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The Irish For: In 1990 Germany got Athaontú (reunification) and Milli Vanilli were exposed for lip-syncing

The German R&B duo dominated the charts at the time and one of them even claimed to be the “new Elvis”, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every week, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

2019 MARKS THIRTY years since the charts on both sides of the Atlantic were dominated by a German pop duo called Milli Vanilli who are now only remembered for one reason.

Back in 1990 one of the duo, Rob Pilatus reportedly told Time magazine:

Musically, we’re more talented than any Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger can’t produce a sound. I’m the new Elvis. 

Following a lip-syncing scandal which outed them as not being the same vocalists who appeared on their hit singles, they became the subjects of sustained global ridicule, ultimately ending in tragedy.

There is another point to make about this band, however – riding high in the summer of 1989 and crashing spectacularly in 1990, this Munich band was the final pop culture export of West Germany – a singular political entity which lasted exactly as long as the Cold War.

Athaontú: Reunification  West Germany was a famously prosperous, inventive and open-minded state, and in some ways, it is strange that it did not exist for as long as less successful political entities.

The fact that reunification was formalised during the Irish presidency of the EEC was seen as significant to some and a meaningless coincidence to others.

As we once again live in an era where we are discussing contentious walls, the spectre of Russian influence and possible reunification of countries divided after wars, it is worth looking at the legacy of the Bonn Republic, its relationship with Ireland and what lessons can be learned.

Geansaí As Baile: Away Jersey Irish people talk about the 1990 World Cup more than Germans too, even though West Germany actually won it.

The famous story about the German team wearing a green away jersey as a tribute to Ireland being the first team to play against them after World War II is a tall tale; the Republic was the fourth team to play them in the post-war period, and green jerseys were worn in a match against Turkey prior to the Ireland game.

Éadromán: Balloon  Even without any lip-synching scandals, German music taste has been the subject of ridicule by Anglophones. The classic example of this is David Hasselhoff’s performance to huge crowds at the site of the Berlin Wall, but cheesy 80s floor fillers by Falco, Boney M and Nena also get cited.

Whatever your opinion of wearable keyboards, it’s a bit unfair for monoglots to make fun of musicians writing in a second language, particularly if they are translating German lyrics while attempting to maintain the metre of a line.

Nena’s Neunundneunzig Luftballons faced such a translating dilemma when there was no satisfactory three-syllable equivalent to luftballon, so the colour red was added. If she had been working in Irish instead, éadromán would have fitted perfectly.

Saothair Cheardaíochta: Craftwork. The craft of translation is hampered by false friends in different languages. For example, Kraftwerk is the German for a power station (stáisiún cumhachta) rather than wholesome, constructive pastimes.

The biggest Hiberno-English/German false friend is that a messer means a knife rather than a rascal.

Dara Teanga: Second language. The investigation into Milli Vanilli was prompted by a journalist noting the difference between their spoken and sung English.

This seems surprising given how Germans speaking such good English from a young age is often raised in Ireland when discussing language education here. What are they doing that we aren’t?

It is possible that Germany just happens to have amazing English teachers, but factors outside the classroom take a part.

Chief among these must be a German attitude to childhood. In the book Achtung Baby: An American Mom On The German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, Sarah Zaske describes how German children are given the freedom to wander in nature and in their towns, to take risks and make mistakes- all in sharp contrast to the American obsessions with stranger danger, the pressure to clock up extracurricular achievements and constant supervision.

Without wishing to minimise the effects of good teachers, the ubiquity of English-language media and the economic incentives to study English, it’s no harm that this German attitude to childhood happens to be the perfect approach to language learning. 

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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