random thoughts to oil the mind

The Infected German Language

This post is nothing more than the idle musings of a person entirely unqualified to judge upon the vagaries of the German language. Certainly being no linguist, nor even having control over anything stronger than a tiny smattering of Denglish, I can only claim to comment as an outsider looking in, and any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental. ((And yes, the title is a play on that rather more succinct and eloquent survey, The Awful German Language by Mark Twain.)) Regardless, here a couple of thoughts that my contact with German has provoked.

Englisch ist dem Deutsch sein Tod

The first, probably most obvious, currently ongoing change is the seemingly unceasing influence of English. English is the new lingua franca, and affects many of the world’s languages to an extent and intensity perhaps never before felt. The traditional external vectors of word formation, those of ‘borrowing’ words from neighbours, and likewise the adoption of words for new technologies, have both been largely monopolised by English. Of course, technology is only an umbrella term, which really disguises the actual dominance of the English language in many broad fields. English is the language of computers, of the Internet, of science, of music, of sport, of business, of politics, of entertainment—in summary, the language of globalisation. Irrespective of these other avenues, new technologies in recent decades have been heavily anglophonic in origin, and these very same technologies have created a world in which the geographic boundaries which formerly limited a language’s influence have been completely broken down. English now occupies a central position as the most prominent neighbour to a great many of the world’s other languages.

But the relationship between English and German is a very special one. Part of this, I think, relies on the open willingness of Germans to use English words and phrases in their language. Matt Groening can appear on German television undubbed and unsubtitled, advertising a German TV station, for the simple reason that Pro Sieben‘s motto is “We love to entertain you”. English crops up in many different guises and in all manner of unexpected places, and certainly not for the purpose of helping to orientate foreign tourists. In fact, I would actually go as far as to say translations for tourists are not only far less frequent than one might expect, in airports or train stations for example, but are also of much inferior quality. ((Compare the original “Bitte verlassen Sie diesen Ort, wie Sie ihn vorzufinden wünschen” with the translated “Leave please this place as you it to find desires” seen in a coach serving Frankfurt Hahn airport.))

Willingness to import English words for terms or new developments for which German has no equivalent, however, is only one part of the story. There are plenty of cases where English terms are retained despite the clear ability to translate them into German. The RTL quiz show “Wer wird Millionär?” has an example of this in the use of a ‘fifty:fifty‘ joker; the O2 Flatrate-Weekend package is another example, and these are merely the tip of the iceberg. In fact, much of the time with German product marketing, it becomes unclear whether sentences are English ones with a smattering of German, or German ones with a truckload of English terms thrown in. Occasionally this serves a particular purpose, one not confined to English: bottles of wine, olive oil or Balsamic vinegar are often written in French or Italian, despite their obviously having been produced for German markets (regardless of origin). Perhaps this adds some hint of authenticity, and no doubt does have a psychological effect on the purchasing public, but that authenticity argument only stretches so far. Given the seriousness with which certain English people treat their afternoon tea, it certainly is plausible that selling packets of black tea in Germany under an English-sounding brand name may purport to increase saleability, but English hygiene standards can hardly have been the inspiration for selling ‘Bodylotion‘ can it? This has nothing to do with the retention of English mottos by international companies, ((After all, Audi use their German motto “Vorsprung durch Technik” in English advertisements just as effectively.)) but is rather the more influenced by the rise of English mottos for firms originating in German-speaking countries.

Another reason for the easy import of English words in German has to be the close lingual relations between the two languages. A word like “Chat” can enter the language and immediately settle down in its role as verb and noun, in all its various forms, without losing touch with its parent. Whether it will eventually undergo spelling reform like previous imports into the language (das Klischee) or not (die Chance) is debateable, but the word does highlight an interesting aspect of some of the words entering German in this current wave. Chatten may now be a German verb too, but it only corresponds (at least for the moment) with one meaning of its English equivalent. Das Handy, however, illustrates a loanword which is already entirely adrift from its parent, possibly deriving from some curious contraction of handset to provide the German word for a mobile.

English words succeed in replacing their German equivalents through repetition, whether their origin is lazy translation or passionate adoption. Der Fernsprecher has long since been killed by das Telefon, whilst downloaden might ultimately replace herunterladen, but these are only examples from the realms of technology. Could it be that much more fundamental words will feel the encroachment of the hip and fresh English sound? A few weeks past, we heard some youngster remark “Wie geht’s deiner Sister?” in the tram. Such trespassings might sound alarm bells for some, but such is the natural progression of languages. They all show examples of loanwords from their journeys through history, English certainly no least of all. Yet whilst English may not be something new, the extent to which it influences other languages is as perhaps never before felt.

A separable verb malady

In one of my recent reads I came across a wonderful example of a language developing new grammatical constructions, through the repetition of a particular form used for exaggeration whose meaning is gradually eroded until it becomes a necessity. Every schoolchild studying French can tell you that to form a negative, two parts are required and placed either side of the verb: je ne sais pas. But what exactly does the ‘pas‘ convey? It appears that the original meaning of the phrase, in which pas is simply the French word for step, would convey a extra emphasis similar to the English ‘I don’t know at all’—literally, I don’t know a step! With repetition and time, the emphasis was lost and the construction became a necessary one. ((A similar tale can be seen with the word aujourd’hui which now means merely ‘today’ but originates from an emphatic ‘on the day of today’. In fact, this word may yet go through another iteration, with the phrase ‘au jour d’aujourd’hui‘ occasionally being used today—or ‘on the day of the day of today’!))

These kinds of constructions occur all the time through all the language families. Phrases, words or affixes that are used to add stress or impart extra information can through simple repetition not only lose their effectiveness in conveying that stress, but also become compulsory appendages that serve to convey the original meaning (just as the pas is now required, yet adds nothing that the ne did not already convey in the example above). On the other hand, such additions may also develop into concrete cases or prepositional structures which indeed continue to carry more significant meaning, though this is by no means always the case. Whilst it is easy, however, to spot the development of these forms in the history of a language, the tendencies in our current tongues are seldom so clear, and many changes that might in fact aim along this path ultimately disappear as nothing more than a phase or fashion.

So I should with some hesitancy propose that there appears to be another separable verb form in the making. The German word Mal, meaning time (in the sense of an occasion), is used in a wide variety of contexts, but of particular interest is those situations in which the word serves essentially no purpose beyond its own existence. Take this exchange from Das Wunder von Bern as an example:

Christa: Hast du nicht schon genug, sag mal?
Tiburski: Einer geht noch. Sag mal ‘n Satz mit “Hamama” und “Hattata”.
Christa: Haste denn Geld mit?
Tiburski: Hamama ‘ne Fahrradtour gemacht, hattata geregnet.

The joke might circle around the curious sounds of everyday speech (‘hamama’ for ‘haben wir mal’; ‘hattata’ for ‘hat es da’), but it also illustrates the extra use of ‘mal’ as a filler which adds little to the meaning of the sentence.

The ‘mal’ change affects certain verbs above others, those involving sight perhaps most of all, with “mal gucken”, “mal sehen” or “mal schauen” all creeping gradually towards separable verbdom. The ‘mal’ syllable does not yet occupy entirely regular positions for a separable verb, though it easily might, and it could be a very long time before such a construction came to be regularised and recognised. It is entirely possible that this construction will take on another guise before this time, and it is just as liable to disappear altogether, but the potential is certainly there.

A living language

German is a living language. To state so is almost tautological, but nevertheless a great many of the world’s languages lie on the brink. However, to confuse the changes taking place in the German language with the death knell that sounds for so many others, is to misunderstand the influence that Anglizismen have on the German language. In the past, other languages have held dominant relations over their neighbours, such as French held in nineteenth century eastern Europe, and to this day there are words of French origin easily visible in Polish and Russian, for example. But they are nevertheless scant reminder of the influence once held by French, particularly in the upper circles of society. English today doubtless commands a much greater influence than French did, but it is all too easy to suggest that today’s influx of English languages into German will have a permanent, besmirching effect. The use of English in German is a natural phenomenon of language, and thus no ‘threat’ as many perceive it to be. How many of the words used today in German will remain and become part of the regular vocabulary is anyone’s guess. It is naturally quite likely that the words that have entered as a result of technological and scientific progress will remain, whilst others which temporarily replace or complement regular German expressions may have a seasonal fair, but it is more than likely that the longer the words are used in German, the better integrated they should become.

It is thus extremely difficult to understand the position of those who consider German to be under direct threat from the encroaching Englishisms. A language perishes through the failure of people to speak it, not from the influx of foreign words. In the British Isles alone, the death of Cornish and Manx and the demise of Irish all indicate that a language comes under threat when for political, social, and principally for economic reasons people chose to rear their children speaking another language in preference to their own. This is more easily seen in the case of migrants, and German history displays some excellent examples, the massive influx of Polish workers into the Ruhr in the nineteenth century being just one. It will be interesting, meanwhile, to see the future of the Turkish language in Germany.

Whilst I am of the opinion that fear of lingual change is completely unwarranted, given that languages will change according to the will and the minds of the people that speak them, there are however some unfortunate side-effects to change. None of us carries with us the exact lingual tools of our neighbours, each of us builds his own kit out of the various words, constructions and forms we encounter. These are of course a product of our times, and the older generation will always despair at what they perceive as the breakdown and corruption of their language. Yet perhaps they are at times justified, when that language is essentially displaced in ways entirely unexpected and unrequired. English may be used in German because it describes something new, or because it is snappier, or simply because it sounds ‘cool’. It may be used for accuracy, or it may be used simply to appeal to youth. But when it is used to be directed at the whole population, many of whom haven’t the slightest inkling about English, then one has to ask oneself whether the changes come because it is the evolution of language, or the manipulation of language. ((Such was the outcry when Deutsche Telekom altered its billing terms.)) As an English speaker wandering German streets, I find it at once amusing to see my own tongue being used to advertise items, mostly unnecessarily, occasionally wholly inappropriately, yet at the same time can understand the irritation of those who cannot understand the encroaching Denglish marketing speak.


Phantoms in the Brain


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  1. Although I agree with virtually all of the statements you made, I have a few additional points and thoughts that I would like to share concerning this topic. As you have pointed out, German has many English loan words, aptly or inaptly used to convey that something is "up-to-date", or has a broader, international appeal – English is indeed the lingua franca. But a language does not perish, in the sense that the word implies – even though what is considered to be the Irish language is not spoken anymore in such quantity that you could call it the major language in Ireland, it is however very much present – it integrated itself into the regional dialect of English that the Irish have. Even more extreme would be the example of an actual, dead language – Latin. People have obsessed about this former lingua franca that they have resurrected it, with new vocabulary, grammar and even quite a few people skilled enough to speak it (and with a few million more that can read and write it in varying degrees of mastery). What this means: a language that is "overshadowed" by another for whatever reason does not go extinct, it meshes with the other language to form a new language – most probably a dialect at first, but over time anything can happen (see the boiling melting pot of language that is the current AmE). If for some reason, however, a language actually goes extinct (such as the case previously mentioned), there will always be academics interested enough in the history of languages to bring those languages back from the brink of death.

    I, as a German native speaker, am not worried about Anglizismen in my language. I understand the irony of the situation (me writing this article in English, talking about how English will not destroy my language), but in my mind there are no set boundaries for languages – anything goes.

    Thank you for your insightful article.

  2. Why not a lingua franca for the whole world!

    I notice that Barack Obama wants everyone to learn another language, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves both Mandarin Chinese and Arabic out of the equation.

    Why not decide on a neutral non-national language, taught worldwide, in all nations?

    I would personally prefer Esperanto

    An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-88374389…. A glimpse of this language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  3. @Moritz Vogel
    I'm afraid I disagree that a language cannot perish. Irish is perhaps a poor example, as it is being held from the brink, both by official state support, and by the passions of the people who speak it, but unfortunately the number of speakers has declined dramatically, to the extent that speakers are now confined to the small areas of Gaeltacht, and certain intellectual circles. Whilst the Irish dialect might owe much to the phonetics of Gaelic, there is little else that remains in the current Anglophone climate.

    Latin provides a particularly high profile example of a language that was prevented from disappearing by the efforts of certain sections of society. But can the same be said of Manx, Cornish, Livonian – or further back, Old Prussian? Lingual evolution in this regard shows parallels with biological evolution – occasionally, certain evolutionary pathways become defunct and go extinct, such is the nature of things. With languages, this has more to do with political, social and economic pressures, than to do with the individual strengths and weaknesses of each language.

    Of course, all this has very little to do with the rather minor influence of English on German! And in that regard, I think we are of the same mind.

    @Brian Barker
    As an English speaker, I'm often quite sad at the extent to which English is taken for granted as the lingua franca. A neutral language certainly would have its benefits, providing a level playing field for all, as well as being much easier to learn than any national language. I wonder, however, if a 'living' language could ever maintain its regularity without the express efforts of a governing body.

    However, there are still problems with this solution. Esperanto, for example, does not level the playing field so much as it purports, having been developed using the vocabularies (and grammatical tools) of a handful of Indo-European languages. But far more instrumental in holding Esperanto back is the lack of any determined effort to use the language for international communication. With political support, and widespread education, Esperanto could certainly have a future.

    Thanks for both for your comments! 🙂

  4. Concering the topic of "dying" languages, I think we could discuss for hours on end. It depends as what you see as a language, and where you see it dying – it is virtually impossible to root out all the characteristics of a language by superimposing another. The closest we probably have come to this is the slavery, the cultural and therefore linguistical upheaval the African-Americans have suffered – however, they still have a (very changed) vernacular that is unique to themselves. But let us not dwell on this, there are far more constructive topics to spend words on.

    This brings me to the point raised by Brian – Fips argues for a neutral language that would be equally easy to learn for all parties involved. The current lingua franca was not chosen due to linguistic aspects, but rather established itself due to its dominating status. This brings us to the point that breaks Fips' argument – a lingua franca has never been enforced by linguists – the idea of Esperanto, however noble, remains flawed as you pointed out – it is right now pretty much a "secret language" a few thousand speak – with their own little conventions and little corner of the internet. I do not mean to speak demeaning, but all their efforts to have Esperanto be accessible to a broaded spectrum of people have failed – in fact, the first time I heard of Esperanto was in my third semester at University.

    So, we cannot change the fact that the lingua franca is going to be something the majority wants – and that the thing the majority chooses is not neccessarily the wisest or most efficient choice is a fact that needs no explaining. However, a former professor of mine, Joachim Grzega, has been the chief advocate of a new, adapted version of English that can ultimately be used to reduce learning time and communication comprehension between two non-native speakers drastically. When he taught at my University, the whole theory was nothing more than that, however since then he has expanded on his theories – read more at http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joachim_Grzega – I do not advise you to visit his personal homepage, since he is a bit of an eccentric (his cat has its own subpage, with birthday cake pictures and all), but his idea, while still not the best solution in the world, is at least one that would be more likely to succeed and better world communication.

  5. Me again, I found a better source for Basic Global English, as it is called by Grzega – http://www.basicglobalenglish.com/.

  6. @Moritz Vogel
    I admit that I don't hold out much hope for the future of Esperanto as anything more than a curiosity. Any time the language has cropped up in any conversation I've been involved in, I was often amazed at how sceptical people were that the language could act as a neutral medium. Whether that simply stems from the language's low profile, or genuine disbelief that an artificial language could function, I'm not sure.

    Either way, you are right that the establishment of a lingua franca very rarely has anything to do with that language's particular strengths or weaknesses. However, it is interesting to look at the relationship that takes place between a lingua franca as it is spoken by native speakers, and that same language as adopted for communication between speakers of different mother tongues. Obviously, in isolation that language can develop very much along its own routes, something often seen in households where neither partner speaks the other's language, but both have learned a third. In the case of English, this can be seen on a much broader scale in the development of so-called Globish. This kind of subset, whether officially acknowledged and consciously taught or not, is probably what passes for English in a large number of cases anyway.

    But then again, not all is for the worst, English does have some positive sides. Whilst it has its crazy orthography, and provides some problems in pronunciation, it is quite easy to throw a sentence together and make yourself fairly well understood. A bit like HTML in that regard perhaps? I'm just grateful that I didn't have to learn it as a foreign language! 🙂

  7. Well, if I had to choose between German and English as a secondary language, it would have been English all over again. Being a German native speaker has its perks – one of the more difficult languages that has international standing already ingrained in you. I found English to be rather easy to learn, but as it is with most things in life – easy to learn, hard to master. However, I do not have other languages to compare it to, since my studies in English are fascinating enough to keep me from learning other languages, but who knows, I might pursue some later. I'm only 23, so there should be time left for 1-2 other languages in the future :). Anyway, thank you for argument, I hope that some of your/my articles spark more discussions, they are a breath of fresh air in what is usually a pretty dreary blogging experience so far.

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