Word! The Language Column Weighing your Words

When Hernán D. Caro talks with friends of his in Germany, he tends to exaggerate every now and then. His friends then usually look perplexed. This is reason enough for the author to think about the different ways people communicate in different languages, which sometimes call for a pinch of salt.

Illustration: A person calls into a microphone and has a thought bubble on his head, which is filled by a star Exaggeration, understanding and communication | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank
This sort of thing happens to me all the time: I’m telling a German friend something and, because I don't know how else to tell a story, I exaggerate a little. “The house was packed,” I report after a concert. “There were at least three hundred people there!” To which my friend replies doubtfully, “That can't be: the place only holds eighty people max.” Or I say, “Last summer in Rome was the hottest I’ve ever known. I swear it was sixty degrees one day – in the shade!” “Sixty degrees?” my interlocutor inquires sceptically. “I doubt that. Even on the hottest days in Rome,” he informs me matter-of-factly, “it never gets above forty-five degrees.” And (after thinking to myself, “For Chrissake, I know that!”) I reply, “Hey, I was just exaggerating, naturally” – which often gives rise to a perplexed or exasperated look.

Understanding vs. making yourself clearly understood

So what's the matter here? First of all, in many of my conversations it doesn’t seem to me terribly important to be taken literally at my every word. Verbal communication is a special connection between people. Verbal exaggeration and other utterances meant to be taken ironically, not at face value, don’t strike me a perturbing element, but on the contrary as opportunities for or signs of closeness between people. To me, the value of mutual understanding lies, among other things, in the fact that – ideally! – people get or know in advance that I’ve a tendency to exaggerate. For many of my German friends, however, communication seems to be primarily about clarity. They equate mutual understanding above all with making yourselves clearly understood, a sort of tacit agreement to say things as unambiguously as possible so as to ward off any misunderstandings. I once talked about this with a good friend of mine from Munich – to whom I’ve had to explain several times in the past that I was exaggerating. He understandably asked, “But if you want to tell someone something, why say things differently than they are?” I, in turn, wondered, “Why not?”
Many acquaintances of mine who, like me, hail from other countries or were influenced by languages other than German at an early age, tell of similar experiences. So it’s safe to assume that what we’re dealing with here is a very widespread socio-linguistic phenomenon. What’s the explanation?

Languages create people

No idea! I mean we’re talking about countless speakers and their individual verbal habits, so any explanation is bound to be tenuous at best, since it has to be based on a generalization – i.e. an exaggeration. But seeing as some truth (or at least half-truth) lies behind many an exaggeration, we can still speculate in general terms.
Bishop Isidore of Seville wrote in the 6th century AD, “Ex linguis gentes, non ex gentibus linguae exortae sunt,” i.e. “Nations (in the sense of peoples) have arisen out of languages, not languages out of nations.” The question is, of course, whether there’s such a thing as a uniform “nation” or “people” or whether this isn’t already a somewhat facile generalization. But that aside, if languages create people, if we are, as it were, in the service of our language and not vice versa, could it be that, because the German language allows a certain degree of concreteness and precision (for some examples, see the first instalment of my column “On ‘Wirklichkeit’: Words that breathe life into reality”), it also demands this of its speakers? In other words: If you can say it clearly, you must say it clearly!


Or is it the other way round? That in countries or language areas in which it was important or vital for historical or political reasons to state clearly what you think or where you stand, as in Germany, this requirement of clarity still informs the way people communicate today. And in places in which, for equally complex reasons, the premium is not on precision, but on articulating things “cleverly”, in such a way that they could be understood differently, people are more likely to inject a certain ambiguity, humour or playfulness into the spoken language.
Who knows? The truth certainly lies somewhere in between – in the realm of ideas, where, according to a German saying, one should not jedes Wort auf die Goldwaage legen”, literally “weigh every word on a gold scale”. A saying, incidentally, whose very existence is proof positive that this is precisely what people all too often do.

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.