Word of the Week: Gretchenfrage

May 3, 2013

Every Friday, Germany.info and The Week in Germany highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.


Film of "Faust" Enlarge image Isolda Dychauk as Gretchen and Johannes Zeiler as Faust in a scene from the film "Faust" (© picture alliance / dpa) To be, or not to be, that is the Gretchenfrage. Okay, maybe not exactly, but Gretchenfrage is the word of the week! Gretchenfrage, which literally means “The Gretchen Question,” is a reference to Goethe’s Faust. Gretchen is the leading lady in Faust, and she play the foil to Mephistopholes, the devil. She represents Faust’s salvation, Mephistopheles his damnation. In the second half of the play, she asks Faust, “Do you believe in God?” to which he famously replies:

“My darling, who dare say:
‘I believe in God’? You may,
Ask a priest or sage and you’ll receive,
What only seems to mock and stay
The asker.”

This question – do you believe in god – is the Gretchenfrage in Goethe's Faust. It is a question that cuts to the heart of the matter. It is a blunt and direct question and the answer must be weighed heavily. Gretchenfragen are used often in literature, because they can define the motive or outcome of a character. The word is also closely tied to the word “Gretchentragodie,” which means “Gretchen’s Tragedy,” which refers to her temptation by Faust. In many ways these words are simple, but they have a complex background because of Gretchen’s creator, Goethe.

Goethe and Schiller Enlarge image Statue of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, Germany. (© picture alliance / akg-images) Wolfgang von Goethe and his contemporary Friedrich Schillerreworked the German language in the same way that Shakespeare redefined English. Along with his many novels, plays, and poems, he published literary criticisms and studied linguistics. He famously invented words, many of which are still used today in German. His most famous phrases are equivalent to “To be or not to be” and, like Shakespeare, many of his smaller, less recognizable quotes are used in every day language. Although he didn’t coin the term “Gretchenfrage,” it says a lot about the scope of his influence that the word is still used so regularly. Understanding German and understanding Goethe go hand in hand, and so we must ask the Gretchenfrage: "Have you read Goethe?"

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