The first few weeks of a year abroad can be challenging. I mean, there’s a new city to get used to, new rules, a new job or placement and, of course, a new language. Well, Mostly.
One thing you’ll soon notice in Germany, especially in Berlin, is that English is far from alien. So with this in mind, I set out to explore how English is affecting the German language and what native Germans think of the changes.
Allow me to set the scene – I remember being really chuffed with the word Butterbrot (sandwich) when I learnt it in Year 7 German. You see, the other lunch-box vocabulary was fairly… easy. Apfel meant apple, Chips were crisps, Schokolade was chocolate – I couldn’t exactly brag about learning another language when most people could guess these translations pretty easily.
But Butterbrot was different. It sounded German. It was polysyllabic. I was pretty much as enamoured with a word as you can get. So imagine my dismay when, on arrival in Germany, I found that no-one orders a Butterbrot here. They order a Sandwich.
I walked past a shop sale recently. Were they bragging about their ‘1000 Angebote’? Nah. Just their ‘1000 Deals.’ And the packet of crisps my flatmate left on the kitchen table. If you bought two, you got a free song download. The German for ‘song’ is ein Lied, and a ‘download’ is ein Herunterladen. But you guessed it – with two packets you got a “guarantiert 1 Song Download.”
This influx of English vocabulary has to have its roots somewhere. Words don’t just appear for no reason. So which side is doing the pushing? Is German accommodating lazy British expats who can’t be bothered to learn the language? Or do German people actually prefer English words to their German equivalents?
Berlin student Jana doesn’t see it as either. “Anglicisms don’t replace German words – they increase the vocabulary,” she told me. And she’s probably right. While many anglicisms are becoming commonplace in German vocabulary, I doubt you’d find a German who doesn’t know what a Butterbrot, Lied or Angebot is.
However, anglicisms are definitely changing the way Germans communicate. “I often catch myself being unable to think of the German word for something, and using the English word instead,” said Susi, a trainee nurse from Berlin.
I asked Jana and Susi what they think of this influx of English vocabulary. “Anglicisms are completely normal, and contribute to the widening of the German language,” Jana said. “They’re neither good nor bad: they’re simply a feature of language development, which has always taken place.”
Well, so much for my stirring for a negative response. I’d expected (or hoped) that Germans would be outraged about this apparent hijacking of their mother-tongue. I wanted tears, tantrums and at least a bit of swearing. Was she just being polite?
For Susi, however, anglicisms have “a rather negative effect on language development.” The next generation “will no longer really learn original German,” she said – which could spell huge challenges. “A dramatic change will take place amongst the next generation,” she predicted. She did, however, admit that anglicisms are “beneficial for communication.”
So would there be fewer anglicisms if more Brits spoke German? Jana answered with a resounding no. “Germans are fond of travelling, they’re ambitious and, above all, they’re never satisfied,” she told me. “Besides, anglicisms are still seen as ‘cool’.”
So perhaps this blurring of language barriers says more about Germany than it does about the Brits. Eager to learn, this is a nation forever looking for new ways to communicate, connect and express itself. That being said, the German Language Association (VDS) warned in 2011 that German was in danger of being engulfed by its English influences.
“The German language is not only losing its influence but will also at some point become a peripheral language,“ warned Holger Klatte, Spokesperson for the Association. Among the protective strategies Klatte mentioned were requiring German radio to play a higher percentage of German songs and forcing food manufacturers to use German on product labels. The same year, Siemens announced that it would try and limit its use of anglicisms. The company had previously come under fire from the VDS for its use of English terms such as “renewable energy,” “Smart Grids” and “Healthcare.”
So, with plenty of people ready to defend it, Germany’s language probably won’t die out any time soon. The message I took away from my research? German is a growing language. And if this allows it to reach more people from across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, well, so much the better. As long as it doesn’t lose itself in the process.
For me, a handwritten message on a shop window perfectly illustrated just how powerful this language growth could be. ‘Do it jetzt. Manchmal später becomes never,’ the message read. In full English: ‘Do it now. Sometimes later becomes never.’ I couldn’t deny it: this mish-mash of languages worked.
So maybe English and German just go together. They could be like one of those painfully beautiful power-couples, who each rock out on their own, but come together to make the rest of the world weep with jealousy. Like Posh and Becks. Or Beyonce and Jay Z.
In short, Brits can stop feeling guilty about their words infiltrating the German language. I mean, they definitely are… but on the whole, Germans seem in no rush to stem the flow. If anything, we should probably be jealous that Germany is gaining all these new words. Perhaps it’s time to start incorporating more German into English.
I mean, this is the language that gave us Schnapps, Strudel and Hamburgers. What could possibly go wrong?!
Hannah Butler, Features’ German Correspondent