Word! The Language Column
On “Wirklichkeit”: Words that breathe life into reality

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Children's language has a beauty of its own | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

How much passion and sensuality lie in the German language? Not much, you’re thinking? Hernán D. Caro, our new columnist, passionately disagrees!

By Hernán D. Caro

I first came to the German language at the age of 17 or 18, an age at which I – like most other 17- and 18-year-olds – was firmly convinced that I knew how reality works. And since I was inclined to brooding at that age, I also thought that reality consisted mainly of inhospitable and mostly immutable facts of life, and that we humans are pretty much helpless to do anything about them. I was, you might say, a pessimistic youth.

Graphic, vivid German

Not for nothing was I fascinated at the time by two German-language authors whose world view wasn’t very rosy either: the writer Franz Kafka and philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. They were the ones who opened the portals to the German language for me – a language I fell in love with even before I could speak or write a line of German without mistakes. But that gradually improved: driven by curiosity, enthusiasm, and maybe even a certain obsessiveness, I got closer to the language over the years, thanks to language courses, books and my encounters with Germans and Germany itself.
The first thing that impressed me about the new language was its vividness, the graphic quality of German words. Frankly, I was amazed at first, because some of the people I met in Germany didn't seem all that passionate or sensual – at least compared to people I’d known in Colombia, where I was born. On the other hand, however, I felt – and still feel – a dynamic force, a vitality, in countless German words, which has animated the way I see the objects to which those words refer. The more of the language I learned, the more those objects came to life, along with the whole world that language describes.

Feeling words physically

The German words I find stirring are not the lofty terms philosophers have concocted over the centuries, such as Heidegger’s “Uneigentlichkeit” (“inauthenticity”) or better still: “Inkompetenzkompensationskompetenz” (literally: “competence in compensating for incompetence” – coined, ironically, by philosopher Odo Marquard, to bemoan the grievous state of contemporary philosophy). Nor are they the bizarre, hyperspecific neologisms that the miracle of German word composition allows, such as the monstrosity “Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher” (believe it or not: “a device used to create breaking points in egg shells in order to allow one to easily remove the top part of an egg using a knife without causing the shell to splinter” – Wiktionary).
No, it’s perfectly everyday words that stir my imagination. To this day, when I read the word “Handwerk” (“handicraft”), I immediately see a pair of hands shaping an object. If someone talks about a person’s “Tatendrang” (“drive”) or “Fingerspitzengefühl” (“tact” or “finesse”), I can imagine – graphically – the vigorous or meticulous way that person goes about doing a thing. The adjective “übergriffig” (“intrusive”, “invasive”) gives me a physical sensation of someone crossing a line. I feel a similar organic power in words like “Flugzeug” (“airplane"), “Herzschmerz” ("heartache") and the brilliant composite “Schnapsidee” ("crazy idea").
But it was a word most of us probably use unthinkingly every day that changed my view of reality: namely “Wirklichkeit”, the very word for “reality” in German. As I learned at some point, it was introduced in the late Middle Ages by the German theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart. And while it means “that which is real and present”, above all it means that which “wirkt”, i.e. “acts” or “takes effect” and is always moving. Sometimes, when overwhelmed by the challenges of “reality”, I try to think instead about “Wirklichkeit”: that oftentimes seemingly hopeless situations can indeed be acted upon effectively and thereby changed. Because the world, as language teaches us, is alive and changing. And that’s reassuring to the pessimist in me.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every four 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.