Word! The Language Column
Invitation to a World Talk

Illustration: Illustration: Mobile device with mouth and speech bubble
© Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

How do you strike up a mutually stimulating conversation with a stranger? Thomas Böhm is sometimes at a loss on that one. But he has an idea: just tell each other your favourite words. That’s liable to open up whole worlds – and even some scrumptious cake recipes!

By Thomas Böhm

I’m curious but reserved, so I often find it hard to strike up a conversation. “Small talk” is not a German expression, nor is it “second nature” to many of us. The German word “plaudern” probably comes closest to “small talk”, though it does carry a nuance of “thoughtlessness”. A “chat” with a stranger is likely to give rise to questions like “Where are you from?” “What do you do for a living?” “What do you think of ...?” Questions that may betray a desire to “pigeonhole” people rather than really engage in conversation.

How to start a meaningful exchange

So a few years ago I had a “brainwave”, which I would invite you, dear Reader, to develop and share with others. I call it quite simply “offenes Gespräch”, which usually means a “heart-to-heart talk” or “candid conversation”, but might also mean, more literally, an “open-ended conversation”. I’ve been looking for topics and questions conducive to meaningful exchange, i.e. to finding common ground as well as discovering mutually enriching differences, with considerate and cosmopolitan people nowadays. (There may well be some whole books on the subject of "modern-day conversation", published recently or long ago, but I must have missed them. So if you know of any, please let me know!)

To my mind, there’s something both poetic and necessary about the idea of drawing on a tool that is far too seldom utilized for this particular purpose: namely, using the Internet to exchange ideas, to brainstorm together, across all borders – under the patronage of Goethe, who thought about paving the way for an open-ended “global conversation” through what he called “Weltliteratur” or “world literature”.  

So far I’ve come up with one topic that seems conducive to such an open conversation: favourite words. This is a subject that combines the joy of language with the feeling of remembering moments when a single word could express a whole little world. To me, “Ribiseln”, the Austrian word for “currants”, is one such word – and the very word “Ribiseln” sounds a bit sour to me.

The boundless bliss of currant cake

I’ve known currants since I was a little boy, we had several bushes in our garden. I loved picking the berries in summer and eating them right off the stem, which required a special technique so as to get only the berries, and none of the stems, in your mouth.
At the age of 13 I found out that our family had a branch in Austria and we promptly paid them a visit. They served us currant cake: a crust of leavened dough at the bottom, covered with a layer of currants and baked meringue on top. I’d never had a more scrumptious cake before, although I’d been familiar with the main ingredient all my life. We immediately imported the recipe to Germany, where the layers grew a bit thicker in my German grandma’s version, which made the cake even more succulent. And so incredibly yummy that my grandma had to bake me a currant cake every year for my birthday – a whole cake just for me! Though, naturally, she baked another one for everyone else – as grandmas are wont to do.

Just give it a try

So now I’ve told you about one of my favourite words.  One reason I like it so much is that it reminds me that, while other languages may have different names for familiar things, they may well appreciate them every bit as much as we do. “Ribiseln” and “Johannisbeeren”, the Austrian and German words, respectively, for currants, are a case in point.
Unfortunately, since we’re meeting here in an exchange about writing and reading, you can’t reply to me directly. But I hope you’re thinking of a favourite word of your own at this very moment. If so, that might encourage you to contribute to what I call the "open-ended conversation". So give it a try. Next time you don't know what to talk about with someone, just say you once read an article in which the author said he didn't know how to start a conversation. And then he suggested talking about our favourite words...

Join in: “Das offene Gespräch”

What are topics and questions that cosmopolitan, considerate people of today can raise in order to enter into an exchange with each other? Which topics and questions help us in conversation to find common ground and discover differences as richness?

Leave a comment under this article! Discuss with us and other readers!


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.