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Sunday, April 19, 2009

"You, sir, are a mouthful"

There are two general 'facts' people know about the German language: it is harsh sounding, and it has extremely long words. I would actually disagree with the first part, or at least I think German tends to get a harsher representation than it deserves. This is because most German in popular culture is from war movies, and if people are running, shooting, and worried about killing other people or being killed themselves, they tend to be yelling rather harshly (especially when cast on the villainous side). There is a lot more to the German language than angry men shouting "Schneller! Schneller!" Perhaps Kari can weigh in here with her opinion (if she's still around...), as she has been living in Austria for almost a year.

That said, they do have some ridiculously long words. In their defence, that makes their sentences a lot less wordy, because the reason the words are so long is because German tends to simply stick words together to make new ones. Take, for example, the word for speed limit:
That is a pretty long word. However, what if you want to talk about the maximum speed limit?
Those are pretty impressively long, but I came across a term while studying for my neuroanatomy exam that seems to give them a run for their money. It is the pontomesencephalotegmental complex. Why does it have such a ridiculous name? The answer, basically, is to describe where it is. The ponto part means it is located within the pons, while the mesencephalo part means it is within the midbrain (so it is located at the border between the pons and the midbrain), and the tegmental part means that it is located near the midline (within the tegmentum). The thing is, though, that people are fairly lazy. So, while the pontomesencephalotegmental complex is an informative name, nobody wants to have to say it (except perhaps when one is trying to be impressive at parties). It therefore is usually shortened to PMTC. Of course, this laziness is not unique to anatomy, but happens all over the sciences. People who write a lot of proofs get used to the fact that wrt = "with respect to", ow = "otherwise", and a small coloured in square = QED = Latin for "I'm done". Likewise in anatomy, people get sick of saying "dorsal" and "ventral" all the time so they become D and V, respectively.

This kind of shortening doesn't usually bother me, except when physiologists and anatomists get so comfortable with their acronyms that they forget to define them. I have had several lectures in physiology courses where I have had only a vague idea of where in the brain we might be talking about because everything is just an ugly jumble of capital letters. For example, SN is the subthalamic nucleus, but how is one supposed to know that it doesn't stand for the substantia nigra if one doesn't already know that substantia nigra is usually abbreviated SNr? Therefore, if there are any physiology professors out there who read my blog, I urge you to doublecheck your lecture slides and see if you use any undefined acronyms. You might not even care if your students know that structure specifically, but I would bet you that somewhere out there is a student who doesn't know that you don't care and is therefore wasting a great deal of time trying to figure out what that small collection of letters means.

Note: I seem to have misplaced my German-English dictionary and my German is rather rusty, so the German word examples were pulled from this site.


Rhodora Online said...

Hi, I can't see your RSS link. I tried adding your home url to my reader, but it didn't work. Please help me. Thanks.

Mozglubov said...

What reader are you using? I've only ever used Google Reader, which seems to work perfectly fine. However, if you're using a different reader, I'll see what I can figure out too.

Anonymous said...

The quote at the top of the post sounds like Tobias Funke from Arrested Development


Mozglubov said...

That is correct. Do you know the context?

Regan said...

It was in response to something along the lines of "Bob Loblaws Law Blog"

That show was so ahead of it's time

Mozglubov said...

Indeed it was, which is why it gets used as in my reference titles so often. And you are correct about the context.

Anonymous said...

Good on the German, bad on the Latin ;)

Mozglubov said...

Well, yes, I was being somewhat sarcastic with my translation of QED... I should be careful of that, as prosody does not translate across text well.