the most sweets or presents, or was more elaborately designed.  I guess this is also part of the learning process:  instilling a sense of competition.  It's never too early to start.    

Does Your Language Shape the Way You Think

There was a very interesting article in Saturday's New York Times concerning language and how it shapes the way we think and grasp ideas. In many languages, nouns are assigned a gender.  In German, the articles are "der" (masculine), "die" (feminine) and "das" (neutral).  For example, a spoon is masculine (der Löffel), a knife is neutral (das Messer) and a fork is feminine (die Gabel).  Unfortunately, there are few rules to determine noun gender.  You simply need to learn the noun and its gender.

As the article points out, it would be impossible to say in German, "My neighbor is nice," without knowing the gender of your neighbor:  Mein Nachbar ist nett (man) or Meine Nachbarin ist nett (woman).   The question for linguists is whether the assignment of gender shapes the way we view objects and use those objects in our lives.  Something to think about.  

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