Sunday, 11 May 2008

Laughing Sickness

I posted a note recently about the misunderstandings that can be caused by constipation and constipado. This sort of thing happens often with the Romance or half-Romance languages because they are similar and yet different, as you will discover if you travel to Portugal with the idea that your small knowledge of Spanish will be useful. It probably won't; it is more likely to confuse you as well as the locals with whom you try to converse.

This does not happen with German. This is a language characterised by accuracy and precision: you can build cars with it. You have to say what you mean; it is not as easy as it is in English to have grammar, syntax and vocabulary absolutely correct while being at the same time totally incomprehensible.

But in a piece he wrote forty years Michael Frayn observed that there is one big problem with the German language which is that it must be very difficult to keep a straight face if, when you go to visit a relative in hospital you have to ask for the Krankenhaus, or when you want the way out you must ask for the Ausfahrt.

Frayn suggested that life for Germans must be just one long struggle to keep themselves from laughing at their own language:

...That would explain a lot. That's what the object of all that iron Prussian discipline must have been. That's what all those duelling scars were for—to camouflage all the dirty grins on the face of people inquiring about the Ausfahrt. Now that the old traditional codes of discipline have gone it's terrible. The approach to every Ausfahrt, Einfahrt and Krankenhaus in the Federal Republic is jammed with people falling about and holding their sides. But that's nothing to what it's like inside the Krankenhaus. Inside it sounds like 14 different studio audiences trying to earn their free tickets simultaneously, as the patients describe their various comic-sounding symptoms to the staff. Here's a new admission scarcely able to speak for giggles as he tells the doctor he has a pain in his elbow:
'A Schmerz in your Ellenbogen?' repeats the doctor without any sign of amusement—he's heard the joke before, of course. 'Which Ellenbogen?'
'Both Ellenbogens,' replies the patient, trying to pull himself together. 'I also get agonising twinges which run up and down my leg from my ... from my ...'
But it's no good—he's off again. Unable to get the words out for laughing, he points silently from his thigh to his ankle.
'From your Schenkel to your Knöchel?' says the doctor, the corner of his mouth twitching very slightly in spite of himself. The patient nods helplessly.
'And sometimes,' he gasps, 'and sometimes ... all the way down my ...'He closes his eyes and vibrates silently, shaking his head from time to time to indicate that speech is beyond him.
'Come on,' says the doctor, frankly grinning himself now. 'Get it out.'
'All the way down my ... my Wirb ... my Wirbel ...'
'You'll start me off it you're not careful. Your what?'
'My Wirbelsäu-hau-hau-hau-hau-hau-hau ...'
'Your Wirbelsäule? Your backbone?'
The patient nods, his eyes covered with his hand, his shoulders shaking rhythmically. The doctor bites his lip hard to stop himself giving way.
'Any other symptoms?' he demands gruffly.
'Yes,' croaks the patient weakly, 'verstopfung!'
At this the doctor can hold out no longer. A great snort of laughter forces its way past his clenched jaw muscles, and he puts his head back and laughs until he cries.
'Verstopft, are you?' he manages at last. 'Constipated?'
'Verstopft up solid!'
Eventually they both simmer down a bit, and sigh, and wipe their eyes, smiling anywhere but at each other.
'You know what your trouble is?' says the doctor. 'You've got Kniescheibenentzündung. Housemaid's knee.'

'Don't!' pleads the patient, 'You'll start me off again!'
'And a rather bad dose of ...'

'No, honestly, I've got a pain as it is ...''No, listen, a rather bad dose of Windpo-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho ...!'
'Stop! Sto-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho...!'
'Wind ... Wind-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi...!'
'Oh ...! I swear I'm dying ...!'
'Windpocken! Chickenpox!'
'No, honestly, shut up ...!'
'And ...'
'I'm not listening!'
' ... You've sprained your—no, listen—your nostril, your Nasenflügel ...!'
Well, the poor devil's in stitches already, of course. By the time he's had a splint applied to his Nasenflügel and been wheeled out towards the Ausfahrt, he's probably just about what German doctors call blühendekopfabgelacht—laughed his blooming head off. That's going to take a stitch or two to fix; it's yet another case of someome coming out of the Krankenhaus a whole lot kranker than he went in.
Gott, as one might say, in Himmel! It makes you glad to be English.

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