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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Erlangen 91052 (10)—Everyday Words: Einfach

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square Series "Erlangen 91052"
Click here for the "Erlangen 91052" Resource Center—All Posts Available 
One year ago on Round and  Square (25 February 2013)—China's Lunar Calendar 2013 02-25
Two years ago on Round and Square (25 February 2012)—Divinatory Economics: Sacred Mountain Incense (3)
[a] Einfach's opposite (ein bischen kompliziert) RF
This word...this word... It's simply everywhere. It is hard to go more than a few minutes in Erlangen 91052 (or Germany, more generally) without seeing it in advertisements, hearing it in snatches of conversation, or watching it challenge Billiger! for the most widely used word in Kaufland supermarket. It's einfach-this and einfach-that. Einfach is(t) hier, dort, and even dort drüben. It is on the corner, around the corner, and just about everywhere you go on buses, in stores, and even on the Internet. Google loves this word.

It is simply everywhere.
[b] Not so simple RF

So what does it mean? 

Well, that's not as simple as it looks.

And now I can hear some of my friends who know German (or who have even had a semester of high school study) falling off their chairs. Einfach (I hear them cry)—"...what could be more direct, less complicated, and, frankly simple than einfach? It's, like, chapter two in Neue Horizonte." 

And then they blurt: "It MEANS "simple!"

And I calmly reply: "Whoa, there. Slow down cowpoke."

And I continue: "We're talkin' anthropology here, not memorizing vocab in first-year German." The Round and Square editorial board is way too busy to bother with flash cards here. This set of posts is about life and lived experience. It doesn't take a beret-wearing, Merlot-sipping, hand-wringing, postmoderninst still in the thrall of Jacques Derrida to understand that living...and talking about it (or writing about it) aren't the same.
[c] Messy RF

The translation "simple" gets us a long way down the road, but it starts to twist and turn from there (and it's hard to know where to take the bike or car).

Seriously, if you are stuck on this point (thinking life as we live it and how we put it into words are "the same"), we might need to do some serious background work. In a nutshell, though, we all make our ways through complex lives—deciding, strategizing, pondering, emoting, and more. Only parts of this are expressed in words, explained to others, or even written privately to ourselves. 

Living and language are linked (how could it be otherwise?)...but living and language are not the same. This is why we have a few "near-perfect" words that sum up complex feelings and actions (the German word Schadenfreude comes to mind) and others that just function as "placeholders" for much more complicated feelings (e.g. "very angry"). 

Ever had trouble conveying in words what you are thinking or feeling? Your struggles aren't just a result of not being T.S. Eliot. It's built-in. Memorize the Four Quartets, and you'll see.
***  *** 
So nothing is simple. Is that what I'm saying? Yes...yes it is. 

Once you mix life with words, everything gets complicated. And once you start translating lived experience from language to language, you are not just messin' with words. You are trying to convey, say, what is going on as you conduct your life in Germany (or Japan or Bulgaria) into a different language (complete with its own complex assumptions about what things mean). If you want a truly messy example (much messier than einfach, I will admit) try "freedom." Now try "democracy." 
[d] Simply...outside...chatting! RF

Good luck making a one-to-one word compendium out of that turmoil, pardner.

O.k., so einfach (or so das) is not as simple as it sounds, even though most dictionaries will list the English word "simple" as a pretty sturdy translation. Well, it is sturdy, but you can't spell "sturdy" without "turds." There is a whole lot of living and bodily process left before we are done with einfach. Stick with me for just a few examples, and we'll wrap this up.

As I mentioned earlier, I see it all the time on advertising for quick recipes, ready-to-back cakes, and little cooking tips in newspapers, magazines, and on television. Just tonight, I enjoyed a tasty stir-fry of small, whole mushrooms, zucchini, and prawns. On the frozen prawn package, there it was, just as I was about to open it along the handy-dandy easy open perforation. Escal King Prawns—Einfach gut!
[e] Einfach Leben RF

Then there is the whistling, singing, British performer—Roger Whittaker—who understood even before David Hasselhoff that he might succeed in Germany, where there seemed to be more receptivity for his habit of breaking out in whistled tunes, even in the midst of his lyrics. He was right, and one of his most popular tunes is Einfach Leben. It's simple living...with a twist (and alas, no whistle). For a closer sense of the meaning we have to merge Roger Whittaker with Lin Yutang, and we have something a little like "Just Live." Not a bad message, but (since I had to watch him anyway) I wanted whistling mixed with that living.  

And I would be irresponsible of me to introduce Whittaker (you can probably see that I am not a big fan) without a taste of the whistling. Take a quick listen (and if you want gushing pages of fan narratives about how Einfach Leben has changed lives, just Google it). Here's the Finnish Whistle. Listen, and then we'll conclude with a nice warm "German" beer.

Roger Whittaker, Finnish Whistle 2:17 

And now we wind our way down to Old Man River Brewing, a German-style brewery in McGregor, Iowa, that makes this fascinating claim:

          Einfach is brewed locally on the Iowa shores of the Mississippi so you are 
          ensured the freshest "German" beer possible. 

I was still trying to weave a thread of reasoning from that, but was soon distracted by the brewery's Iowa-powered, Germanic beer name. Again, I quote from their website: 

          The term Einfach is translated as unpretentious simplicity. This is a defining 
          Iowa characteristic, our ability to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures. 
          It is also a defining characteristic of our beer. Brewed in the old world German 
          tradition, our beers are a testament to the quality of slowing down and doing 
          things right.
[f] Hmmm RF

I see a problem here. I started thinking that maybe the brewers should spend a little time near the Seine, wearing berets, sipping Merlot, ringing their hands, reading Derrida, and focusing just a bit more on the relationships between language, life, and living (see above). Then they might revise their script a bit.

***  ***
And that is where we'll leave it for now. We'll be discussing lived experience and language a great deal in the next few weeks, and I will try to keep the discussion to one word a day (and about a thousand of explanation...with 5-8 pictures). 

Even if you don't know German, you will probably get a little bit of a "feel" for the word and at least a few of its uses. Consider it a kind of "fieldwork lexicon," and a rather discursive one, at that. "Discursive" is what we do on Round and Square.

Still, there is one criterion for a word to make it past the Round and Square editors and onto the blog. Just one.

In has to be everywhere—"living" Erlangen 91052.

It really isn't kompliziert at all. In fact, it's pretty einfach, really.

Thursday, 27 February 2014
Erlangen 91052 (11)—Everyday Words: Genau
[g] Simply awesome (just awesome) RF

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