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Could Denglisch one day kill off German?

From being heard in coffee shops to popular TV programmes, "Denglisch" is being used more and more across the country. But is it threatening to kill off German? A linguist sheds light on the phenomenon.

Could Denglisch one day kill off German?
Denglisch was already in use in 2007 at a cafe in Frankfurt. Photo: DPA

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Spend a day in central Berlin and you might begin to wonder what the official language is. There will be the coffee shop with a sign proclaiming “We accept Sofortüberweisung,” or young Germans on the U-Bahn who say “Oh nice!” when hearing about the “highlight” rather than the Höhepunkt of a friend’s weekend. Then they might grumble that a concert got gecancelt.

Is Denglisch becoming so ubiquitous that it is causing the German language itself to go extinct? Not exactly, Free University of Berlin linguistics researcher Dr. Britta Schneider tells The Local.

Rather, it’s causing the language to evolve, bringing in more English words and phrases that simply become part of the Deutsch vocabulary after a while. This causes the original German words to either be used very sparingly, informally or not at all.

Now Germans will say computer rather than Rechner, even though they are aware of the latter word’s meaning. A word like Baby will take the place of Säugling, which might only be used in medical literature describing infants.

And there are some words that most Germans themselves don’t know once carried a very different equivalent, such as Leibesertüchtigung for sport (the word sport was introduced to the German language over 150 years ago by a prince after his trips to England and Ireland).

The phenomenon of Denglisch is not just limited to Berlin, but even the smallest of villages in Germany thanks to TV and media, says Schneider. Commonly it is the media and advertising that introduces Denglisch phrases, or popular TV shows such as Germany’s Next Topmodel.

Nowadays on TV talk shows when someone speaks in English – including the increasing number of foreigners who make an appearance on them – their speech is often not translated.

German TV uses, and often introduces, many Denglisch words and phrases. Photo: DPA

In some fields, such as academia and marketing, Anglicisms are becoming so widely thrown around that they are replacing the original German – sometimes without the knowledge of those who use them .“These days many people don’t notice if they’re speaking English or not,” says Schneider.

SEE ALSO: Germans love English adverts – but don’t understand them

Getting back to the roots

For decades, a prime usage of Denglisch in Deutschland has been “Sale,” yet even now it’s possible to see its German equivalent of Schlussverkauf advertised in stores.

Such usage of an old German phrase in favour of a more modern one is often done for ideological reasons, or as a way to protest the growing use of English, says Schneider. “Sometimes German will be used for purism, for getting back to one’s roots,” the linguistics expert adds.

There have long been attempts to preserve the German language, keeping intact the use of distinctly Deutsch words. In 2001, Christian Democratic (CDU) politician Eckart Werthebach drafted a law for the protection of German, similar to one that already exists in France, where even Internet has its own uniquely French translation.

Only last year, CDU politician Jens Spahn notoriously complained about the use of English at hipster-driven Berlin coffee shops, saying it excludes people who don’t know the language well or are trying to integrate better into German culture.

Companies as well have protested the growing use of Denglisch, with Deutsche Bahn introducing a handbook for its employees on the correct German terms to use, so as not to isolate any customers or make them feel uncomfortable. Employees were instructed to use Handzettel instead of flyer, and Service-Nummer instead of hotline.

A sale at a department store in Berlin is just one long-time use of Denglisch. Photo: DPA

The spread of Denglisch grammar

The influence of English does not just shift the vocabulary, but also the structure of German, says Schneider. For example, instead of “Weil ich in die Stadt gegangen bin,” Germans – even in official contexts such as TV – may say, “Weil ich bin in die Stadt gegangen.” Still, the use of this incorrect grammar is stigmatized and usually not done on purpose, says Schneider.

English structure is also woven into German through so-called “calque”, a linguistics term for a loan translation. Words and phrases which once made little sense in German will also find their way into the language, including “Das macht Sinn,” rather than the original “Das ergibt Sinn.” When describing years, Germans furthermore used to say “im Jahr 2018” whereas nowadays they will often express the year similar to in English, saying “in 2018.”

In English, people have long nodded their heads while saying, “I see” to connote understanding. But only recently did “Ich sehe” become used in German among youth. If unfamiliar with the phrase, Germans might wonder what exactly the other person is seeing.

Teenagers will also toss out common constructions in English such as “Oh mein Gott!” which previously would have only taken on a literal meaning in German. When Schneider heard children say the phrase, she thought to herself, ‘We didn’t teach our children to be religious.’

READ ALSO: 10 German words becoming extinct thanks to English

English in work, German at play

Still, German is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and, as such, unlikely to disappear altogether, says Schneider. Yet in some settings she envisions English becoming the official language at universities and workplaces, while German will remain the language of the private sphere, spoken among friends and families.

In some academic fields such as natural sciences and engineering, it is already expected that researchers only pen their papers in English, posing a disadvantage to non-native speakers. “It’s unfair that the publisher expects us to pay for a professional native speaker to edit the published text,” says Schneider.

Yet English education in Germany is becoming better and better, and it’s now expected that anyone with a university degree has the language of the Bard under their belt.

That’s why speaking English is no longer advertised as a requirement for many jobs, particularly in Marketing, as it’s already assumed that a uni-educated applicant will speak it fluently, says Schneider.

The linguistics researcher noticed a greater push-back against Denglisch a decade ago, when there was much less of it than today. But now more and more people are embracing it as a “modern and successful” way of speaking – while still continuing to keep their mother tongue alive.

Denglisch users are simply dabbling in a new vocabulary, she says. “Boundaries between language are socially constructed. Linguists might say that we’re not using different languages, but different repertoires.”

SEE ALSO: Why some foreigners live in Germany without mastering the language

Member comments

  1. I remember the howls of laughter from German friends years ago when I use the words “Fernsprecher” and “Fernseher.”

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LEARNING GERMAN

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

Once you've learned the basics of German, listening to podcasts is one of the best ways of increasing vocabulary and speeding up comprehension. Here are some of the best podcasts out there for German learners.

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

STARTING OUT

Coffee Break German

Coffee Break German aims to take you through the basics of German in a casual lesson-like format. It is extremely easy to listen to. Each 20-minute episode acts as a mini-lesson, where German native Thomas teaches Mark Pendleton, the founder and CEO of Coffee Break Languages, the basics.

All phrases are broken down into individual words. After new phrases are introduced the listeners are encouraged to repeat them back to practise pronunciation.

The advantage of listening to this podcast is that the learner, Mark, begins at the same level as you. He is also a former high school French and Spanish teacher. He often asks for clarification of certain phrases, and it can feel as if he is asking the very questions you want answered.

You can also stream the podcast directly from the provider’s website, where they sell a supplementary package from the Coffee Break German Academy, which offers additional audio content, video flashcards and comprehensive lesson notes

German Pod 101

German Pod 101 aims to teach you all about the German language, from the basics in conversations and comprehension to the intricacies of German culture. German Pod 101 offers various levels for your German learning and starts with Absolute Beginner.

The hosts are made up of one German native and one American expat living in Germany, in order to provide you with true authentic language, but also explanations about the comparisons and contrasts with English. This podcast will, hopefully, get you speaking German from day one.

Their website offers more information and the option to create an account to access more learning materials.

Learn German by Podcast

This is a great podcast if you don’t have any previous knowledge of German. The hosts guide you through a series of scenarios in each episode and introduce you to new vocabulary based on the role-plays. Within just a few episodes, you will learn how to talk about your family, order something in a restaurant and discuss evening plans. Each phrase is uttered clearly and repeated several times, along with translations.

READ ALSO:

Learn German by Podcast provides the podcasts for free but any accompanying lesson guides must be purchased from their website. These guides include episode transcripts and some grammar tips. 

DEVELOPING YOUR GERMAN

Easy German

This podcast takes the form of a casual conversation between hosts Manuel and Cari, who chat in a fairly free-form manner about aspects of their daily lives. Sometimes they invite guests onto the podcast, and they often talk about issues particularly interesting to expats, such as: “How do Germans see themselves?”. Targeted at young adults, the podcasters bring out a new episode very three or four days.

News in Slow German

This is a fantastic podcast to improve your German listening skills. What’s more, it helps you stay informed about the news in several different levels of fluency.

The speakers are extremely clear and aim to make the podcast enjoyable to listen to. For the first part of each episode the hosts talk about a current big news story, then the second part usually features a socially relevant topic. 

A new episode comes out once a week and subscriptions are available which unlock new learning tools.

SBS German

This podcast is somewhat interesting as it is run by an Australian broadcaster for the German-speaking community down under. Perhaps because ethnic Germans in Australia have become somewhat rusty in their mother tongue, the language is relatively simple but still has a completely natural feel.

There is a lot of news here, with regular pieces on German current affairs but also quite a bit of content looking at what ties Germany and Australia together. This lies somewhere between intermediate and advanced.

A woman puts on headphones in Gadebusch, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Photo: dpa | Jens Büttner

PERFECTING YOUR GERMAN

Auf Deutsche gesagt

This is another great podcast for people who have a high level of German. The host, Robin Meinert, talks in a completely natural way but still manages to keep it clear and comprehensible.

This podcast also explores a whole range of topics that are interesting to internationals in Germany, such as a recent episode on whether the band Rammstein are xenophobic. In other words, the podcast doesn’t just help you learn the language, it also gives you really good insights into what Germans think about a wide range of topics.

Sozusagen

Bayern 2 present their podcast Sozusagen! for all those who are interested in the German language. This isn’t specifically directed at language learners and is likely to be just as interesting to Germans and foreigners because it talks about changes in the language like the debate over gender-sensitive nouns. Each episode explores a different linguistic question, from a discussion on German dialects to an analysis of political linguistics in Germany.

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