Academic Research and Composition
May 12, 2002
Don’t Fret, it’s Only Denglisch
Language purists in Germany are in a state of alert. English is in our country, and nobody seems to mind. We send SMS and read E-Mails. Wherever there are texts expressing marketing concepts, one will soon find English-sounding words. This is true not only in the field of product placement but also concerning speech patterns of people who hope for an increase of prestige through their cosmopolitan utterances. However, is there really an imminent danger that one day the English language will usurp our mother tongue?
It is common use to strew single words of English into German syntax, for example, “Ist ja ein cooles Event!” However, understanding the words “cool” and “event” neither signify full proficiency in nor a take-over of English. On the contrary, as my example indicates, most Germans´ English vocabulary is limited to a few, always repeated terms. So who can say that everybody nowadays communicates in standard English?
American entertainer Gayle Tufts coined the term Dinglisch on her 1998 tour Absolutely Unterwegs: “[Dinglisch] is eine ganz besondere Sprache, it’s halvest Deutsch halvest English and basically what most Americans speaks for the first zehn bis fünfzehn Jahre that we live here in Deutschland”. As an American living in Germany, she is defining the mix of German and English from her perspective. By profession, she does not speak German in accordance to its syntactical norms. Indeed, her success as a comedian does not rely merely on other expatriates purchasing her show’s tickets to laugh about their common problems with what Mark Twain coined “the awful German language”. I would argue that especially Germans fluent in Dinglisch enjoy her language mixtures and discoveries of false friends.
Germans not yielding to their mother tongue’s lexical pool, spell Miss Tufts’ term with a slight deviation: Denglisch or Denglish. December 15, 1998 is the earliest date that internet Word Spy Paul McFedries could find for a definition of the phenomenon. This is an example from an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, written about the tendency of German businesses such as Lufthansa, Volkswagen and First Telecom to market their products in English even for the national market. The development was called Denglish.
This new kind of fashionable language does not only draw on English words that are translated directly into German; moreover, there are many hybrid words that native speakers of English will not understand. This shift is not new, for any pidgin language, be it Germish in the US, Finnglish in Canada, Singlish in Singapur, or Denglisch, develops meaning and forms deferring from its origin.
Online, the phenomenon is well documented. An internet search with Google results in numerous entries and various spellings; Dinglisch 128, Denglisch 4140, Denglish (if combined with “deutsch” to eliminate abbreviations in html) 440. Most of the articles do not merely describe its occurrence but interpret and evaluate it, too. This language’s popularity comes with concern about it.
The Verein für deutsche Sprache e.V. was founded in 1997 to thwart Denglisch and to promote „clear German“. Its founding father and chairman Walter Krämer, a professor for statistics at the University of Dortmund, sees the number of people speaking German dwindling, and he appropriates this decline to what he calls kulturelle Selbstaufgabe (“cultural surrender of the self”). To him, English is an easy language to learn, but more importantly Germans tend to flee from their native tongue for two reasons, the first being that the expression of ideas in Denglisch covers a lack of original thought in German. The second reason is that Germans are ashamed of their Nazi-past, thus they take on the language of the “honorable and beloved of this earth” and award themselves a “self-made cosmopolitan ID-card” by using a pidgin-language.
It is compelling that Krämer, who otherwise distinguishes between English and Denglisch, here uses both categories interchangeably. He equates the incorporation of single words with a renunciation of a German national identity. Whom does he blame for the subversion through Denglisch – the weak, unreflected parts of society aspiring to be seen as open-minded and anti-nationalist. The threat thus comes from within. The modern world-language English is free of guilt.
While there are initiatives in Germany pushing for a federal language purity law, experts from the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung recommend to take things easily. The institution’s president, Professor Christian Meier, opposes forcing such regulatory methods onto language because they mean torpor (Erstarrung) and a turn toward provincialism.
Articles have been published, associations have been founded, and not only linguists have discussed the subversion of German by English. All this energy is given for the vilification of one foreign language and the promotion of our own language. It is not taken into account that massive Germanization is at play, an act of empowering and making words fit for German devices. As I will show it is rather English, the seemingly dominant language, that is being misused.
Functioning as a linguistic grab-bag, non native speakers take elements from the modern world-language and leave complex grammar and Latin-derived words for others. Only things that can be pronounced easily are added to the national language by incorporating English. Analogous to Krämer’s argumenation, it is English that is losing its purity and not German: By changing their endings, adjectives or verbs are fitted with German grammar; also nouns that, in their original English context, lack a gender are allotted a feminine, masculine, or neutral aspect when used in German syntax: peace-ig, faxen, die E-Mail. Such words can hardly be called English. They are Germanized in a process initiated by the Germans themselves and not by English language imperialists. Denglisch is called a threat but is on the contrary a display of power.
Banning Denglisch would not only be useless, it would be impossible. Languages as systems in themselves are utilitarian. I agree with Professor Meier that there would be no use in the implementation of federal regulations for the containment of Denglisch in Germany. Laws such as these would make it even cooler to break them.