Tweeting in English and German: Motivationsfördermaßnahmisierungen

twitter-deutschland

Just a few weeks ago the social media analytics provider Sysomos released a report on who is using Twitter and how. One has to take their findings with a grain of salt given the unreliability of the data Twitter can provide. How many of us, for example, are reporting our age, or reporting it accurately? Yet the statistics are interesting because Twitter is so new to most of us. As we newbies learn to give it to the bird and constrict our random musings into headline-style brevity, we can’t resist a look at just how Twitter is doing.

As A.J. Liebling might have put it, people everywhere confuse what they read in Twitter with news. Twitter has had a great deal of media attention lately, yet one of the more interesting findings of the Sysomos survey is that a mere 5% of Twitter users account for 75% of all activity. There are 30 million Twitter accounts. If the Sysomos research is correct, that translates into a relatively small number of active Twitter users, especially when you compare it to the Malthusian hordes now clogging the Facebook servers with middle-aged angst, birthday greetings, and barbecue invitations. Nevertheless, according to a recent article in The Guardian, Twitter continues to fascinate the most powerful of the Interneterati. Rupert Murdoch, for example, is apparently interested in adding it to his online empire.

Twitter, the so-called media revolution that isn’t, is a fad that will pass when something better arrives, possibly by this Christmas. By that I don’t mean to disparage Twitter. I find it a useful adjunct to the news and notifications I get from blogs, listservs, Delicious, Facebook, Friendfeed, and all the other digital demands upon my attention. But it will pass, perhaps swamped by Google’s new Wave or overtaken by a feisty competitor like Posterous, which has no garrulity limit and offers easy lifestreaming by various means, including email.

Sysomos reports that 94% of Twitter users have less than 100 followers. That sounds right. After all, it’s hard to get noticed in our alienated, I-want-it-all-and-I-want-it-delivered world. Nor should it come as a great surprise that 21% of account holders have never published a tweet. What did interest me was the breakdown of users by country. In light of the extraordinary media coverage of Twitter’s global reach, especially in the recent Iran election turbulence, we learn that the largest non-English-speaking country on Twitter is Brazil, with 2% of total users. The planet has many more nations than Twitter has characters available for a tweet, so it is a bit strange that the number of world users is still so comparatively low. Could much of that be related to language?

adler2

The English language utterly dominates Twitter. The top four countries on Twitter are all English-speaking (US, UK, Canada, Australia). Of these, the US makes up 62% of all Twitter users, followed by the UK with nearly 8%, and Canada and Australia with 5.7% and 2.8% respectively. Even tiny New Zealand is among the top tweeters. Germany comes in at number six, just after Brazil, with 1.5% of Twitter users. I don’t know enough Portuguese to know how well it fits into the Twitter straitjacket, but for its German clientele Twitter must be a tight fit indeed.

German is something I know a bit about, a language I learned in infancy in a military PMQ, subsequently forgot after returning to Canada, and then relearned over many arduous years sweating over Hegel and hypotaxis. German is a wonderful language, but its Meccano set grammar and mucilaginous gutturalism are well known. Some wag once quipped that German was invented solely to afford the speaker the opportunity to spit at strangers under the guise of polite conversation.  In his novel Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess called it “a glottal fishbonecleaning soulful sobbing sausagemachine of a language.” German is heavily inflected, expansive and loquacious and likes to swing its weight around. How then can this brawny linguistic Siegfried be squeezed into Twitter’s tight corsets? Twitter is El Greco to German’s Rubens. Twitter is Jack Sprat and German is his wife. Twitter is gossamer and lace; German is horns and hides. Twitter tweets the Minute Waltz; German bellows Tristan. But these mismatches don’t deter many Valkyries from slipping into ballet slippers. Let’s take a closer look at how bulky German verbosity does blogging lite.

Along with its being an American invention, Twitter’s anglicism has much to do with the fact that the English language is reasonably well suited to Twitter’s 140-character telegraph style — all the more so as English sheds some of its Latinate vocabulary and gets back to its Saxon roots. But in the language of modern day Saxony (or Salzburg or Zürich), where Twitter updates are called Befindlichkeitsmeldungen, the monosyllabic roots it shares with its near relative have evolved differently. The lengthy word combinations of modern German give little trouble to German speakers, but we anglophones invariably find them confusing and threatening, like coiled barbed wire or algebra. As Mark Twain said, some German words are so long they have a perspective. When you are reading even a simple news story in Der Spiegel, massive alphabet clusters streak across your vision like tracer fire. In a recent post from one of my favourite medical library blogs, medinfo, I encountered the daunting word Motivationsfördermaßnahmisierungen, which means something like “efforts at motivation-promoting measures.” Try adding a few words of that heft to Twitter’s modest text box and you’re headed for serious Twitter malfunction.

ohnetheoriekeinerevolution

In most cases German requires an inordinate amount of space to express itself. This makes for somewhat terse Twitter communications. Take this modest, housekeeping tweet from a medical library in Münster, the Zweigbibliothek Medizin der Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Münster:

Die Dachdeckerarbeiten sind abgeschlossen, das Zeitschriftenmagazin ist wieder zugänglich.

An awful lot of clotted letters to make two points: that roof work has ended and that library patrons once again have access to a journals storage room.

This next tweet is overwhelmed by the simple task of announcing that the library is closing at 6pm:

RT @WWU_Muenster: Wegen des JUWI-Festes schließt die Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek heute bereits um 18 Uhr: http://www.ulb.uni-muenster.de/

A tweet from Münster’s local Greenpeace group resorts to the use of an English word to reduce confusion, but even this cannot stave off near catastrophe. Once you have retweeted @someone’s tweet, added a hashtag or two and a shortened URL, there is scarcely any room left to pry in even short German words:

RT @betterandgreen FTD: Die deutsche #Solar-Revolution http://bit.ly/ILafW #erneuerbare Energien

Faced with the near impossibility of expressing anything much more than a grunt of approval or dismay, some Teutonic tweeters just seem to give up altogether:

@nico hehe. Süß

Or resort to Germlish:

Alles klar. Also entweder Tupper-Party oder Sauna-Exzesse in der Bib

Welcome to remote Bücherverbrennung http://tr.im/sRu3 #amazon #kindle #drm #wasdukaufstgehörtdirnicht

Clearly, the language of Goethe and Schiller would be much more comfortable with, say, a 350-character limit. On second thought, make it a thousand. Enough of these Twitterschwierigkeiten, the difficulties caused by Twitter’s artificial constraints and unrealistic character limits or Twitterzeichenbeschränkungen. German speakers need a Twitter enlarger, eine Twittervergrößerrungsapparat.

Postscript: The Awful German Language

There is a famous passage in Mark Twain’s awesome essay, The Awful German Language, in which he has the definitive last word on German word length:

In my note-book I find this entry:

July 1. — In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was successfully removed from a patient — a North German from near Hamburg; but as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event has cast a gloom over the whole community.

That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most curious and notable features of my subject — the length of German words.  Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.  Observe these examples:

Freundschaftsbezeigungen.

Dilettantenaufdringlichkeiten.

Stadtverordnetenversammlungen.

These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page — and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way I have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock.

But Mark Twain’s examples pale before some more recent additions to the German dictionary. How long can compound words get in German, you may ask? This is always hard to determine, but I did come across this high-calorie, 63-letter monster:

Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

Literal translation: “beef labelling regulation and delegation of supervision law.” There’s a mouthful that will fill any stomach. Try squeezing that into your next tweet.

twittercupcakes

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1 Response to “Tweeting in English and German: Motivationsfördermaßnahmisierungen”


  1. 1 creaky July 29, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Good post, MR.
    My forefathers emigrated to the U.S. in 1840 from a small town in Bavaria. (As the family librarian, everyone has decided I’m the official archivist… I have the actual immigration papers and many letters from the homeland written in German). Sigh. Never learned the language myself.
    Creaky


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