Word! The Language Column
The Magic of Language

Illustration: Magisches Auge
When words trigger deep memories | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Magic moments in fairy tales: our new columnist Thomas Böhm is still enchanted when he hears the words “Es war einmal…” (“Once upon a time...”). He knows why we love the same stock phrases in every language. And he explains why learning the language of doves can be very worthwhile.

By Thomas Böhm

No three words stir up more memories in me than “Es war einmal…” (“Once upon a time...”). I’m instantly a little boy again, sitting in my grandparents’ living room. A record of Grimms’ fairy tales is crackling on the phonograph, I hear my grandmother fiddling with her pots and pans in the kitchen. There are some family photos on a shelf in the cabinet and, up on top, various trophies and certificates awarded to my grandfather and uncle: they are pigeon fanciers, like so many coal miners in the Ruhr area.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago… I was a little boy in 1973, familiar with kings and queens, and princesses just dying to get married – even to “commoners”, provided they’d proved their cleverness and cunning. 

Breaking the spell

At some point I found out that I could change the playback speed on the record player. If I turned up the speed, the narrator’s voice suddenly went from pleasant and comforting to frenetic like Mickey Mouse. The words lost their serenity and the story its depth, it got turned into a joke. I’d used the wrong trick – and broken the magic spell of the fairy tale.
Kathrin Kunkel-Razum has reflected in this column on the emotions stirred up by changes in language, such as the gender star in German or the inclusion of foreign words like “inshallah” in the dictionary. In my opinion, one reason we tend to react so vehemently to such changes is that they break the magic spell of language which we all share and remember from our childhood. Wasn't everything so reassuringly familiar and comprehensible just a short time ago, harking back to the past, to fairy-tale kings, queens and princesses? Changes in language caused by the zeitgeist of the age we live in have an effect similar to speeding up the record: what we now hear strikes us as a bad joke, and we feel powerless because there’s nothing we can do about it. 

The same opening all over the world

A few months ago, the words “Es war einmal…” (“Once upon a time”) took on a new magic for me when I read that they are not as uniquely German as I’d always supposed. On the contrary: this formula can be found in the same or similar form in many languages around the world. This thought made the living room bigger in my memories of childhood, and its walls transparent, so I could see children sitting in the house next door listening to a story that began “Bir zamanlar…”. And the doves on the award certificates, which had flown all over Europe, began cooing: “Było sobie raz…” and “Er was eens…” and “Il était une fois…” and “Había una vez…”.

Listen to the doves

I learned something else, too: Just as all fairy tales in German start with “Es war einmal…“ (“Once upon a time...”), I naturally assumed, as would most German speakers, that they all end with “…und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, so leben sie noch heute“ (roughly equivalent to “...and they lived happily ever after”). But they don’t; our shared memories are misleading. In fact, far more fairy tales end differently. Even those of the Brothers Grimm, whose world-famous collection comprises over two hundred tales –most of us only know a fraction of them.
And "The Three Languages" probably isn’t one of them. It’s about a count who sends his only son into the world to learn something worthwhile. Instead, the son learns the languages of dogs, frogs and birds. So his father disinherits him. But the youth finds a great treasure with the help of dogs, and then goes to Rome. On his way there, some frogs prophesy that he is to become pope. When he reaches Rome, the previous pope has just died and a successor is to be found with the aid of a divine sign. As the youth enters St. Peter's, two white doves fly down and alight on his shoulders. This is the sign! He is promptly anointed pope and is then expected to sing a mass – but doesn’t know a word of the service. What saves him? His knowledge of bird language. The last line of the fairy tale reads: “...but the two doves sat continually on his shoulders and said it all in his ear.”


“Once upon a time …” in vdifferent languages of the world

Bir zamanlar… كان يامكان،في قديم الزمان، وسالف العصر والأوان… Había una vez… 很久, 很久以前 … Hayo hayah pa'am… बहुत पुरानी बात है


Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? ~ Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.