English has been quietly conquering the German language since the end of the Second World War, with sometimes baffling consequences
No other language – apart from Latin maybe – has had such a profound effect on Germany’s people, business and culture, as English.
It is omnipresent: in schools, homes, workplaces, government institutions and, for a couple of years, even in primary schools. Yes, that’s right, even four-year-old Germans speak English.
If you address people in English anywhere in Germany they will, without a moment’s hesitation, reply in English. My mother (who turned 74 this year) only picked up some basic knowledge in school more than 50 years ago but nevertheless conducts lengthy conversations with my British wife. And my mother is by no means an isolated case.
German linguists have been busy analysing this phenomenon for years and two terms emerged that aptly summarise it: Anglizismen and Denglisch.
The former describes the use of English words in business, marketing, technology, manufacturing and so on: examples are management, marketing, computer or shitstorm.
The latter refers to a curious blend of English and German (Deutsch, which is the German word for German, and English = Denglisch) originating from every day use of English, which results in an infinite repository of delightful hybrid phrases that almost make up an entire pidgin language. For example: “getunt” for tuning, “gedownloaded” for downloading or “shoppen” for going shopping.
The use of such expressions has been heavily promoted by British and American pop music, video gaming, car manufacturing and advertising. So much so, that most car tinkerers refer to their motors as being “getunt” (if they made them a little faster), when in fact there is a perfectly good German word for it (aufgeladen) meaning exactly the same. It just doesn’t sound as cool.
There is a wealth of English terms that are now deeply embedded in the minds of people to such an extent that the origins have been pretty much forgotten. Words like ‘sorry’, ‘handy’, ‘just for fun’ or ‘trendy’ are used alongside the native lingo and some of them have already found their way into the German dictionary (flashmob, app, social media or, again, shitstorm).
The reasons for this are many. It is by no means a random obsession because business interests are at the core of this whole-hearted embrace. Germany is one of the most successful export countries in the world, shipping goods all over the globe. The slogan Made in Germany is synonymous with quality, efficiency and technological ingenuity (remember the old Audi catchphrase Vorsprung durch Technik roughly translated “advantage through technology”?) and in the world of global trade the Lingua Franca is English.
Of course, history has played a significant part as well here. After the Second World War, the Germans were a destitute nation. Partitioning the country into four zones was very much reflected in the German mind also.
Being torn, confused and desperate, people were grateful for a helping hand, be it in the form of CARE Packages (food parcels sent from the US at the end of the conflict) or the Marshall Plan.
The Germans had secretly feared – fuelled by Nazi propaganda – that Allied soldiers would erase the fatherland from the world map and kill every last citizen. This didn’t happen and, as a result, they were relieved and adopted Anglo Saxon culture as an expression of their gratitude.
It is essential to understand that the survivors of the war were not just in need of food, clothing and a functioning economy. They were also in need of a new identity and the Anglo Saxon spirit played a pivotal role in this process, since a return to quintessential Teutonic values was completely unthinkable at the time.
A few years later, the advent of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) in the late 1950s caused widespread admiration for the American way of life and with it came the triumphal march of the English language.
An alien landing his space ship in any larger German city after the war would have shaken his head (or heads) in disbelief assuming he had landed in the good old US of A. Cars looked American, drinks tasted American, music sounded American, fashion looked American and, last but not least, the lingo appeared American.
This, in turn, can be directly related to the Third Reich’s efforts to Germanize the mother tongue or in fascist officialese “cleanse it of unnecessary foreign words”.
In an attempt to get rid of any French, English and even Latin influences there was even a guidebook published in 1943 by Otto Zapf called “Correct Official German”.
Alongside countless other Nazi propaganda measures this proved to be an insane undertaking with unforeseen consequences. Because in the same way the Nazis tried to Germanize the language, Germans tried to Americanize it once Hitler and his henchmen had been removed from power. And this development seems rather more likely to last for 1,000 years than anything the Führer achieved.
As with any amalgamation of languages, the results can often be confusing. In advertising, the use of English is especially widespread, since companies are focussed on the world market and younger audiences. As the German media scientist Bernd M. Samland points out, English is often the first port of call for advertisers. But there is little guarantee that such slogans will convey the intended message.
And there have been plenty of examples of copywriters’ misguided attempts to jazz up slogans with Denglish. Beck’s brewery, for some time, used the tag line “Welcome to the Beck’s experience”, which, according to Samland, some customers understood as “Welcome to the Beck’s experiment”, perhaps not the enticing prospect the firm was aiming for. Similarly, the US car manufacturer Ford adopted the the motto “Feel the difference”. It sounds catchy enough, but many Germans thought it meant “Feel the differential”, which is rather more technical a reference than the firm was aiming for.
Occasionally, the audience is completely oblivious to the efforts of advertising agencies as in the case of television broadcaster SAT 1. The TV station lured audiences in front of the small screen with the thoughtful words “Powered by emotion”, until they learned from a survey that two thirds of their viewers had no idea what they stood for. Come to think of it, I am not sure what they mean either.
Some of the greatest pioneers for English, though, are undoubtedly German pop musicians. And there is a good reason for this, as my father (and many more Germans) figured out years ago: “Pop music just sounds strange in German”.
The results, though, can be just as strange. Try this, for instance, from Berlin band Jeans Team: “I cannot shit in Paris, I cannot shit in Rome; Places where I can shit, I call home.”
Frank H Diebel is a German journalist who has been living and working in London for 18 years
The New European