Brexit For Members

How the German language might benefit from Brits after Brexit

Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson - [email protected] • 11 Oct, 2018 Updated Thu 11 Oct 2018 16:23 CEST
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With the UK leaving the EU, more Brits are enrolling in German classes or moving to Germany. Could German, too, become a classic working language in the EU thanks to their efforts?

“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”: if you’re a native English speaker, you’ll almost certainly have tripped over this phrase before. If you’re not, good luck trying to say it aloud.

Like most languages, English has its fair share of what we call “tongue-twisters”; phrases so difficult to pronounce that they’re designed to catch out even the most eloquent of native speakers.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon takes on a whole new dimension when it comes to German, a language notorious for its difficulty. Amusingly, even “Zungenbrecher”, the closest equivalent to “tongue twister”, reflects this fact: in German, your tongue (Zunge) doesn’t just twist, but actually breaks (Brecher) when attempting hard-to-pronounce parts of the language.

It’s no wonder that a frustrated Mark Twain wrote of German that “there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp”.

Its complexity, in fact, has made some in recent years speculate that the language is slowly dying out, subsumed by the ever-increasing influence of English on Europe and the wider world. But with the Brexit deadline looming just around the corner, Britain could, along with its language, be set to lose its sway over the EU. And if it does, is it possible that German might rush to fill the gap?

Many English speakers who’ve tried German from scratch would hope not. It’s a language with three different grammatical genders, four noun case endings and word order so complicated that last week I confidently told the cashier who asked for ID that I was born in 1969 instead of ‘96 and have now embarrassed myself out of a local supermarket.

Worst of all, however, are the infamously long compounds. Whether the German reputation for being ruthlessly logical was borne out of the language or created by it is a chicken-and-egg question, but long German compounds are certainly a good example.

To create new nouns in German, all one needs to do is tack other words alongside it, which is how you end up with monstrosities like “Ringdfleischeitkeittierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz”, a word that meant “the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef” until it was dropped in 2013. In English, there are few singular words alone that you could consider tongue-twisters. In German, there are literally hundreds.

This complexity is perhaps one of the driving forces behind the increasing adoption of “Denglish” (German/English hybrid words) amongst younger Germans. It’s a phenomenon which led to Deutsche Bahn introducing a Denglish-German dictionary in 2013 to encourage use of the latter, as well as fuelling worries about the survival of the language.

A new working language?

It is English and French, after all, that have traditionally been the most dominant working languages in the EU, in spite of German being the most widely spoken native language across the continent.

In 2013, perhaps echoing the panic of the Deutsche Bahn, Chancellor Angela Merkel called for more German to be spoken in the EU both generally and for official business. The British, of course, have always been able to get away without French or German skills, a habit that, according to a recent survey, natives of both countries find highly irritating.

But with Brexit looming just around the corner, Brits might soon find that laziness is no longer a viable option. In a bold statement made at a conference last year, Jean-Claude Juncker told the audience that “English is losing its importance in Europe”. The comment may have been hyperbole, but in a technical sense he was right: once Britain leaves the EU there will be no country in the union with English as an official language, with Ireland and Malta having respectively chosen Irish and Maltese when they became members.

Linguist Dr. Anatol Stefanowitsch of Free University Berlin told us that English is a “a world-wide Lingua Franca” which, in private life, “will definitely remain the language, in which mobile young (and old) people throughout Europe will communicate most of the time. But the question of English in public life is uncertain.

Dr. Stefanowitsch asserts that “it will remain an important working language in the EU”, but other researchers have disagreed, suggesting that “Preserving English as an official language of the EU will be problematic if Brexit takes place".

If the latter is true, public life may eventually sway the habits of private lives in Europe, causing use of English to wane over time.

This possibility hasn't gone unnoticed by Brits, who, since the referendum, have clocked that European languages offer a way out in the case of a disastrous deal (or no-deal, as is looking increasingly likely).

And it seems to be German they're placing their bets on. The Goethe institute in London has noted a sharp increase in the number of adult learners taking up German, while thousands of Brits have upped sticks and move to Germany since 2016. Huge numbers of British businesses, too, have moved their operations to the country, fearing instability at home.

Already, close to 100,000 people worldwide speak German. If current trends are anything to go by, Brexit could see English wane and German gain a boost from extra learners fleeing Britain and a boosted influence in official spheres. Mark Twain once wrote that “the German language needs reforming”, but soon more people than ever might find themselves struggling over a German Zungenbrecher. Besides, for us Brits it might offer a good chance for us to crack our monoglot reputation.



Sarah Wilson 2018/10/11 16:23

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