When Life Looks Grimm

Outlook is everything. Better to be an optimist than a pessimist. This I won’t deny . . . however. . . I will say that life is complicated, and it’s better to understand finesse and grey areas than to see the world in stark terms of happy/sad, good/bad, obstacle/opportunity. To be sure, the “glass half empty or glass half full” test paints a certain picture, but as many people before me have noted, it’s far better to realize that the glass is in flux and ever able to be refilled. Ebb and flow, people. Is it even possible to live a balanced life without a sense that there will be ebb and there will be flow?

The Brothers Grimm

This is a roundabout way of coming to the topic of The Brothers Grimm, who occupied my thoughts last week on two fronts. First, I’ve been developing a few lessons on Fairy Tales– those richly complicated stories that seem to have have a Jekyll and Hyde personality in modern imagination. Are they adorable children’s tales where everyone lives happily ever after, or are they dark musings on our dreams and fears that sometimes delve deep into violence? Do they encourage good children to uphold social mores, or do they foment revolutionary plottings?

In a word: Yes.

The second reason the Grimm brothers showed up on the scene last week was new information to me. These literary brothers just celebrated the anniversary of their Deutsches Worterbuch. Their German Dictionary was a huge undertaking, and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sought to do more than just record the meanings of the most used German words. They set out to record “the origin and use of EVERY German word.” Deutsches Welle, the German media outlet, has an informative article on this undertaking (here) in its broad scope and political overtones. Definitely worth a read.

The Grimm Brothers’ German Dictionary

How did these famous storytellers come to write a dictionary? Well, first of all, it may help to remember that they were “story catchers”– scholars driven by a desire to preserve stories and the cultures they grew out of. Second, they found themselves at a pivot point, not unlike characters in the tales they collected. The Grimm brothers were professors (anthropologists and linguists), suddenly jobless after the University of Gottingen fired a cluster of educators who refused to swear an oath to the new king or back the alteration of the constitution in Hanover in 1837. They took up the challenge of creating the first German dictionary, largely, because they had bills to pay. Their thorough approach was remarkable and reflected their love of the language: “especially enamoured with the letter A, calling it the ‘noblest, most original of all sounds.’ Unsurprisingly, their famous dictionary begins with a detailed linguistic history of the vowel” (dw.com). The brothers were thorough and reverent . . .however, this approach also ensured that the project would not be completed in their lifetime.

As careful to preserve the diverse dialects of Germany as they had been to capture and preserve the folk tales of their land, they were also keenly aware that this project wielded a certain political muscle in unifying the German Reich linguistically. They would compile one linguistic platform to bring together the diverse German-speaking states. I like to think that they took to heart the role of the trickster in so many of the fairy tales they had gathered: having lost their jobs to a certain political vision, they found a way to incorporate that vision into their new work. They were wily and triumphant . . . in the long game.

It was an ambitious undertaking that outlasted both the Grimm brothers and many iterations of the modern German state– only seeing completion in 1961. Many decades, many unpronouncable German words, and 32 volumes later.

If you have read this blog over the years, you will know of my struggles with the German language. And you will know that I am in the good company of Mark Twain on that front. Still, the Deutsches Worterbuch was a remarkable undertaking that has my utmost respect. Many a day, the project must have felt like a hungry wolf at Jacob and Wilhelm’s backs. But that, my friends, is a little red story for another day.

10 thoughts on “When Life Looks Grimm

  1. I enjoyed reading your post on the Brothers Grimm and their unabridged German dictionary. And I see you have just had a look at my blog post on their childhood home in Steinau. As I noted in that post, the Frankfurt University Library has all 32 volumes of their dictionary in its reading room, where I have referred to them occasionally, but more out of curiosity than necessity.

    1. Yes, I saw your post and loved seeing the photos of their childhood home! I’d love to have a peek at those volumes in Frankfurt, but, alas, my German is rubbish.
      They were certainly interesting, intelligent, and prolific fellows. So much of our storytelling owes its inspiration from stories that they preserved.

    1. Thank you, Peter. They were quite brilliant and driven. I always enjoy learning more about figures I thought I knew. (And I’ve come to realize that I never know as much as I think I do!)

  2. Well, that’s just fascinating. I had no idea that the Brothers Grimm had another string to their bow. And what a monumental task they set themselves! Not for the faint-hearted …

    1. I’ve never thought of dictionaries as fascinating, LOL– but I do love that they tackled it with such over-the-top gusto. I don’t think these brothers did things by halves.

  3. Very interesting post – I didn’t realise they had compiled a dictionary. Even today there are so many different dialects in Germany and unless people speak “Hochdeutsch” they can’t necessarily understand people from different regions! I’ve been learning German at a weekly class for nearly 10 years now – it’s great fun but it can certainly be a challenge!

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