Help with German expressions

It's a Blowper, Says Cowper

There scarcely lived a greater
 poet than of late a               
certain Wolfgang Goethe,  At this point you know    
born seventeen forty-nine              how to pronunce "Goethe"  
at Frankfurt on the Main.
In most any other town
he is not without renown,
but the Germans, to their shame,
won't even pronounce his nöm.

While matters intellectual,
by academic folk,
as being ineffectual,
are treated as a joke--
power we appreciate.

So when the Prussian nation state,
with steel, arms, acumen,
and the lives of not a few men
brought France to her knees,
got colonies--
Reichsmark secure,
and gold standard pure--
Professoren raised National-Litteratur.

Victors not seldom are anguished,
infected by cultures they've vanquished:
Die französische Rache
 war die deutsche Bühnensprache.
The poet was doubly now trounced:
mocked as Dichterfürst, and his name mispronounced.
The way these schoolmasters spread it
was not the way Goethe had said it--
nor relished any nation
their strange pronunciation.

Immerhin wirkt das Exotische fein--
Go easy:
lithp Go-e-the.
Rhyme his name with dirty:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Was da aber deutsch ist, mach' a' schön spitzen Mund!
Sei Herrn Professor Siebsens Aussprache kund!
Seid ja nicht gemein!

The great overreacher
of narrowness, teacher
that the commonest lights are the sweetest,
is co-opted by the obscure and elitist.

Ah, rhyme poeta with propheta,
and be not one
of those ingrates,
loving not Donne
or scorning poor Yeats,
who can't say Pepys
and tim'rously keeps
on puckering "Goethe."

                                                                                                        NOTES
Nota bene: On the poet's birthday sometime in the 1980s, these lines, together with the notes that follow, were mailed to a few professors of German.  One of them honored the author by publishing them, and as a consequence they have been in print for nearly a half century.  They have been on the web for decades.  There has been no further response from any German scholar or teacher, neither orally nor in writing nor in print, nor to this site.  embarrassing, isn't it?

       ¶The poet and his family no doubt spoke like other people in Frankfurt, and we do have to assume that ö was unrounded there in Goethe's day, i.e., that the first three lines, above, do rhyme.  The same would be true of Weimar speech, where Goethe was resident from his middle twenties onward.  A few written references survive from people who heard Goethe's name before he became a celebrity, and did not know how he spelled it.  They are likely to use an e, as in the wonderfully faithful rendering by Caroline Flachsland in a letter to her betrothed on 30 December 1771:  Merck "hat Bekanntschaft mit einem Ihrer Freunde Gede gemacht."  Before long, Caroline switches to Göthe or Goethe.  The question as to which of these spellings may be preferable has received some attention from the chalkboard set--not so the pronunciation.  --please hit back button to return.

      ¶The notion of Nationalliteratur may be traced back very far in Germany, depending on how we choose to understand it.  Presumably it requires a conceptualization, as in Friedrich Karl von Moser's 1765 essay, Von dem deutschen National-Geist.  By 1795, A. G. Gebhart could use a title like Über die französische Nationalschuld, and during the French hegemony nationalism thrived among young German Romantics.  They constituted the generation which was to inititiate modern Literaturwissenschaft, e.g., Grundriß der deutschen Nationalliteratur in six volumes (1827).  After World War II, Herbert Cysarz surmised that the notion of the political nation state must have arisen about the time of the French Revolution, Das deutsche Nationalbewußtsein (1961), p. 57, and this was doubly true for Germany, of course.  Under discussion here, however, is not intellectual history, but academic foppery, where use of National- increased as the century progressed.  --please hit back button to return.

         ¶A standard pronunciation had been sought for centuries.  The most revered German poet of the Enlightenment argued for it:

Wir [haben] eine nicht landschaftliche, sondern deutsche und von der Nazion durch die allgemeine Orthographie dafür erkannte Aussprache.  Wenn das nicht wäre, warum schriebe man den z.E. in Westphalen:  Menschen, da man doch:  Mens-gen ausspricht? Warum in Obersachsen:  böse, übel, Feuer; ob man gleich bese, ibel, Feier sagt?  Und so in den übrigen Provinzen Deutschlands.  --Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, "Etymologie und Aussprache" (1781)

Colorful variety in regional spoken languages together with an increasingly normalized written language had been an outstanding feature of the German heritage after Luther.  Then, as her material strength increased, Germany's normalization converged with that of neighboring nation states, like the French, where a political power center was imposing a general standard.  Since the early 18th century, this had been provided by the theater (see Irmgard Weithase, Zur Geschichte der gesprochenen deutschen Sprache, 1961). During the Holy Roman Empire the important theater was in Vienna.  That changed after Bismarck.  Theodor Siebs, Deutsche Bühnensprache. Hochsprache (1898), ostensibly normalizes theater usage, imposing the phonology of north Germany on Viennese orthography.  Siebs remains the authority to this day.  He explicitly requires rounding for Goethe's name (on page 52 of the 8th-9th ed.).  In Siebs's own day George Oliver Curme, the British authority (A Grammar of the German Language, 1905) was more cautious about the rounded ö:  "Instead of this sound we often hear e in Middle and South Germany and in parts of the North, especially among the lower classes."  That, of course, was the point:  in those days it seemed anomalous to discuss a Dichterfürst in the language of the "lower classes"--whatever Goethe's own pronunciation might have been.  The British, in spite of a similar class barrier, did far lesser names the honor of retaining native pronunciation, e.g., Donne, Cowper, Pepys, Yeats, etc.  For Goethe's name, however, English speakers tried to follow German schoolmasters.  Robert Lohan in his introduction to the American edition of Siebs in 1944 admonished:  "Für den Ausländer, der deutsch sprechen will, kommt natürlich nur die Hochsprache in Frage" (p. iv).  --please hit back button to return.

Some might not regard "Dichterfürst" as a mockery, but Goethe's explanation of his own prince's behavior:  "Leider sieht man daraus daß es in der tiefsten Natur steckt, und daß der Frosch fürs Wasser gemacht ist wenn er gleich auch eine Zeitlang sich auf der Erde befinden kan" WA Briefe 5, 74), does come close to our American view of royalty:  "Take them all around, they're a mighty ornery lot.  It's the way they're raised" (Huck Finn).

    ¶Goethe was sensitive about his name, as we know from his recollection of Herder's ribbing after more than forty years had passed:  "Es war freilich nicht fein, daß er sich mit meinem Namen diesen Spaß erlaubte"  (Dichtung und Wahrheit, Book X).  Understandably, the voicing of the G was important to him, although the Saxons, among whom he lived most of his life, had no ear for it.  From the poem "Hatem" we know that he rhymed his name with Morgenröthe, orthographically, anyhow, but did he pucker for Morgenröthe?  We have it from the younger generation (who felt by no means edified by the older Goethe's laxity in other respects) that his speech was strongly regional and aisée. Although  the judgment of such visitors as Rahel von Varnhagen and Heinrich Heine may be called subjective, we can scarcely ask for better vouchsafe than Wilhelm Grimm's, who in affirming Goethe's Frankfurt dialect gives us the old man's response to any who might make bold to quibble:  "Der Bär brummt nach der Höhle, in der er geboren ist."  Goethe was himself by no means insensitive to regionalisms.  His Regeln für Schauspieler (1803) show intolerance for the actors' Saxon indifference to consonantal voicing, and from Eckermann we have a joke about their confusion of i and ü.  But this does not mean he shared professorial intolerance for the lower classes.  Robert Lohan (mentioned above) writes that "Sogar Goethe konnte sich zeitlebens von seinem Frankfurter Dialekt, der ihn neige und Schmerzensreiche reimen läßt, nicht freimachen" (p. i).  Lohan is not quoting Goethe, of course, but a naively devout child (Faust, 3587-88), whose common pronunciation of elevated language makes her prayer one of the most touching rhymes in world literature.  (One is reminded of the distinguished Harvard professor's review of Dr. Faustus:  "Thomas Mann's Sprachgefühl is slipping").  --please hit back button to return.

    ¶If you want to hear a reverent voice intone it, just click the Goethe Society's link "pronunciation."  The most cosmopolitan poet of the German language was happily born with a name easily pronounced the world over.  About a century and a half later, scholars of a transitory empire to the north required that the name be uttered in this way difficult for those outside the European peninsula and alien even to most German speakers.  It turned out to be an effective provincialization of Goethe's fame.  --please hit back button to return.

    ¶As the street name in Chicago: Go-eth-ey.   --please hit back button to return.

    ¶This pronunciation, recommended throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, actually goes back to the earliest German grammar in the English lanuage, The High Dutch Minerva A-La-Mode (London, 1680):  "oe both long and short like the English i, e.g., bird, shirt, first, etc." --please hit back button to return.

    ¶Those im Ausland are always just a little appalled at the glee with which almost anything negative about Goethe is apt to be relished by his countrymen, from simple viciousness to outright falsifications [citations will be supplied upon request to Professor Worthy].  This, clearly, is not a response to Goethe at all, but to elitist cooptation of his work for their gay social set (and its patois).  It need not concern us in America.  We who have ridden the rails through the many Decaturs of this great land and, shooting craps, have called for the (with six) easiest point, "Ada from Decatah!"--we can all pronounce the poet's name the same way he did, and as transients we may choose between his pronunciation and the professorial, officially sanctioned by the Prussian Empire (1871-1918). --please hit back button to return.

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