A bit of diplomacy and German

OK so. The Germans really aren’t happy about the whole “we 0wnzrd yr chancellor lady!!1!” thing. Today, the German Foreign Ministry suggested that the British ambassador might drop by for a chat, perhaps with coffee and cakes. I say this because there is a fine distinction available in some British idioms between an interview without biscuits, without tea, and without tea or biscuits, indicating a progressively more vicious chastisement.

Anyway, diplomacy is a game where words have very precise meanings. No.10 Downing Street claimed that the ambassador had only been invited, not called in or summoned. One implies an informal conversation, the other an interview with neither tea nor biscuits.

Here’s the official German statement. The verb used is gebeten. The stammwort or root word here is beten, to pray, and the closest sense in English would be “pray” as in “Pray let me have a report on one sheet of paper. Action this day”, as Winston Churchill was in the habit of writing. You can do this in French, too, with “priére de…”, and the tone is similar.

In fact, if somebody offends you by being pompous, arrogant, or entitled in German, you can accuse them of being gebieterisch, “like one who gebetens”, which would be quite harsh in itself. I would certainly feel very different if someone said “Sie sind zu einem Gespräch eingeladen” – you are invited to a conversation – than if they said “Sie sind zu einem Gespräch gebeten” – “Pray attend a conversation”.

Here’s the kicker. The German official translation of the statement says the ambassador was merely “asked” to come by. It wasn’t the convivial “invited”, but it wasn’t “summoned” either. Apparently, the version of the statement in the original is the one that matters in diplomatic practice.

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About Alex Harrowell

Alex Harrowell is a 33-year old research analyst for a start-up telecoms consulting firm. He's from Yorkshire, now an economic migrant in London. His specialist subjects are military history, Germany, the telecommunications industry, and networks of all kinds. He would like to point out that it's nothing personal. Writes the Yorkshire Ranter.

2 thoughts on “A bit of diplomacy and German

  1. Your German grammar is off. “gebeten” is the past participle of “bitten”, for which “asked” is a perfectly appropriate translation.

  2. Well, that was meant to be funny (for bilinguals), wasn’t it?
    “Pray verb” is an older form of “please verb”, isn’t it?
    “Gebieter/gebieten” just isn’t the same as “bitten” or “beten”, usw. usf.