Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The German Suffix -schaft

The suffix –schaft has a wide range of uses in German that overlaps to a large extent with the way in which the etymologically related suffix –ship is used in English. It may indicate, for instance, a state of affairs or a relationship between the type of persons indicated by the noun it is attached to. For example, Freund means "friend" and Freundschaft "friendship": It's the relationship that exists between friends.

It may also refer to a group whose members have something in common. For example, Leser mean "reader" and Leserschaft "readership": It's the community of people identified by the preceding noun. In German, this type of use may have negative connotations. For example, a Sippe is a clan or an extended family, while a Sippschaft is bad company.

The suffix can also refer to an event or action or their result. The word Erbe means "heir" and Erbschaft "inheritance": If you become an Erbe, you receive an Erbschaft. Analoguous examples for the use of -ship in English are "courtship" and "censorship".

The suffix can also be attached to an adjective. An English example is "hardship". But this use is rare in English. It's more common in German. A well-known and often commented-on example is Gemeinschaft, which is formed by adding -schaft to the adjective gemein in the now almost obsolete meaning of "relating to the larger community". It's often translated into English as "community", but this translation does not capture the connotations of the German term, the sense of belonging, on the one hand, and the rejection of outsiders, on the other hand, that are often implied when we speak of a Gemeinschaft.

There are also instances in German where -schaft is added to a verb. For example, wandern can mean "to hike" or "to roam", and Wanderschaft refers to an extended period of being on the move without having a fixed residence. I cannot think of an analoguous use of English -ship, unless one considers the "court-" and "censor-" parts in "courtship" and "censorship" verbs instead of nouns. In fact, I would consider this a more plausible explanation, but no online source I consulted supports this point of view.

Seilschaft vs. Deep State

Seilschaft is my current Word of the Month. It's a hidden network of people with a shared outlook and common background who work together and support each other inside an institution. Readers may wonder if a Seilschaft is the same as a "deep state", a term used by the Trump administration in its claim that there exists a clandestine network across the intelligence community that aims at undermining the president through leaks.

The notion of a deep state
"comes from the Turkish derin devlet, a clandestine network, including military and intelligence officers, along with civilian allies, whose mission was to protect the secular order established, in 1923, by the father figure of post-Ottoman Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was behind at least four coups, and it surveilled and murdered reporters, dissidents, Communists, Kurds, and Islamists." (David Remnick, "There is no Deep State", The New Yorker, March 20, 2017)
Clearly, a Seilschaft and a deep state have things in common: They are secret networks and established deliberately. But there are also significant differences. A Seilschaft tends to be smaller and restricted to a group within a single institution. Its purpose is, first of all, to provide fellow comrades with cushy jobs—someone gets in and then tries to help others to fill positions that open up. There may be a political side effect because the members of a Seilschaft have a shared world view, which may influence their decisions. There may even be Seilschaften (that's the plural) whose explicit goal is to advance a political agenda. But that is not a necessary condition for something to be called a Seilschaft. A deep state, on the other hand, tends to be large and spread over various institutions, and its members do pursue a common political goal. They spring into action when they see an opportunity to advance it or see it threatened by political enemies.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Seilschaft

Word of the Month: Index

Seil means "rope". If we add the suffix -schaft, we get Seilschaft, a group of people connected by a rope. The term originated in mountaineering, where it refers to a group of climbers connected to each other along a single rope as a safety measure against falling off the mountain or into a crevasse. There is a strong connotation of mutual dependence and shared fate among the members of the group: The rope provides a measure of safety for each climber, but can also lead to disaster when one of them falls and pulls the others down with him or her.

I think this sense of shared fate led to the figurative use of the term, a clandestine network of people with a common background and shared outlook inside an institution—they have the same Stallgeruch. The members of the group work together and support each other while trying to keep their connection a secret. When used in this sense, the term always has negative connotations. For example, it's employed regularly to describe the situation after the downfall of a (dictatorial) regime when members of the old ruling clique heave each other into positions within the new administration.

Further Readings: Seilschaft vs. Deep StateThe German Suffix -schaft