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Giving English the big kiss-off

The Local · 22 Feb 2010, 15:02

Published: 22 Feb 2010 15:02 GMT+01:00

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Between spying on its employees and mismanaging Berlin’s commuter train network, Deutsche Bahn hasn’t been the source of much good news lately. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear last week that Germany’s national railway operator had decided to ditch its gratuitous and frequently poor use of English.

Not only is DB boss Rüdiger Grube going to get rid of “Flyers,” “Hotlines” and “Call a Bike,” he also ordained that the kissing has to stop. More precisely the “Kiss and Ride” zone in the forecourts of train stations. These areas used to be called Kurzparken and the idea is this: you take your partner to the station and you are given just enough time to kiss goodbye before someone shouts at you to move on.

I suppose this is an attempt to solve a banal problem (too many cars blocking the entrance to rail stations) by turning it into something charming – even though English must cede the honour of being the language of love to Italian, French and Bavarian. Still, the feckless advisors Grube’s predecessor Harmut Mehdorn probably regarded Kiss and Ride as one of their greatest PR triumphs.

But it wasn’t. It managed to upset native English speakers, Germans fed up with the invasion of unnecessary anglicisms, Muslims who prefer not to kiss in public and, above all, serious smoochers.

There’s a deep cultural misunderstanding at the heart of all these Deutsche Bahn idioms. “Kiss and Ride” is not like “Click and Buy” or “Wash and Go” which are mechanical processes without emotional overtones. A kiss by contrast has to do with touch and smell and passion. Unless, of course, one were kissing the signet ring of the DB boss, in which case it would be an act of submission to unchallengeable authority. In English we talk of “kiss and tell” – ex-lovers who sell their memories of unfaithful celebrities to the tabloid press – but even in that case, a kiss is shorthand for a romantic entanglement. There is nothing romantic about parking your car at a train station. You cut your motor, take your bag out, start the car again. Nothing more than a brief moment parking – that is, Kurzparken. Kissing needs time. If you really want to kiss before the 7:31 leaves for Dortmund, then you take a taxi.

Deutsche Bahn has kidnapped my language, and I want it back. Of course, others try the same trick – Deutsche Telekom and the rest of corporate Germany – but it is the Bahn that causes me most anguish.

The use of English – or rather BSE, Bad Simple English – is supposed to show what exactly? That Deutsche Bahn is now a global player? Or that its staff is competent to help non-German-speaking passengers? Neither reason seems to be true.

Deutsche Bahn, despite the pre-privatisation trumpeting and clashes of cymbals from the Mehdorn Symphony orchestra, has little international clout, and even that is evaporating because the Bahn management is failing to deliver at home. I know that people across Europe are dissatisfied with their train services at the moment. But Germany seems to be complaining the loudest. Perhaps it is a sense of a great national institution crumbling.

According to the best-seller Schwarzbuch Deutsche Bahn, train drivers have to pee into bottles because they are not given adequate toilet breaks – they could endanger punctuality. A case, perhaps, of “Piss and Ride.”

Story continues below…

The DB English is I think not just a joke, a buffoonish attempt to be interconnected with the outside world, but an instrument of power; part of a system that says to customers – you have to do things our way because we have a monopoly. You can’t understand the ticket tariff system? Just pay up. You would rather be served by a human than a machine? Tough luck. You can’t understand a word that we’re saying on the platform loudspeakers? You must not speak German properly. Every company, but especially one that enjoys a monopoly, should have a monthly meeting with customers to ask: are we doing this right? What impact is this or that policy having on ordinary passengers?

The full absurdity of this refusal to enter a dialogue with customers emerged the other day when the train service to Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport did not stop there. The engineer apparently didn’t want to be late on his way to the provincial town of Königs Wusterhausen. That is when you need Deutsche Bahn staff who can speak English – to explain to foreign travellers that they’ve missed their international flights in order to create the illusion of efficiency.

For more Roger Boyes, check out his website here.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

20:16 February 22, 2010 by DrRatchet
I am always amused to see the phrase "kiss and ride" anywhere outside of Southern California. It is a play on the name "park and ride", which were bus terminals with large attached parking lots meant for suburban commuter use.

"Kiss and Ride" was in use as a colloquialism for many years before it was officially used by the transit authority in California, and should be considered local slang at best. How did it get to be an official term of Deutsche Bahn? Did someone say the phrase on an episode of "Friends"? Is this another example of the long cultural reach of Hollywood? Or did Deutsche Bahn managers come to Los Angeles when they were searching for a corrupt, mismanaged and incompetent transit system to model themselves after?
11:25 February 23, 2010 by michael4096
...or rather BSE, Bad Simple English...
As "kiss", "and" and "ride" were german words long before they became english words, would it not be better to use the phrase BSG, Badly Spelt German?
15:49 February 23, 2010 by bernie1927
The French are trying to keep their language clean while Germany apes the Americans. It is kind of sad but it demonstrates - again - a lack of pride. The same thing happened during the time of Frederick the Great when French was adopted. Who are they trying to impress? I think it's about time that Germany develops a backbone.
18:33 February 23, 2010 by Paul S.
Sorry, this phrase has been used all along the East coast of the USA for over 20 years. Every Washington, DC metro stop that has parking has a "Kiss and Ride" area. Every Virginia elementary school (for 6-12 year old kinder) has a "Kiss and Ride" area. American English (as opposed to British English) is a language that is used by the people, for the people, etc. Language should be used any darn way people wish to use it. Loosen up a bit, enjoy life a bit, and try to get over yourself.
19:18 February 23, 2010 by Jim09
Dear Krauts? Wow is this just me or does this sound quite racist?

Also funny how the author is trying to rip the "Kiss and Ride" term apart even tho it's actually real common...
23:19 February 23, 2010 by css1971

I live near Konigs Wusterhausen, work in Berlin and the Airport Express quite often does not stop at the airport if it's running late...Sitting in the train, the loudspeaker comes on and they mention the train is changing schedule and won't be stopping at the airport... And I'm sitting in the carriage with great big white "Airport Express" sign written on the site. Couldn't believe it the first couple of times.

I'm guessing they get penalised more for being late.
08:28 February 25, 2010 by alexingohr
When Germans cannot read their own langauge how do you expect them to understand English?

Take for example, "This is a no smoking platform / railway station", that is in English and German - or is it that these German cigarette smoking people are simply illiterate?
00:32 February 27, 2010 by 0234maxwell
Hello to all my freinds in Germany -- since I now have a child (baby girl) in Germany and have a few freinds in the Kohl pot even though I spend more than half a year in Australia I feel qualified to comment on this subject -- my general view is that most Germans are relaxed about most things except giving their hard earned tax euros away to anyone who is "bludging" -aussie > rorting - english --the system. I regularly butcher the german language as I dont speak it very well and I thank the Germans for being understanding. This issue has all the hallmarks (signs) of a political game!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
00:52 February 28, 2010 by madgerman1
This is very racist at germans in general. Learn the languge or get out of germany!
01:07 February 28, 2010 by sc123
I agree, people need to learn the language. I mean you don't see German written everywhere in the U.S.
15:02 March 1, 2010 by scout1067
Yeah you don't see German everywhere in the States, you see Spanish instead. But if we stick up for English at home we are racists. I think its great that they are reverting to German. In the end it wont matter because everybody in the world will be speaking English in 3-4 generations anyway.
15:39 March 1, 2010 by Ami-Girl
And I don't see anyone at all who's mentioned the ENTIRE Washtington, DC "Metro" (rail) system! At EACH station (where parking is available), there is a "Kiss-and-Ride" area!!! Washington, DC, for goodness' sake!! It's not NY or L.A., but it's still huge! Are we to believe that Washingtonians are NOT true English-speakers, since this "Kiss-and-Ride" term is such "Bad, Simple English?!?" I don't think so, Mr. Boyes. So can we really blame the Deutsche Bahn for using THIS PARTICULAR phrase? No! However, I can fully understand the Deutsche Bahn's reputation for OTHER "BSE" mishaps - and there are many. I just feel as if the basis for the article (focusing on "Kiss-and-Ride") is rather weak. Perhaps you should have chosen a different phrase.
21:16 March 1, 2010 by aunty.franny
The problem with the bad English is the way Germany are tought it in school. They prefer Germans to teach English, even though their English is often bad to incomprehensible, and the grammar books they use are wrong. If you tell them they have made a mistake, they don't or won't believe you, claiming this is what they were taught and it is correct. They try to tell me that I don't know English anyway, as I am an American instead of British. I am still trying to convince them that only married women are Mrs., but they learn in school here that Mrs. is the correct translation for Frau, which all German women are, so there you have it!

My favorite mix of German and English is the "Hit of the day" advertised on posters in front of German and Austrian restaurants. Only they combine the 2 languages to make: "Tageshit". I laugh every time I read that, and can't imagine what it must taste like!
11:54 March 2, 2010 by gazzabytes
To madgerman1: are you suggesting that Germany ban non-german speaking travellers/tourists? English is the language hundreds of millions of people around the world have as a second language, and I am sure, appreciate to be able to understand at least a little of of what is happening on their train journey to their business meeting or connecting flight at another airport. Credit to Deutsche Bahn for trying to make travellers a little more welcome in this country.
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