log(book)
Cover of Die dampfenden Hälse der Pferde im Turm von Babel.

Die dampfenden Hälse der Pferde im Turm von Babel

author: Franz Fühmann (1978)
date read: 2000-03-01
pages: 358
lists: five-stars , german , kids , language , nonfiction
rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Five stars mean a book changed my life. This book changed my life several times, and I’m not sure it’s done with me yet. It’s about language. It’s about philosophy. It’s about linguistics. It’s about playing with language, and it’s about heritage and tradition, and – look, it’s pretty perfect for me.

The narrative framework is that a group of five children on vacation (GDR, so inland vacation) have to pass the time, so they play little language games. Find increasingly longer words with just one vowel, find palindromes, etc. Their games summon Küslübürtün, spirit of language, and later Schopenhauer (yes, him). Later still, the ghost of Christian Morgenstern appears, who is honestly a brilliant counterpart to Schopenhauer. The ghosts explain lingustical matters, tell stories, and give the children a magical blue book that gets filled with exercises and even more info dumps.

The book strikes an unusual balance between extremely silly playfulness and hardcore infodumps (you get excerpts from Hegel in there, and all the big German poets, too). The two also get combined, for instance in the rendition of the Contest of Hesiod and Homer.

I read this book many times over the years, at least once per school year, and every time I learnt something new. It’s truly, truly brilliant. It shows its genius in the playfulness that appears everywhere: in the typography, in the illustration, in the humour at the expense of the adults, in the core material, in the rhythm of story and “homework”, …

Further Reading

I honestly cannot think of a book that even tries to come close. Reading masters of playful language comes closest, I think. Morgenstern is good, Wilhelm Busch works. The book closest to this exploratory approach to language in my library is probably Umberto Eco’s “Experiences in translation”.