Word! The Language Column

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Our new columnist Sharon Dodua Otoo will devote her contributions to grammar – as an ode to language. In her first contribution, she looks at verbs and their emancipatory effect.

By Sharon Dodua Otoo


Grammar is the greatest joy in life, don't you find?
(Lemony Snicket)

I typically don't consider grammar very often when I write in English. As a creative writer, I'd like to think that I have sufficiently mastered the rules of my first language, in order to know how to break them. While writing my first novella the things i am thinking while smiling politely, I particularly enjoyed creating odd words like “reforgetmembering.” I also challenged myself to capture emotions using unconventional descriptions like “the emptiness I feel then looks louder than it has ever smelt or tasted before – it makes me shake and weep.”

My understanding of English grammar is intuitive. I cannot say that the same applies for German. Although I also enjoy playing around with new words and unconventional descriptions, grammar is an altogether much more serious affair for me auf Deutsch. And even though I certainly make more errors in German than I do in English, my knowledge of German grammar theory is far superior to my knowledge of English grammar theory.

In my contributions to the language column over the coming weeks I will share some of my quirky observations on verbs, nouns, prefixes, pronouns, prepositions and punctuation. This is not going to be a series of grammar lessons – I am no linguist – but rather, one could consider this an ode to the gift language in general, and to German more specifically. If grammar is not the greatest joy in your life, I empathise. Perhaps you will enjoy my reflections anyway.


I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun
(Yoko Ono)

Of all the various types of words in any given language, verbs are my absolute favourite. I consider myself to be an optimistic person. As an activist, I must believe that the current order of things can and will change. All verbs invoke in my mind that very sense of process or change. A verb gives a name to an action, at the same time implying that something else was in place before the action began. There is of course the possible exception of the verb “to be.” However, I write possible because I don’t even consider the state of being to be static. Indeed, in the Spanish language there are two possible translations for it. Although “ser” is used to describe permanent conditions or characteristics, for example: “I am from England”, “she is a police officer” and “they are tall”, the verb “estar”, which is closest to the meaning I think “to be” should have, is generally used to describe (hopefully) non-permanent situations - feelings, current actions or locations, for example: “I am sick”, “you are writing” and "we are in the kitchen”.

As an explicitly political writer, with a focus on race equality and feminism, I find verbs incredibly important. In the dominant discourse about discrimination, there is a heavy focus on nouns: “Rasse” (race), “Ethnie” (ethnicity), and “Hautfarbe” (skin colour). The words “Kultur” (culture) and “Migrationshintergrund” (migration background) are used in debates and think pieces, as if they too were immutable characteristics of a person. I cannot help thinking the focus is wrong. Surely it is easier to change what people do rather than what they are? Contrary to popular opinion, a Black woman is not insulted because of the colour of her skin, neither it is true that a Jewish man is attacked because of his religion. In both instances, injustice occurs because someone has discriminated against them.

The recent debate concerning the replacement of the word “Rasse” in the German Grundgesetz (Basic constitution) has arisen, due to the recognition that diverse biological human races do not exist. Those who support the change have suggested replacement phrases like “ethnische Herkunft” (ethnic background) or “rassistische Zuschreibung” (racist attribution). Of the two, I far prefer the second. The word “Zuschreibung” works well here, because it is derived from a verb “zuschreiben” (to ascribe) which makes clear that it is the action which causes discrimination; it is the discriminatory action that is the problem. If it were up to me, I would replace the word “Rasse” with the word “Rassifizierung” (racialisation). “Rassifizierung” is derived from the verb “to rassify.” This would go some way to correcting an injustice, where the actions of those who have been involved in rassifying others - whether through the invention of race theories, through classifying human beings into different categories, engaging in genocide, or tacitly accepting all of the above – would be placed more at the centre of the discourse around combating discrimination in all forms.

Strictly speaking words like “Zuschreibung” and Rassifizierung” are verb forms which function as adjectives, and are known as participles. Gerunds are also verb forms which act as nouns and these are increasingly used in German to describe people. Words like “die Studierenden” (the students, or literally “those who are studying”) and “die Lehrenden” (the teachers, or literally “those who are teaching”) can be used to refer to people of all genders. This is a significant extension of the possibilities to include gender non-conforming people in a language, which otherwise typically defines groups grammatically as either entirely male or entirely female.

I disagree with those who claim that changes to language do not affect reality. I believe that verbs in all their forms are emancipatory – let’s make good use of them!