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From a trickle to a flood:
English words in German

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New word of the month
From a trickle to a flood:
English words in German

by Jonathan Marks

From a trickle to a flood
Relaxte Outfits in Classic Style für Outdoor-Fitness Fans!
The young teach the old
Adieu, français!
A closer look at types of borrowing
A special register and a new relationship?
Individual and organised resistance
Dschäst ä moment!
Handy definitions for modern talkers
The shape of things to come?
References, further reading and relevant websites

From a trickle to a flood

At the inauguration of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof this year, the chairman of German railways described the new station as "... ein weiteres wunderbares architektonisches Highlight in Berlin Mitte" ("another wonderful architectural highlight in the centre of Berlin") and said, after this enormous and complicated construction project had been successfully completed to a tight schedule: "Jetzt bin ich erstmal richtig happy." ("Now I'm really happy.")

In recent decades, what used to be a steady trickle of English borrowings into German – e.g. flirten, Komfort, Sport, Start, Streik in the 19th century, and Babysitter/babysitten, Make-up, Slogan and Swimming-Pool in the 20th has become a flood.

When I order tickets from German rail (DB), they're sent to me from the DB Fulfillment Center. Making sure I've got my Ticket and my BahnCard entitling me to reduced fares, I board the train. If it's an InterCityExpress of the latest design, I like to sit in the Lounge, where I can look out ahead through the driver's compartment, and during longer journeys I generally go to the restaurant car for a Snack. I always know I can rely on the members of the train's Service Team to answer any questions about connections and so on. On certain overnight routes I can travel by CityNightLine. If I had a car, I could maybe take advantage of Carsharing, Park+Ride or Park&Rail. As I haven't got a car, I haven't looked into what the difference between the last two is, so I can't tell you whether the differential use of the symbols + and & is significant. City-Tickets are ideal for Shopping and Sightseeing. Other DB services include Call a Bike and Rail&Fly. If you need to know more, major stations have a ServicePoint to deal with travellers' queries.


Relaxte Outfits in Classic Style für Outdoor-Fitness Fans!

Apart from travel, use of English is particularly widespread in the fields of sport and technology, and also generally in the realm of advertising. So it's likely to be particularly noticeable in adverts connected with these topics. And indeed, one brochure advertising outdoor wear and equipment includes these items:
Cashmere Twin-Set
Innovatives Equipment für Trekking, Walking, Running und Trail
(flannel outdoor shirt)
(occasional walker)
(outdoor activities)
(moisture management)
reflektierendes Piping
Longsleeve mit Print
Sweatjacke mit Badge
Sweatjacke mit Teddyfutter
(with fur-fabric lining)
(cargo trousers)

Or how about this ad from a different brochure:
Buy one, get one free!
Classic Style: V-Neck Shirts aus 100% Cotton.

The only German word in this ad is the preposition 'aus'!

And in the same brochure, we find:
das top Top
relaxtes Outfit
mit gecrossten Laschen
(with crossed flaps)
Bladen war gestern. Aber heute wird gescootert.
(Blading was yesterday. Today, scootering's in.)
They fit together (Twinset)
special Button
straight sleeve


The young teach the old

Not surprisingly, the younger generation of German speakers are particularly susceptible to the influence of English. Here are a couple of short extracts from a tutorial for older readers, written by three teenage girls (Berliner Morgenpost, 24th September 2001):
"Unsere Piercings sind poliert, die Hairstyles sind auftoupiert und mit Haarspray und Gel fixiert. Die Tattoos sind touched-up."
(Our piercings are polished, our hair's brushed up and fixed with hairspray and gel. Our tattoos are touched up.)

"Die DJs scratchen, rewinden und mixen ihre LPs auf den Turntables."
(The DJs scratch, rewind and mix their LPs on the turntables.)


Adieu, français!

In some cases, borrowings from English have supplanted earlier borrowings from French. For example:

German loan from French German loan from English
Pardon Sorry
en vogue trendy
passé out
Billett Ticket (but Billett is still widely used in Swiss German)
Souterrain Basement


A closer look at types of borrowing

In this section, we'll take a quick look at some aspects of meaning, connotation, morphology, pronunciation, syntax and collocation in German borrowing from English. Many of the examples in this section are taken from Sick.

In the past, it was usual for borrowings to be adapted to fit German pronunciation and spelling rules. For example, when strike was borrowed, it was re-spelled Streik, with 'ei' representing the diphthong /a/, and 'st-' was pronounced /t/, as is normal in German. But nowadays the tendency is to retain the English spelling, and, at least approximately, the English pronunciation. For example:

'sh' for / / in Shopping, rather than German 'sch'
'c' for /k/ in Computer, rather than German 'k'
/ju/ for 'u' in Computer, rather than German /u/

In the past, a suffix '-ieren' was added to verbs borrowed from other languages, e.g. reflect > reflektieren. But now this tends not to happen, e.g. scratchen, mixen, which only have the basic infinitive ending '-en'.

It's comparatively rare for vocabulary to be borrowed with its whole range of meanings and connotations. A lot of borrowings are field-specific e.g. scratchen refers to part of the DJ's job, but not to scratching your head. And sometimes a borrowing has different connotations in German than in English e.g. Shopping implies a relaxed, pleasurable, self-justifying leisure activity, unlike Einkaufen, which rather suggests shopping for everyday necessities.

Native vocabulary can shift or extend its range of meaning under the influence of a foreign language; under the influence of English, ich denke, ... (I think) has come to be used in the sense of 'In my opinion, ...' and feuern (fire (verb)) has extended its meaning to 'dismiss from a place of work'.

Borrowing can initiate other, more general changes in the borrowing language, and this has happened in German.

German morphology is notorious for lengthy compound nouns such as Autobahnraststättenbetreiber (someone who runs a motorway service station). Hyphenation is sometimes used to make very long compounds easier to read e.g.
Autobahnraststättenbetreiber-Ehepaar (a husband-and-wife team who run a motorway service station) and where borrowings are used in compounds e.g. Consulting-Unternehmen. But hyphens are now increasingly appearing even in short and purely German compounds such as Partei-Tag (party conference) and Botschafts-Gebäude (embassy building).

Even more striking, perhaps, is the spread of compounds with the elements written separately as in English, such as Party Service, Garten Center, Milch Kaffee, Vollkorn Müsli and Endbenutzer Software Lizenz Vertrag (end user software licence agreement). Another increasingly popular style of compounding is with the elements written together but retaining their capital letters e.g. ServicePoint, ReiseZentrum (travel centre).

German uses an '-s' inflection, but without an apostrophe, especially for genitive forms of names e.g. Kafkas Romane (Kafka's novels). But an apostrophe is increasingly used not only for genitives e.g. Beck's Bier but even for plurals such as Kid's, T-Shirt's and Kiwi's. No doubt this reflects a similar trend in English.

New constructions can appear in German through literal translation from English e.g. Ich erinnere das nicht (I don't remember that) instead of the standard Ich erinnere mich nicht daran. It's suggested that such novelties probably arise as a result of journalists translating (too) quickly from English to German, though presumably they could also be generated by others who know English well and are accustomed to switching between the two languages. Other examples include:

New form English equivalent Standard form
Das macht Sinn That makes sense Das ist sinnvoll
einmal mehr once again noch einmal
Ich rufe Sie zurück I'll call you back Ich rufe Sie wieder an
nicht wirklich not really eigentlich nicht
in 2005 in 2005 2005 or im Jahre 2005
jemanden treffen meet someone sich mit jemandem treffen

Verbs recently borrowed from English are given normal German inflections for person:

ich designe
du designst
er designt

ich recycle
du recyclest
er recycelt

But there's some variation, and sometimes uncertainty, in the case of past participles:


('-t' as in German)


('-ed' as in English)
Final '-d' is devoiced in German, so the distinction between '-t' and '-ed' disappears in speech.

Both downgeloadet and gedownloadet are possible, reflecting an uncertainty as to whether particles such as 'down-' should be treated as separable prefixes (cf. heruntergeladen) or not.


A special register and a new relationship?

Einbeck (2004) suggests that the concept of an 'autonomous register' (Widdowson 1997) i.e. "a special register independent of the native speakers of the language" can be invoked to describe the 'mixed code' resulting from the large-scale appropriation of English in German advertising. "The creativity of this mixed code establishes a new relationship between advertiser and potential customer."

But this is hardly any consolation for those German speakers who can't understand ads and other texts laden with English vocabulary; for them, the new relationship is likely to be one of alienation. Less obviously, but perhaps even more seriously, who knows how many people think they understand, but actually misunderstand such texts? As an indication, it was found that a significant proportion of German readers who reported that they understood the slogan 'Come in and find out', used by a perfume chainstore, actually interpreted it to mean 'Come in, and find your way out.'


Individual and organised resistance

Not surprisingly, there are those who are not so keen on the mass importation of English into German, and who even see it as a threat to the German language.

Here's one voice, in a reader's letter to a Swiss railway magazine (Via 7/2001):
"Im Artikel erwähnen Sie folgende Dienstleistungen: alle Rail-Tickets, Touroperator-Angebot, Ticket Corner, Shopping. Sie schwimmen also voll auf der Englisch-Modewelle. Doch was soll 'Otto Normalverbraucher' mit derartigen Ausdrücken anfangen?"
("In your article, you mention the following services: all rail tickets, tour operator offer, ticket corner, shopping. So you're riding the wave of the fashion for English. But what's the man in the street supposed to make of such expressions?")

And in the same issue, another reader suggests that excessive use of English could even drive people away from the railways and into their cars!

English is perceived as all the more attractive by some when used by celebrities. At the World Cup 2002 in Japan and South Korea, former football star Franz Beckenbauer always spoke English to the cameras; one German professor of linguistics commented:
"The damage that German personalities cause with their habitual use of English is immense." (reported in The Linguist 43/4, 2004)

Nor is resistance limited to individual voices. Societies committed to protecting the integrity of the German language have existed at least since the mid-19th century, in fact. (Berns 1988)

The Verein Deutsche Sprache (Association for the German Language) first hit the headlines in 1997 when it awarded the title of 'Sprachpanscher des Jahres' (Language Botcher of the Year) to fashion designer Jil Sander, who had given an interview containing passages such as:
"Mein Leben ist eine giving-story. Für den Erfolg war mein coordinated concept entscheidend. Die audience hat das alles supported."
("My life is a story of giving. My coordinated concept was decisive for my success. The audience supported it all.")

The lucky winner of the award the following year was the chair of Deutsche Telekom, who had introduced the terms CityCalls, GermanCalls and GlobalCalls (which translate into English as local calls, long-distance calls and international calls).

The Verein Deutsche Sprache is not lobbying for a ban on the use of English. Their concern is rather with consumer protection; they believe that if English or indeed any other foreign language is used in communications aimed at the public, the German equivalent should also be given. And they have chalked up quite a few successes by stirring up public ridicule of companies making excessive use of English (Mechan-Schmidt 1999).

Some conservative German politicians have called for the German language to be legally protected, and for English words in everday use in Germany to be banned, in the interests of the 30% of Germans who, they claim, don't speak English.

Interestingly, politicians of all parties have used election slogans such as:
"Law and order is a Labour issue"
"Welcome today, welcome tomorrow"
"Vote yellow"

which seems extremely ill-advised if the estimate of 30% is even approximately accurate!

Of course, it isn't a question of either speaking or not speaking English; there are obviously different levels of competence.


Dschäst ä moment!

Here's just one instance that illustrates the kind of support some German speakers need in dealing with English. On the occasion of World Youth Day 2005, the authorities in the city of Cologne produced a booklet for bus and tram drivers, to help them cope with the large numbers of foreign visitors expected. Here are a few samples:
Kän ei hälp ju?
Sis ticket is nott känzelt.
Sro se manni intu se slot.
Dschäst ä moment plies.

It also included a guide to the pronunciation of tourist attractions such as the Kässiedräl. Significantly, the booklet was a great success, and went into a second edition (reported in The Linguist 44/6, 2005).


Handy definitions for modern talkers

One particularly vocal and scathing commentator on excessive English in German is the chair of the Verein Deutsche Sprache, Walter Krämer. His Modern Talking auf deutsch (Krämer 2001) consists of 1000 spoof definitions such as:

celebrities Rätselhafte Krankheit ("Zelebritis") von Personen, die zuviel in talk-shows auftreten.
(Mysterious illness ("Zelebritis") in people who appear in talk shows too often.)

handicap Mütze für Mobiltelephone.
(Cap for mobile phone)
(NB Handy = mobile phone)

password Kurz für das umständliche deutsche "Paßwort".
(Short for the cumbersome German "Paßwort")

peer group Eine Gruppe von Männern, die zusammen pee-en (umgangssprachlich).
(A group of men who pee together colloquial)

waterproof Ein Beweis aus Wasser; vor deutschen Gerichten unzulässig.
(Proof or evidence made of water; inadmissible in German courts)


The shape of things to come?

Finally, a true story from the German courts, illustrating that insistence on providing German equivalents for English terms can have far-reaching consequences. A court ruled against a Lufthansa engineer who had appealed after being repeatedly reprimanded for adding the German translations of 'technical terms'(!) such as door, engine and wing in reports note that the reports were written in German, and he had not replaced the English terms, but only added the German equivalents (reported in The Linguist 39/4, 2000).

Goethe wrote: "Die Gewalt einer Sprache ist nicht, dass die das Fremde abweist, sondern dass sie es verschlingt." ("The power of a language is not that it rejects foreign elements, but that it devours them.") But what would he say now? After all, he couldn't possibly have foreseen just how eagerly German would devour English in the 20th and 21st centuries.


References, further reading and relevant websites

'The cultural and linguistic context of English in West Germany' in World Englishes 7/1: 37-49, M. Berns (1988)
'Mixed Messages: English in German Advertising' in Journal of Language for International Business 15/1: 41-61, K. Einbeck (2004)
Modern Talking auf deutsch ein populäres Lexikon, W. Krämer (Piper Verlag, 2001)
'What's new on the Denglish front?' in The Linguist 38/6, F. Mechan-Schmidt (1999)
Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod, B. Sick (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2004)
Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod Folge 2, B. Sick (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2005)
'EIL, ESL, EFL: Global issues and local interests' in World Englishes 16/1: 135-146, H. G. Widdowson (1997)

If you would like to look at how other European languages absorb English words old and new, read this article in the March 2006 edition of MED Magazine.,2144,2016407,00.html