French and German – the sound (and meaning) of two important words

To German ears, French is a beautifully sounding language. Same seems to hold for the English and Italian (although Vanda got more excited when hearing Russian, but she was American…) So, let’s compare two important words.

Fuck(ing shit), merde and scheiß'

To (many) Germans, the French language sounds smoothing, even when it uses nasty words. A classic example is the French word for ‘fucking shit’ (British English; ‘f***ing shit’ in American English, you’re such sissies, sorry): Merde (go to the first “French (France) pronunciation”). The German counterpart is Scheiße.

Even when you try to say merde in a hard way – to a German unfamiliar with the language, it sounds like a soft warm dizzle. Whereas Scheiße on the other hand, is a nasty pronounced nasty word; you can spit it out in a way that even somebody who never was confronted with the German language gets its meaning. Or, gets afraid that you’re preparing some Blitzkrieg to invade the country. I’m not too familiar with the nuances of French, which are very elaborate when you try to master the language, so I have to rely on my little book ‘How to swear in French’. And it seems merde is – more or less – a stand-a-lone word with a clear meaning. A typical French-German difference. France is an old nation, Germany is a mix-up of people that happen to speak related languages. In German, and our various dialects and sub-languages, there is plethora of expressions relating to Scheiße; and it can depend on the region, whether they will inflame the torches or give you a comforting hug when using it! Some examples:

My favourite Austrian (classified as Bavarian by some) expression is “Gehst schaißen” (“Kannst kacken gehn” in my native tongue; “Scheißen gehen” in other German variants), literally meaning: Go and have a shit. And the typical reaction of one of my colleagues in Vienna, a native Austrian, when I asked him about Austrian politics.

Dampfende Scheiße (steaming shit) addresses problems becoming imminent to solve. For example, it is safe to say that currently most of the White House staff has “die Scheiße am Dampfen” in trying to contain the BBOTUS (Big Baby of the U.S.) It’s used to address the urgency of the situation, but is not insulting in any way.

So’n Scheiß” or scheiß included in an ordinary sentence is a quite harmless expression when something went wrong (I’d say “so’n Kack”, do not use when children are around). Effectively, whenever an Englishman (not American) would use ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’, a German would use scheiß(e).

Scheiß- or Kack- in colloquial German means something in bad shape and can be used in combinations with essentially any other word, a feature that makes German such an adaptable language. Examples are Scheißhaus (shit house), literally meaning a place you go to have a shit (not used in fine language anymore, but not uncommon in classic literature), but also Scheißpräsi(dent) (shitty president). The latter used in public will – in case you address the president of your local Kaninchenzüchterverein (the association for bunny breeding) – have different consequences depending where you live and come from. In my native area, it’d be part of friendly discourse (after the first rounds of wine and beer, it's a wine and beer area); in other parts the announcement that you quit and will never speak a word again with that very president. It may pop up also in private conversations about the sitting U.S. president, which – to my knowledge – is unprecedented (#MAGA, who are you kidding, poor man?)
Kackauto (literally shitty car) is used similar to “my fucking car” in British English, whereas “verdammtes Scheißauto” (damned shitty car), means you’ll probably have a divorce from the thing most German males love most. A proper thing to say, in case your car broke down in the nowhere (e.g. central Eifel; a beautiful place for a holiday) in pre-mobile-phone times would have been: “verschissene Dreckskarre” (shit-covered dirty carriage). The French expression would possibly be “voiture de merde”, which – to the German ear – sounds not much different and equally nice to making love: “faire d’amour

So keep in mind! Despite its harder explicit pronunciation, the German Scheiße is generally much less offensive than the French smooth-sounding merde, so be careful about using the latter in public.

But when it comes to the sound of cats, the differences vanish

My second example is purring, the soothing, ultimately relaxing, alpha-waves diminishing sound that comes from some part in the interior of a cat (still not clear how it’s done), when you touch it in the proper way – e.g. by providing a much-needed belly rub – or it wants something from you before taking out the heavy gun, using ‘miaows’ emulating a baby’s crying.

Again, the French and German words are very different in writing, from each other and the English word. But both keep the idea in the way they are pronounced. It’s ronronner in French and schnurren in German (I would not pronounce the initial ‘sch’ as hard as in example). Both words, pronounced correctly (many Germans have difficulties with rolling the ‘r’ and get the right ‘sch’) are smoothing sounds to no matter what ear.
A difference is that ronronner in French is only used for addressing the cat’s purring (I think), but in Germany we use it also to address the sounds of other things that are equally soothing such as schnurrende Spinnräder (English: spinning wheel, French: rouet) and schnurrende Motoren (motor, moteur). In contrast to German, which is an adaptable language and often needs context to get the right meaning (see merde-scheiße pair), French is probably one of the most precise. At least in Europe, hence it was long used as the main language for law texts. No ambiguities.

By the way, the sound cats (and dogs) make when you touch them at the wrong spot or they feel afraid is knurren (this one could not roll the ‘r’, obviously) in German. Just a different consonant at the beginning is all we need to change a smooth-sounding word into one that bears the connotation of aggression. The German ‘k’ in knurren is a hard-pronounced k, not a soft one. In most areas: in the southeast they differentiate between ‘hard g’ (the k) and the ‘soft g’, the actual g, and I have no idea what the guy smoked before he was recorded for the French wikionary. gives six possible translations for the German knurren: in addition to gronder (the animal sound), we have gargouillier for the empty stomach sound (in German: knurrender Magen); and bougonner, grongner, and the colloquial ronchonner (similar to ronronner, i.e. purring) or maronner for humans angrily mumbling about something. These bring us to German words like brummen, brummeln (both humming sounds used in various contexts) and murren (English: grumbling). Or words for expressing one's distress more loudly. The sound of gronder and grongner can make sense to the German ear. The rest sound again like sitting under the Eiffeltower with a fresh baguette, a pot of beurre aux cristeaux de sel and a (petit) café. Side info for anti-immigrationists: the Eiffeltower was built by the son of German immigrants from the Eifel (spelled with double ‘f’ back then, and the area where you hated your Scheißkarre for breaking down) fleeing poverty, hence the name (the French couldn't pronounce their original name, so his father took the name of his home region; we Germans always have been – and hopefully will remain – tribal). 

Well, until last year. Thanks to terrorism hysteria – I grew up in the 70s and 80s, we had more terrorism back then and higher numbers of casualities by bombs etc, plus regular training in school what to do if either Russians or Americans get nervous – you cannot pass anymore and sit under the Eiffeltower. But you can still make your cat purr!

PS The Swedish also have a word matching the French merde and nearly as smooth to the German ear: jävla skit. But the whole language has a bit of toddlers' German, and the country has a certain attraction to Germans (particularly the northern ones), and this applies also to aspects of their language. The Swedish word for purring is highly interesting, because it is spinna. Very similar to the German verb spinnen (spinning in English, but we only use it for the making of yarn; or being idiotic, double meaning). Maybe the Swedish got the cat after they learned to spin sheep wool.

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