Here's a timeless short story (written in 1969) I once found in my German
school book, I always forget the title but it never fails to give me feels.
It's a children's story, not overly complex, about a lonely man who makes up
his own language in an attempt to change his world.
if you want to read the original text.
A table is a table
I'd like to tell you about an old man, a man who speaks no more words, has a
tired face, too tired to smile and too tired to be angry. He lives in a small
town, at the end of the road or near the traffic junction. It's nearly
pointless to describe him, nothing sets him apart from the rest. He wears a
grey hat, grey trousers, a grey jacket and a long grey mantle during winter, he
has a long thin neck and dry and wrinkled skin, the white collars are too wide
for him. He has his room on the topmost floor of the building, perhaps he was
married once and has children, perhaps he once lived in another city. Surely he
was a child once, but that was at a time when children were dressed like
adults. You see them like that in grandma's photo album. In his room, there are
two chairs, a table, a bed and a closet. There's an alarm clock on the small
table, next to it lie old newspapers and the photo album, on the wall hang a
mirror and a picture.
The old man used to take a walk in the morning and take a walk in the
afternoon, speak a few words with his neighbours, and sit at his table in the
That never changed, even on Sunday it was like this. And when the man sat at
the table, he heard the clock tick, tick, always tick.
Then there was a special day, a day with sun, not too hot, not too cold, with
chirping birds, with friendly people, with playing children - and what was
special about it was that the man liked all of it.
"Everything will change now", he thought. He opened the first button of his
shirt, took up his hat, quickened his steps, even wiggled his knees a little
and was happy. He arrived at his road, gave the children a nod, walked up to
his house, went up the stairs, took the keys out of his pocket and unlocked his
But in the room, everything was the same again, a table, two chairs, one bed.
And as he sat down, he heard the ticking again, and all joy went out of him
because nothing had changed. And a great anger overcame the man. He saw his
face in the mirror redden, saw his eyes squint; then his hands clenched to
fists, he lifted them up and let them fall down onto the table, only one strike
at first, then another, and then he began to hammer down and cried again and
"Something must change."
And he didn't hear the clock anymore. Then his hands began to hurt, his voice
failed, he heard the clock again, and nothing changed.
"Always the same table", the man said, "the same chairs, the same bed, the same
picture. And the table I call table, the picture I call picture, the bed I call
bed, and the chair I call chair. But why?" The French call the bed "lee", the
table "tawbl", call the picture "tawblow" and the chair "shaise", and they
understand each other. And the Chinese understand each other too. "Why isn't
the bed called picture", the man thought and smiled, then laughed, laughed
until the neighbours knocked on the wall and called for silence.
"Now it'll change", he cried, and began to call the bed "picture".
"I'm tired, I want to go to picture", he said, and in the morning he often lay
in the picture for a long time and pondered how to call the chair, and he
called the chair "clock". Occasionally he even dreamed in the new language, and
he translated the songs of his youth into his language, and sang them quietly
So he stood up, dressed himself, sat down on his clock and rested his arms on
the table. Only that the table wasn't called table anymore, it now went by
carpet. So that, in the morning, the man left the picture, got dressed, sat
down at the carpet onto his clock, and thought about what to call what.
The bed, he called picture.
The table, he called carpet.
The chair, he called clock.
The newspaper, he called bed.
The mirror, he called chair.
The clock, he called photo album.
The closet, he called newspaper.
The carpet, he called closet.
The picture, he called table.
And the photo album, he called mirror.
In the morning, the old man lay in the picture for a long time, at nine o'album
the photo album rang, the man got up and stood on the closet so that his feet
wouldn't freeze, them he took his clothes out of the newspaper, got dressed,
looked into the chair at the wall, then sat down on the clock at the carpet,
and browsed through the mirror until he found the table of his mother.
The man thought this funny, and he practiced all day and memorized the new
words. Everything was renamed: He wasn't a man anymore, but a foot, and a foot
was a morning and the morning was a man.
You can now continue the story yourself. And then you can, just as the man did,
exchange the other words too:
to ring is to place,
to freeze is to look,
to lie is to ring,
to stand is to freeze,
to place is to browse.
So that it goes like: In the man, the old foot rang in the picture for a long
time, at nine o'album the album stood, the foot froze up and browsed himself on
the closet, so that he wouldn't look at the morning. The old man bought blue
notebooks and filled them with the new words, it made him very busy and people
would only rarely see him on the street now. Then he learned all the new terms
for everything and forgot more and more of the real ones. He now had his very
own language, his alone. But soon, also translating became hard for him, he had
all but forgotten his old language and he had to look up the real words in his
blue notebooks. And he became anxious of talking to people. He had to stop and
think long about what people called certain things.
His picture, people called bed.
His carpet, people called table.
His clock, people called chair.
His bed, people called newspaper.
His chair, people called mirror.
His photo album, people called clock.
His newspaper, people called closet.
His closet, people called carpet.
His mirror, people called photo album.
His table, people called picture.
And it came to that the man had to laugh when he heard people talk.
He had to laugh when he heard somebody say: "Are you going to attend the
football game tomorrow?" Or when somebody said: "It has been raining for two
months." Or when somebody said: "I have an uncle in America".
He had to laugh because he didn't understand any of it.
But this is not a funny story. It began sad and it ended sad. The old man in
the grey mantle couldn't understand people anymore, that wasn't so bad.
Worse was, they couldn't understand him anymore. Which is why he stopped
He remained silent, only talked to himself, not even greeted anymore.
published: Jan 27 2013.
epistemic status: translation.