Oder oder Doch? (German and My Self-Esteem)

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This week I’m stuck in Prague, where the keyboards don’t make sense (you have to press shift to get a number!) and where Internet costs more than I’m used to. So this one’s going to be short. And without photos, since I cannot upload them (Ich habe die Fotos nicht upgeloadet!) although boy do I have some pretty ones for you when I get back.

Whenever I do something stupid in a column, like bash Vienna for five hundred words, I feel bashful afterwards. Obviously not everything about Vienna is terrible, and indeed it’s quite likely that a lot of people disagree with me, and what if it’s me who is the crazy one after all? What if Vienna is only miserable if you yourself are a miserable person?

These are the sort of situations for which German is a great language, because it offers you a completely normal way to tell people that you’re a nervous indecisive wreck. That, my friends, would be the word “oder“. Do you know how some people end every sentence, even ones that are supposed to be indicative, as a question? As one of these people, I can tell you that most of the world finds it pretty annoying. Somebody once told me that it made me sound “stupider than you really are.”

In German, this tendency to self-doubt has become a natural part of my language. When Germans want to make a sentence into a question, they just add “oder“, in English “or”, to the end. It’s pretty cool, oder?

I thought this was great when I first came to Germany and realized that natives actually use this construction. “Let’s go to the bar, oder?” “I would like a drink, oder?” “I think I’ve drunk enough, oder?” It was the first German word that came to me entirely naturally–never had to search for the right word here, it just tripped off my tongue even when I didn’t mean for it to, just like, well, like. Because it was wonderful!

It’s like that feminine habit I have of saying “Well, I feel…” instead of “I think.” You always get to acknowledge the possibility that you are wrong so that nobody can yell at you about it later AND you sound more like a native and less like a stupid American!

Until, that is, somebody in your class starts screaming at you about the habit and begs you to stop because they can’t deal with your appending “oder” to the end of every answer you offer, which causes you to involuntarily add “oder” to the end of your oder, because oder is what you do when you’re scared of being yelled at, which results in sentences like “We should go to the park oder the school, oder, oder?”

And if you’re going to doubt your self-doubt, why stop there? Why not doubt that doubt? And doubt the next one? Why not doubt the very concept of doubt? Why not put oder at the beginnings of your sentences too? And in the middle?

The possibilities hurt the mind. So let’s move on to another one of my favorite German “flavoring particles,” one that I only use when I absolutely have to, namely “doch.” This is a complicated word, one I myself don’t fully understand, but the most common usage is to contradict a contradiction, and if you’re a linguistics student reading this, the “oder” here is implied, OK?

So I might say something in German like: “Hast du das Buch fuer unser Seminar nicht gelesen?” [“Have you not read the book for our seminar?”] and if you have, what are you going to reply?

“Yes” can be misinterpreted here, and so can “no,” but they’re seemingly your only two options. You’re going to have to go with the explanatory text, which, remember, can be dangerous if the person you’re speaking to only wants to listen to one word or if you’re about to be eaten by a shark and you want at least to die an honorable death.

But in German, we have “doch,” which makes your meaning clear immediately–you are disagreeing with the negative question, saying “On the contrary, you doubter, I have read the book.”

Doch can also be used in plain old arguments. If I say “The Austrians are not as cool as the Germans, oder?” and you disagree, you just shout “DOCH!” and proceed to prove me wrong.

An important thing to remember is that doch can only be used in response to a negative statement. “The Austrians are as cool as the Germans, oder?” is un-doch-able.

(But for the record, it is completely untrue. You know the guttural consonants that you have come to know through movies about the Nazis and that I have come to love through, well, the Swarthmore German Department? The Austrians don’t have those.)

The difficulty some people have in using “ja” and “doch” inspired my German teacher in Berlin to come up with the catchphrase “Ja oder doch?” whenever anybody in the class used either of them. He himself was a big “doch” person, not just saying it when it was necessary but basically whenever it was grammatically possible.

This was one of his more lovable catchphrases–others included “Das ist kein Argument!” [That is no argument!] whenever anybody would say anything, “Ich bin kein Fachmann, aber…” [I am no expert, but] before making sweeping generalizations about somebody’s culture, most commonly Africa, and “Warum, warum, ist die Banana krumm?” [Why, oh why, is the banana curved?] when he had no idea what he was talking about and didn’t even dare to make a sweeping generalization about it, but wanted us to have the impression that the answer was simply unknowable.

(He claimed the last one was an old German saying, and I like to think it was a holdover from the days of Germany’s colonial ambitions, sort of like “How did black people become black?” except politically correct. Which is not something the Germans are much for, as you may remember from my first column, except in regards to people their ancestors tried to genocide, which I like to say as “gegenocidet” when I’m speaking Denglish. And since the Germans may have genocided the people of Namibia, they really ought to work on it with regards to Africa, which some people need to remember is not a country.)

That’s to say that he wasn’t much of an oder guy, but a doch guy. I’ve started to put people in those two categories in my head. Maybe you will too. I’d have more to say (I always have more to say–maybe I should write a book? Would you read a book I wrote? It would read sort of like this except I would write more than one draft) but the Czech guy at the counter is muttering consonants under his breath.

From the land of too few consonants to the land of nothing but–I guess that’s just life in the world of

Deine furchtlose Korrespondentin,

Lauren Stokes

(DOCH, by the way–I am clearly scared of Czech men and their consonants. And of not ending this column with a big fat ODER.)

The Phoenix