Brow Beat

The Scariest Thing About Grimm Is Its Horrific Butchery of the German Language

OK, so you’re a Wesen. Can you learn how to say it correctly, please?


NBC’s Grimm is back for its fourth season, much to the delight of aunts and grandmas the country over. But Grimm has another sub-demographic: German-speakers. Of course, we largely watch for linguistic Schadenfreude—a word that, by the way, actually exists.

Yes, the grimmest aspect of Grimm is the fact that its creators decided to make an entire television program based on (an albeit highly fantastical version of) Germanic folklore without, apparently, consulting a single one of the world’s approximately 100 million native German speakers (not to mention second-language speakers like me, who also reportedly number roughly 100 million).

And I’m not talking about the fake compound words for the monsters—Hexenbiest, Blutbad, Fuchsbau, Wohngemeinschaft, Hundekotaufnahmepflicht (wait, sorry, those last two are actual things, not monsters on Grimm). I’m not about to complain that the nomenclature for a half-dragon half-penguin that subsists on puppy blood isn’t, you know, realistic. The stupid creature names are fine. What isn’t, however, is that for the entire duration of the show, every single actor on it has mispronounced the very easy German word for creature.

I kept hearing “vessen” this and “vessen” that, and I had no idea what the characters were talking about, until I saw an episode summary on Hulu with what I surmised was that word written out: Wesen, which literally translates to being or creature (from gewesen, of one of the past-tense forms of the verb to besein).

Trouble is, any German 5-year-old will tell you that word is pronounced VAY-zen, with a V sound (which Grimm gets right), a long E (in the German sense—pronounced like in dreidel), and a soft S (that approximates the English Z). For a short E (like in bed), and a hard S (like in gas), the word would be wessen, which is the interrogative pronoun whose (as in Whose Lederhosen are these?). So you can see why I was confused.

And Wesen is just the Spitze des Eisbergs. There’s a scene in the episode “Three Coins in a Fuchsbau” wherein Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) complains that he doesn’t have time to decipher an ancient manuscript because it’s written in the allegedly super-obscure dialect Hochdeutsch. Trouble is, Hochdeutsch, or high Germanis actually standard German, i.e. the version every single German, Austrian, and Swiss German person learns in school now.

Or take the Wesen phenomenon of Woge, literally wave, which I guess is what the creatures do when their human forms morph into their weird ones? (It’s a little confusing.) Monroe and Rosalee (Bree Turner), both of whom allegedly speak German—Monroe is supposedly a heritage speaker who speaks fluently—often use the noun as a verb, when it’s derived from a verb, wogen. (Any bilingual code-switcher knows that the real way to speak “Denglisch” is to use the verb stem or conjugate in-sentence, as in, “He was going to wog but then he realized he’d already gewogt.”) Yes, that’s sort-of advanced stuff (sort of), but I’m not very smart, and I don’t have a multimillion-dollar budget, and even I can do it.

The thing that gets me—especially as a trained German teacher who couldn’t find work as one—is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly-underutilized experts in this country alone who are used to adjuncts’ wages, and thus would have been delighted to consult on Grimm for a pittance.

You might counter that since Grimm is a fantasy show, it shouldn’t have to have any “real” German on it whatsoever, that, indeed, as someone else has put it, “never once … has NBC claimed that watching Grimm would help you learn proper or conversational German.” That writer then compares the errors made by Grimm—errors pertaining to one of the world’s major languages, a language that actually exists—to nerds complaining about Yoda’s verb conjugations or the proper plural of “Muggle.” Here’s a new German word for you: Faustschlag, which means fist punch, as in what I am doing to my own face right now so as to cope with reading that.

Sure, Grimm is a poor substitute for your college’s foreign-language requirement, just like nobody should watch House instead of attending medical school, or swap out Brooklyn Nine-Nine for police academy—and yet, somehow these shows manage to pronounce “lupus” and “perp” correctly. Still, I can hear you saying, so what? The show is a worldwide hit, including, amazingly, in Germany, where you can find it (dubbed back into correct German, presumably) on Vox, the network that also once ran an entire reality show devoted to following random people on camping holidays.

But I really do think it matters. The United States has long had a reputation for being a country of stubbornly monolingual idiots. (Given the preponderance of YOUR IN AMERICA SPEAK ENGLISH signs, perhaps even the “mono” is questionable.) Our failure to learn other languages already harms us greatly (and impedes our cognition). It will only harm us more as we continue to recede from dominance on the world stage. Grimm’s utter disregard of one of the world’s major languages—one that is readily accessible and easy to learn, I swear—broadcasts our national shame around the world. Perhaps Grimm can take a step in the right direction by basing a creature on this embarassment. I’ve even got a name for it, straight from my own favorite “folklorist,” Franz Kafka: Schamhund, a dog whose shame outlives him even after he dies.