Calling one particular kind of (or view on) politics Realpolitik is understandable if the term's coiner considered it uniquely realistic, but "real politics" would not in English be a term with any clear or obvious connotation as to what kind of politics is "real".

The appearance of Real in Realschule is even more confusing. It immediately invites the question, what is more "real" about such a school than Hauptschule or Gesamtschule? (I've read various translations of the adjectives for these other school types, such as lowest or major vs overall or total.)

So here's my question: does German tend to use real, in general or at least at the beginning of nouns, in a non-literal manner applicable to both these examples? (For example, is it analogous to "real America", where "real" implies something typical and salt-of-the-Earth? Or perhaps to "get real", which implores a focus on the feasible?) Or are the connotations in these two examples dissimilar, or coincidentally similar but far from universal?

  • Feel free to edit the tags on this question, especially to remove inappropriate ones. I erred on the side of using a larger number of similar tags, as opposed to only tags I'm absolutely certain are relevant.
    – J.G.
    Sep 10 at 19:45
  • I'm trying to understand what you see as the "literal" meaning of "real" - Its literal meaning is really [sic] "connected to things" (derived from Latin "res", or later "realis"). You seem to assume a different meaning.
    – tofro
    Sep 11 at 9:50

German tends to use the real- prefix in its literal Latin meaning: "connected to things", or later Latin, realis - tangible, or rather as the opposite of concept, theory, or anything non-tangible or non-feasible.

That obviously offers a very wide area of possibilities to apply "real".

The term "Realschule" was originally developed to distinuish this form of schooling from a conceptual, academic, and more theoretical education offered in the Gymnasium as more down-to-earth ("connected to real things", rather than concepts). (Today, the term might have diffused into meaning "middle school education")

Realpolitik is thus the down-to-earth application of political concepts and theories to real-world problems.

I tend to think English doesn't use real in a very different way - your examples show pretty much the same bandwidth.

  • 1
    I gather the actual German cognate of "real" is "reell", and real- is a Latin prefix that happens to have a closer spelling to the English word.
    – RDBury
    Sep 11 at 10:27
  • @RDBury "real" (which is a proper adjective, not only a prefix) and "reell" actually mean pretty different things (with "reell" having a much narrower meaning)
    – tofro
    Sep 11 at 10:35
  • 2
    Thanks, I didn't know real was also an adjective. The English "real" is normally translated as echt or wirklich, while German real and reell seem more restricted to specialized and technical meanings, e.g Reelle Zahl. According to Wiktionary, English "real" and German reell are from Old French, while German real comes directly from Latin.
    – RDBury
    Sep 11 at 11:15

Real(ism) is the antonym of Ideal(ism) - Idealism not on todays sense of, basically, do-gooderism, but as the notion that the world is made of, and influenced by, ideas, i.e. thoughts and reasons.

A "Gymnasium" (not to be confused with the English "Gymnasium", although it's the same greek word. A German "Gymnasium" is a secondary school) would usually follow the humanist idea of "Perfektibilität", the idea that you can achieve virtue of character by way of education - which due to some fascination with old Greece meant mostly languages and rhetoric (the concept of virtue was based on the greek notion of arete). That's basically an "idealist" idea.

A Realschule, in contrast, would teach you e.g. how to manage your salary, how to grow a garden and what herb goes well with the chicken. This was intended to be "real" not so much in the salt-of-the-earth sense, but quite literally as in that these were things you could touch with your hands (the concept also proved to be a winner, as Prussia soon allowed Realschule graduates in public service, maybe in deference to the fact that knowing how to manage a garden is sometimes more useful to the public enterprise than possessing arete).

Realpolitik follows basically the same pattern - the idea originally was that it is virtuous to have enlighted goals, but that the quickest way to bring them about is by using a big stick (although in some quarters the meaning has changed today to thinking that you should not have high-minded goals at all and just have the stick).

The oppositon of Idealism and Realism/Materialism was for quite some time the driving force behind most of German philosophy. Of course, these days philosophers do not have much clout in Germany, so this is not something that is hugely in our mind when we use the prefix "real" - it often simply means "practical", possibly at the expense of some noble intentions, or else that a seemingly good thing falls shorts of some actual goal (i.e. "Reallohnverlust", the fact that people can afford less even with nominally higher wages).

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