German Word of the Week: Lebensabschnittsgefährte (and why opera DVDs rule)

MH points me to the a 3 Quarks Daily piece by Brooks Riley about German-English language exchange:

The German language may have a reputation for exhaustively long words, but when it's pithy, it's penetrating: The word for 'scene of the crime' is 'Tatort', a linguistic slamdunk.

And then there's the economical 'doch', an invention that should have been imported years ago. I say, 'The world won't end today.' You answer, 'Oh yes it will.' A German answers, 'Doch', a four-letter contradiction instead of a four-word one. 'Doch' has an elegant finality about it—having the last word without spelling it out. ' You're not going out dressed like that!'. 'Doch.' Try to argue with that.

…English also suffers the boyfriend-girlfriend issue, a problem dating back to the Sixties, when young people started avoiding marriage. Before then, 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' were useful terms for a temporary state of affairs, to be discarded when the young ones tied the knot. Now that marriage is just one of many forms of monogamous pairings, those without a wedding ring are left hanging–some of them well into old age–without a proper word to describe their Significant Other, other than 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. In both languages, the rather tepid solution is to use 'my friend' to imply romantic involvement, and 'a friend of mine' to suggest friendship. (This distinction works only if you omit the name of the loved one: "My friend Flicka" would hardly be mistaken for a romantic liaison). 'Partner' pops up in both languages, but what does it mean? A business partner? A lover? Is it a he or she (the same predicament applies to the word 'lover')? Do they live together or do they just do dinner? In German, unmarried cohabiting (or is it co-habiting) pairs refer to each other as Lebensgefährte (male life companion), or Lebensgefährtin (female life companion), profiting from a language with male and female nouns. But what if they break up? You can't exactly refer to a former boyfriend as a 'former life companion' (unless you tweak it to 'companion of a former life'). One cynical German suggested the word 'Lebensabschnittsgefährte', or 'slice-of-life companion'. An American friend of mine uses the term 'serial monogamy' to describe a lifetime of long-term relationships, but it's not one that solves the problem of what to call the S.O.

I would translate Lebensabschnittsgefährte more as 'phase-of-life' or 'period-of-life' companion, but there's no doubt it's a magnificent word. It's still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte — at least not in front of her — but that's only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.

I also have to quibble with Riley about the boyfriend/girlfriend issue. Not that the problem she describes doesn't exist, but that Germany, like many other languages, lacks a distinction between boyfriend and friend. If you're a woman, you call your boyfriend merely your  'Freund'. But, of course, you may have other male friends, who are also your Freunde. The only way to know whether someone is talking about their boyfriend or merely a friend is context and/or body language. Alternatively, you can use the formulation ein Freund von mir (a friend of mine) to describe a Platonic friendship, but that's a bit clumsy.

Germany's lack of words for boyfriend/girlfriend leads to amusing situations in which a British man brings over his German girlfriend to meet the family, and she constantly refers to him as merely 'my friend', even as they're sharing bodily fluids and discussing wedding plans. Alternately, I constantly fall into the trap of referring to my male friends as mein Freund, which leaves people who don't know me unsure whether I've just declared my homosexuality.

Oh, and as a bonus, here is Brooks Riley describing why watching operas on DVD is so rewarding:

J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?

B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.

I was never much of an opera fan until I began collecting opera DVDs. That changes the entire experience. The advantages are overwhelming:

  • You can drink and eat and smoke whatever you want while watching.
  • You can get a fantastic blu-ray DVD of an opera for perhaps 1/3 the price of a decent ticket.
  • You can see operas from all over the world.
  • You get a variety of camera angles, not just one static view from 100 meters away.
  • The sound quality is incredible on the newest DVDs and blu-rays, and superior to what you would hear in any seat you can afford.
  • For foreign-language operas, you can see immediate translations as the singers are singing, enabling you to appreciate the acting and follow the plot.
  • You control the climate, so no stuffy, over/underheated concert halls, no coughing, no hyperflatulent geezers, no ringing cellphones, etc.
  • You can back up and re-play interesting scenes or arias.
  • You can skip the dull recitative.
  • For non-opera CDs, you can see the facial expressions of the soloist, members of the orchestra, and/or conductor. This adds immeasrably to the listening experience.

The list just goes on. I still go see live performances here and then, but only when they promise to be something special, with an electric live atmosphere. Everything else I watch on DVD.

4 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: Lebensabschnittsgefährte (and why opera DVDs rule)

  1. “It’s still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte — at least not in front of her — but that’s only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.”

    Hopefully – i think I heard people using it quite normally in front of their partners.
    And even if it one of the most unromantically words I can imagine there are even romatic blogposts dedicated to it:
    http://mevme.com/lizblog/das-konzept-lebensabschnittsgefahrte/

    Like

  2. “It’s still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte — at least not in front of her — but that’s only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.”

    Hopefully – i think I heard people using it quite normally in front of their partners.
    And even if it one of the most unromantically words I can imagine there are even romatic blogposts dedicated to it:
    http://mevme.com/lizblog/das-konzept-lebensabschnittsgefahrte/

    Like

  3. Well, people mostly use “Lebensgefährte” and not “Lebensabschnittsgefährte” because it’s just too long. And when the LG becomes and ex-LG he or she turns into an “Exfreund”/-“freundin” or just “Ex”. You wouldn’t use “Ex-LG” and “Exfreund” is always a former boyfriend/girlfriend and not just a former friend. A former friend would be – hmm, maybe a “Freund aus Kindertagen” or something. Usually you don’t break up dramatically with friends often enough to need an extra word 😉
    People would also not usually assume that a guy saying “mein Freund” means “boyfriend” unless that guy is already out. But if you want to avoid confusion there (or if you are female) you can always say “mein guter Freund” or “ein Freund” (usually for friends who are a little less close) or “mein Kumpel” or “mein bester Freund”.

    Like

  4. Well, people mostly use “Lebensgefährte” and not “Lebensabschnittsgefährte” because it’s just too long. And when the LG becomes and ex-LG he or she turns into an “Exfreund”/-“freundin” or just “Ex”. You wouldn’t use “Ex-LG” and “Exfreund” is always a former boyfriend/girlfriend and not just a former friend. A former friend would be – hmm, maybe a “Freund aus Kindertagen” or something. Usually you don’t break up dramatically with friends often enough to need an extra word 😉
    People would also not usually assume that a guy saying “mein Freund” means “boyfriend” unless that guy is already out. But if you want to avoid confusion there (or if you are female) you can always say “mein guter Freund” or “ein Freund” (usually for friends who are a little less close) or “mein Kumpel” or “mein bester Freund”.

    Like

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