Herr Bon

Two friends of mine at MIT studied German as undergraduates. They were Mike Bertin and Frank Model (whom I mentioned in entry #0009, "Sehr gut"). Both of them studied with professor Primus Benedict Bon, who was Swiss, and tri-lingual. Note 1 He spoke German (his first language), French, and English, all fluently, although the latter two with a German accent (which Frank, a natural mimic, used to occasionally imitate). Of course, Herr Bon was not nearly as pretty as Frau Pan (recall entry #0013, Frau Pan).

When speaking German, a problematic situation occurs after some prepositions which must be followed by articles which are sometimes in the accusative case, and sometimes in the dative case (more about this at the end of this entry, if anyone is interested). If the noun is masculine, the result is that the speaker must choose between the words "dem" (dative) or "den" (accusative), both of which correspond to the English word "the". By the way, these are pronounced, respectively, somewhat like the English words "dame" and "deign".

When faced with this choice while speaking in class, if he didn't know the correct article, Mike Bertin developed the technique of pronouncing the word "demn", with a sound at the end that was a combination of an "m" and an "n" run together rapidly (a bit like the sound in the English word "damnation"). This worked because Herr Bon, being a native speaker of German, was primed to expect the correct article. Thus it would usually sound right to him, and this method served Mike well for quite some time.

Until one day, Herr Bon couldn't make it out. "War daß 'dem' oder 'den'?", he asked ("Was that 'dem' or 'den'?). Mike might have done well to choose one at that point, with at least a 50-50 chance of being correct. But he stuck it out, replying "demn". Some people in the class started to snicker, but Herr Bon was confused. "War daß 'em' oder 'en'?", he asked. "Emn", replied Mike, "As in the English word 'condemn', or 'mnemonic'." (pronouncing both the m and the n in mn, as before). The class roared, and Herr Bon knew he had been had. Mike's technique didn't work any more after that.

In the late sixties, Ph.D. candidates at MIT had a foreign language requirement: reading ability of technical literature in two foreign languages, or fluency in one. Students often passed by taking a single-semester course in each of two languages, for example "Technical German" and "Technical French". In only one semester, it was possible to learn enough of a language to be able to translate technical literature reasonably rapidly, with the aid of a dictionary, enabling you to pass the written test.

I already spoke French at that point, so I decided to try to pass the language requirement with fluency in French. This required getting an "A" on the written translation exam, and then taking an oral exam to evaluate your spoken French. I got the required "A", and then went off on a summer "stage" (a technical training job) in France in the summer of 1965 (described in my blog entry "Le stage"). Freshly returned from that experience, I made an appointment for my oral exam for fluency in French.

And rather to my surprise, whom did I get to administer my exam? Herr Bon! In French! Wasn't he a German teacher? Well, yes, but remember, he was Swiss, and also spoke French. The exam consisted of his just chatting with me in French - I recall that he asked many questions about my summer experience. The trouble was, he had bit of a German accent in French, and I initially had a hard time understanding him. French isn't the easiest language to understand in any event - see my blog entry #0010, L'Accent tonique. But what was I to say to the professor giving me the exam, "I can't understand your accent."? Fortunately, I got the hang of it after a little while (it really wasn't that bad), and I was able to comprehend well enough to pass the exam.

As a result, I didn't have to take "Technical German", and I could instead take "Conversational German" just for fun, since what I like most about foreign languages is speaking them. MIT doesn't charge by the course, so I could take additional courses without any extra expense. This led me first into a class with the lovely and talented Frau Pan, and I eventually ended up in Herr Bon's class as well.

Frank Model's German was sufficiently good that he figured he'd get an easy "A" in Herr Bon's course. The trouble was, it wasn't all that easy. At the end of the semester, Frank didn't shave for a few days so he would look sufficiently disheveled and overworked when he went in to plead with Herr Bon for mercy. He reported (mimicking Herr Bon's accent) that Herr Bon first replied, "Well, Herr Model, Note 2 you didn't come to any of the classes, and you didn't hand in any of the papers - I don't see how I can pass you in this course." But after some more pleading, he allowed Frank to hand in all the papers late. In a marathon all-night session, Frank wrote them all, hoping for a "D", which at least would be a passing grade. They must have been pretty good, because Herr Bon gave him a "C".

I'll leave you with a comment of Frank's: "If a native English speaker is an Anglophone and a native French speaker is a Francophone, what does one call a native German speaker? If there is no formal word, I kind of like 'Saxophone'."

What is this "case" I spoke of above? English and German both come from the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, so they have a common ancestor. But while English grammar has gotten quite simple, German retains a complex system of gender and "case". In German, every noun is either masculine, feminine, or neuter, whereas in English, virtually all nouns are neuter unless what they represent actually has a gender (like people and animals).

All articles and adjectives also vary according to their "case": nominative (subject), accusative (direct object), dative (indirect object), and genitive (possessive). Case has pretty much died out in English, the major remnant being the distinction between "who" and "whom". "Whom" is disappearing, too, but I still use it (you can find a couple of examples above). Also, our apostrophe–s possessive is descended from the Germanic genitive case endings.

One consequence of this is that while English has only one form of the definite article, "the", German has six (Italian beats it out with seven). In German, these are der, das, die, den, dem, and des. The article varies according to gender, case, and number (singular or plural). With three genders, four cases, and two possibilities for number, there are 24 different combinations. However, the same six articles are re-used, according to a complex chart that students of German essentially have to memorize (and there are more charts for the adjectival endings).

I've tried to simplify the charts in order to recall them quickly while speaking. I've posted my version in the next blog entry, German article and adjectival inflections. Skip it unless you're really into German grammar.


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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted April 29, 2010
Slightly modified January 28, 2012 to add a link to "Le stage".

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   There's an old joke: Someone who speaks three languages is called "tri-lingual". Someone who speaks two languages is called "bi-lingual". What do you call someone who speaks only one language? Answer: an American.   [return to text]

Note 2:   Frank's last name is actually pronounced "mo-DELL", but he reported that Herr Bon called him "Herr MO-dl".   [return to text]