How Do You Say?

By Laura Schiller

Based on: Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

How do you say, wohnen?

There is no word for it in English. It means 'to live'. Not to survive or to exist, but to live in a particular place – to inhabit it as your home. As in, ich wohne in Berlin. But these days, he has to say ich wohne in New York. He lives in New York, he inhabits it. But it is not his home.

Home is a house in Charlottenburg, suburb of Berlin, with its whispering linden trees sending their leaves blowing through the garden. Home is the songs of the organ grinder in the street, the smell of fresh bread rolls and chocolate milk in the morning and being greeted in his native tongue. Guten Morgen, Herr Professor. Home is the Humboldt-Universität where he used to teach, where his courses filled the lecture halls, and after hours he would go to a Konditorei with some of his students and debate for hours over cake. Americans, he finds, can't make cake; they never know when to stop with the sugar and cream. Alles mit Maßen. Enough is enough.

He finds himself in a city where people's voices are loud and shrill, where the buildings have iron stairs outside and where everyone laughs at his name. He finds himself forced to speak a language that squirms away from him like a slippery eel, with words that refuse to sound the way they are spelled and vice versa. He, Friedrich Bhaer, known in Berlin as a brilliant orator, cannot even ask Mrs. Kirke about mending his clothes without tripping over words.

How do you say, Wehmut?

It means something like 'yearning' or 'melancholy', but not quite. Like many of Friedrich Bhaer's thoughts and feelings, it is hard to translate. It is the feeling he gets when he sits by the window in his tiny apartment, scattered with books, rumpled clothes and muddy boots (because he's no housekeeper, and he can't afford a maid anymore) watching his nephews sleep and thinking how much they look like Minna. They have her sandy curls and delicate features; sometimes they laugh like she used to. Before her American lover took her away from home and family, before the letter came in shaky, spotty handwriting, begging Friedrich to take the steamer and come. Come to New York, look after my children. Please, there is no one else.

How do you say, ich hab dich lieb?

Usually, German is a straightforward, all-or-nothing sort of language – one word, one meaning. Not like the patchwork layers of Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Latin you find in English, where the speakers have invented a kind of book called a thesaurus just to list the piles of synonyms an English word can have. But if there is one area where Germans can be complex, it is relationships.

English has only one second-person pronoun, 'you'. He finds that frustrating. Why should he call little Tina, her mother the laundrywoman, Mrs. Kirke, and his beautiful neighbor Miss March all by the same word?

The one time during their German lessons when he called Miss March gnädiges Fräulein, it made her laugh. "Did you just call me a gracious lady? How peculiar!"

She couldn't understand that it was only polite, that every young unmarried girl in Germany expects to be called so by an unrelated male. He is unrelated. He is peculiar. He sticks to 'Miss March' from that moment on, even though it sounds terrible in his accent.

He wants to call her 'Jo'. He wants the intimacy of du, a word only roughly echoed by the antiquated English 'thou'. He wants to knock down these barriers between them like a knight with a lance, which is an absurd image considering he is ten years older than she is, darns his own socks and cannot read without a thick pair of glasses. He wants to understand every word she says when she chatters away with that radiant smile of hers, every word as familiar as the colors of her eyes. He wants to read her like a new book, one that makes your fingers itch to pick it up all the way home. He wants to know her in every sense of the word.

At first it was ich bin dir gut. 'I care for you'. Then, ich hab dich lieb. 'I have love for you', or 'I hold you dear'. But he is afraid that the more he sees her, the more they speak and laugh together, the more his feelings for her are deepening past the point of no return – the point of ich liebe dich. I love you. The hardest words for a non-German to pronounce, and even harder for a German to speak out loud.

How do you say what you want to say when you cannot make yourself heard?