Word! The Language Column
On Inventing

Illustration: An open mouth, an arm pointing to a jagged speech bubble, in the speech bubble a frazzle sign
Inventing is a great achievement | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

In her final column with us, Nora Gomringer explores the notion that we humans are all inventors and that our inventing is always both salvation and escape. Some inventions cannot be revised – especially when it comes to giants and deer.

By Nora Gomringer

When we’re young children, listening, imitating and inventing lead us to spoken and written language. (I’ve only just written that when I feel the need to be more general and say: to language! For even deaf, blind or differently abled people use language, systems, patterns, phonetic signs to communicate with each other or indeed with anyone they wish to reach.) Often, when forced to improvise, we become what we humans all are: inventors.

Inventing is a great achievement with a dual background. When used in the field of technology, it often features a novelty. Used in the realm of the fantastical, it comes close to lying, to concoction, in which case it is an act that is subject to moral judgement. Of course, invention is often salvation and escape in one.  

Guarding special knowledge

Even today, I (actively) detect the assumptions and the inventions of my childhood built on these assumptions or they reveal themselves to me. That is, every now and then I realise that for decades I had assumed a certain state of affairs. I based a wild story on this in order to make something plausible to me or just to astonish another person with my version. I thrived on the scandalous in miniature; I invented a great deal this way. Many children do this. For some, it helps to alleviate a feeling of inferiority – at least for the moment their listener is asking, astonished, What? That really happened? My goodness! How crazy, all the things you know! Yes, being the guardian of special knowledge is intoxicating. Even young children feel this and learn to make up stories.

Some of these children become authors. When you read their biographies and their own disclosures about how their writing began, they very often refer to their childhoods. Whether they were heard, seen or spoken to is often decisive. Who praised or rebuked them, whether words of praise or punishment were spoken at all; these descriptions round out the stories of their beginnings as writers. Whether their childhood took place in a scenario of rewarded eagerness, ambition or repeated rejection seems very telling to me. But of course, with everything its opposite is always true as well: Happy children have become adult murderers and brutal children gentle adults. Language can lead to more speaking and more artful ornamentation of communication, but also into silence, its disturbance, its enjoyment.  

The inventions of the poet

For the past few days, I’ve been a constant guest at my father’s retirement home. Since my mother passed away, the flat they once shared has become a lonely one. It is strange and full of ghosts; pain and confusion live in it. Here, in his office, where he still spends time daily, is father’s Gabriele 10 typewriter. Anyone who’s ever written a letter to Eugen Gomringer has most likely received one in reply that was typed on this loud, somewhat bulky instrument. My father, the poet, created his inventions on it; lots of them. Even these days he invents, jots a few lines by hand and can still navigate his thoughts quite quickly. Entire monologues about certain colleagues or designer furniture, works of art, encounters are thus expressed.

He also holds forth about us children. I learn things that I had taken in or understood differently, on the basis of which I created some strange edifices, some foundations that I now have to dig up again. One must be one’s own earthquake if one wants to shift things. But some things continue to want to be invention and vehemently resist revision.

It’s all storytelling

It can’t be that the rottweiler couldn’t speak, I remember his words to me clearly, “Tell them I want to come inside, especially at night. Do it, or I’ll eat your guinea pig.” He ate the guinea pig, which sighed at me, “It’s alright,” and then died bleeding. It can’t be that there wasn’t a giant living in the quarry next door, dancing with the bats at night on our granite slabs in front of the house. For how else could I have explained how the cracks got there and how the name of Hitler’s deputy Hess caused a strangely cold breath to blow throughout the village? Hess danced most madly on the nights I didn’t dare look out of the window. And the spring in the forest? Of course it was the spring from the fairy tale of the little brother and little sister and all the stones in it could tell about the two deer that drank here; deer who were more than deer.

I was a child of quiet parents who, when they were together in the room, always found topics to converse about, which one of them now misses very much. He is missing the most precious thing that both of them possessed: the shared invention of their we. I invent for myself how my father talks to my mother at night. I also invent my father anew, trembling, on all sorts of weird assumptions. Thus, everything is storytelling and the storytelling is the contouring of thought-up bodies and objects. The more comprehensible, the more fascinating; the vaguer, the more honest, because honestly: Who can invent truth and can then live with it?


Thank you for this wonderful, treasured opportunity to share with you a few poetic reflections on my work! The Goethe-Institut recently celebrated its 70th birthday, I celebrated over 20 years of my work with it, for it and within its structures. I was able to visit places and meet people, share art and mediation work with colleagues and learn from many people. In addition, the Goethe-Institut supported many of my translators in rendering my poems in wonderful new languages. These processes are ongoing. Once they are initiated, they continue to evolve. They educate and enlighten all who are involved with them. This author here, in particular, is constantly learning. You make me feel deeply grateful and connected to you. Yours, Nora Gomringer


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.