Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. The second in the Speakeasy bag collection – you may have guessed the trend already. Maybe you have eavesdropped in on a conversation and heard a German say to another German, “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof”; do they really mean “I only understand train station”? Don’t be such an idiom! Of course they don’t! (Except on very specific circumstances – drunk in Balaman springs to mind) Harking back to my hilarious joke a few sentences ago you will (hopefully) already be revelling in La phrase idiomatique (things sound sexier in French*).
Like many idioms, its origins aren’t totally clear, but it seems to have originated around the 1920s. The leading theory that it came about after the end of the First World War. Weary and tired soldiers wanted nothing more but to go home, they just had to get to the train station first. Attempt at conversation left them blurry eyed and only understanding the word “Bahnhof”, so desperate were they to get home.
The idiom is similar in meaning to the English “it’s all Greek to me”, and stresses that you don’t understand something, or do not want to understand something. And this last point is key; many people do not want to understand something. We’ve all met them. In this month’s newsletter we will explore this theme further with The Curse of The English Speaker; how some cultures are unwilling, and point-blank refuse, to communicate with other cultures. It is perhaps harsher to its German equivalent; more dismissive of other languages and cultures seen as “foreign”. Again, we’ve all met them.
Theories circulate that it may have been a direct translation of a similar phrase in Latin: “Graecum est; non legitur” (“it is Greek, [therefore] it cannot be read”). As if Latin is any more accessible! This phrase was increasingly used by monk scribes in the Middle Ages, as knowledge of the Greek alphabet and language was dwindling among those who were copying manuscripts in monastic libraries.
Recorded usage of the metaphor in the English language traces back to the sixteenth century. It appears in 1599 in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, as spoken by Casca to Cassius after a festival in which Caesar was offered a crown:
CASSIUS: Did Cicero say anything?
CASCA: Ay, he spoke Greek.
CASSIUS: To what effect?
CASCA: Nay, and I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.
I feel the urge to write “Shakespeasy” (groan) but don’t quite know how to cram it in. Think I’d need a crowbar. Just remember as you progress through the ups and downs of language learning you too will be faced with your very own Greek railway stations but fear not my friends we all experience these ups and downs, especially the sticky pitfalls of the dreaded idiom – it is all part and parcel (that one’s for free) of your journey. Some of you may have literally only understood “Bahnhof”. Step by step.
*check out last week’s Thursday Thoughts to discover the truth behind sexy accents.