A tale of four dictionaries

Sometimes learning German feels as if I am struggling through a thorny thicket.

Some of you know this is my second go at this language. My first was four years ago, before Jill and I travelled to Austria and Germany. I started learning through the East Melbourne Language School in its summer school in January, 2016. The school occupied a double story terrace on Victoria Street. Our teacher, Andreas, was an agreeable young guy with a pony tail.

My fellow students included an opera singer, a retired nurse, a youth worker, and a hairdresser. Once a week we straggled up its steep and narrow stairs, and squeezed around the large table which took up most of the top floor front room. One had to stand up to allow late comers to find a seat. No-one seemed to think to leave the seats near the door unoccupied. (This was rather un-German behaviour. I had heard about how German concert audiences would leave the aisle seats vacant until the last minute, to make things easier for the people sitting in the middle of the row. This proved pretty true in practice.)

After I came back from our trip, I had missed out on a term of lessons. While I had been away, my cohort had progressed to one of the levels beyond Kinderdeutsch. I therefore switched to a weekly lesson with Carolin, one of the partners in the school. (There was a vague intention that I could catch up with my former classmates, to rejoin them in future.)

Carolin and I got along well — she used to make me a mug of licorice tea, another discovery. However, I found her teaching method quite disjointed. She mostly ignored the textbooks, and we seemed to do something new each week. I came away with folders full of photocopied notes on disparate topics: the dative case, plurals, prepositions, and lots of other stuff. I must have done some English grammar at school, but I couldn’t remember any of that, so I had next to no background to build on.

On another front, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. During our trip I had caught a cold, and got tired very easily. This was worst in Berlin: on a couple of days there I just hadn’t been up to doing anything. My beloved went off for a couple of day trips by herself. She had even less German than I had; I imagined myself trying to explain to the local polizei where she had been going. (Of course, she came back to our hotel safely both times.)

When we got back to Melbourne, though, something clearly needed further attention. In the course of the numerous tests this involved, the prostate cancer was discovered. Everything else got put on hold. During my various rounds of treatment over the next few years, the prospect of returning to Germany seemed remote.

Fast forward to May of this year, and in Stage 3 of the COVID19 lockdown, I realized I needed a project to keep me from going round the twist. I was using Zoom videoconferencing for a few things. Maybe I could use it for going back to German? I could indeed. Fortunately I had kept everything from four years ago: the set of textbooks, my notes from the summer school and all the lessons with Carolin, and my dictionaries.

Plural? Yes, reader, I had acquired four German-English dictionaries. These are all bilingual dictionaries, translating from each language to the other. I picked them all up from op shops, second hand bookshops, and antiques stalls — all places that now might as well be on Mars. Here they are:

Meine Wörtebuch

From bottom left, and going clockwise, they are:

  1. Hugo Pocket Dictionary Deutsch (Deutsch-Englisch, Englisch-Deutsch):
  2. Collins Gem German Dictionary (German-English, English-German):
  3. Collins Concise German-English, English-German dictionary; and
  4. Langenscheidts Handwörterbüch Englisch. Teil 1: English-Deutsch; Teil 2, Deutsch-Englisch.

The Hugo was my first German dictionary. It is quite an eccentric little thing: I suspect Carolin thought it slightly weird (although she was too polite to say so).  But it has its charms. Its 622 pages are very readable, each being laid out in a single column. Published in 1969, I suspect it to be letterpress printed: the type is mostly very crisp. Its dinky size makes it extremely portable. This is the one I took on our trip. To this end I annotated the inside front cover with travel-helpful words and phrases:

  • Es tut mir leid (a cover-all apology. “Entschuldigung” came in handy as well; Germans tend to be very punctilious);
  • Polizist/Polizistin (you never know when you will need a policeman, or woman);
  • Krankenhaus (hospital)
  • Apotheke (pharmacist)
  • Kaufhaus (department store — for when you’ve recovered); and
  • Bäkerei (German bread comes in many varieties, all extremely moreish). 

At 627 pages, the Collins Gem is quite chunky for a pocket dictionary, although it remains very portable. This is a serious bit of a kit for a travel dictionary. The text is arranged in two columns, packing in many more words than the Hugo. Although the Gem is only 5 pages longer than the Hugo, it is a lot wider through the spine. The pages use a heavier grade of paper, which should be more durable. They are rather yellowed, though, suggesting a higher acid content.

The Gem has several useful features. Where a noun forms its plural irregularly, as many do, this is given in the definition — something lacking in the Hugo. It also marks some words as Schlüssellworte (key words). These supposedly are words which occur most frequently, or morph into multiple parts of speech). Hoping to get an inside track on some good vocabulary, I wrote these all on cards. This wasn’t all that useful, however, yielding mostly conjunctions and prepositions, with a handful of irregular verbs. There are lists of irregular verbs in both languages at the back; not the full conjugation, but enough to get by.  

As a desk dictionary, the Collins Concise is really an advance on the Gem, being (obvs) quite a bit bigger. Not having a desk, though, the Concise is just a bit big for me. I only have a little lap-desk, previously the back of a picture frame, which I covered in some rubber floor tiles from Bunnings. This has to hold one or two boxes of index cards, the Android tablet, and occasionally a clipboard, as well as the dictionary. So I tend to only reach for the Concise when its smaller brother is found wanting.

The same applies to the Langenscheidt. At nearly 1500 pages, this is the Big Bertha of the four. Its text is laid out in three columns, which looks just a tad crowded. The type is very clear, though, and stands out against very white paper: all highly legible. There are some great tables in the back  — would you believe four versions of the phonetic alphabet? Go on, you want to know what they are:

  1. German;
  2. British English;
  3. American English;
  4. International; and
  5. Zivil-Luftfahrt (civil aviation).

Oscar Kilo! Being taken by surprise by a dictionary is maybe a bit sad. I’ll ‘fess up to it nonetheless. The Lango is obviously a more-is-more kind of tool. Like the Collinses, it is part of a large family of dictionaries, generally regarded as authoritative. As this rather stuffy phrase might suggest, I hardly ever use it. Es tut mir leid

The internet has a huge range of online tools as well: dict.cc and Reverso are two I like. The latter is particularly good for looking up a phrase in context, and verb conjugations. But the Luddite in me thinks: what will happen when the internet is down? When my battery needs charging? What about if I cancel my subscription? Print needs no backup. Besides, I will always enjoy a good print dictionary, whether large, small, logical, or a touch eccentric.