This is how French has influenced the German language

Long before English became the lingua franca in Europe, another language was already making its mark on the German-speaking world.

This is how French has influenced the German language
The Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin boasts a French cathedral. Photo: DPA

France was long revered as the cultural, educational and diplomatic powerhouse of Europe, and the French language was widely used in aristocratic circles across the continent for many centuries. 

Germany was no exception to the trend – French became the main language used in the German court in the Middle Ages, as the nobility aspired to emulate the prestigious French courtly model.

READ ALSO: The German words we use everyday – that are actually French

It was not long before French Lehnwörter (loan words) began to slip across the border. In those days, the vocabulary borrowed from French was often linked with knightly activities, trade goods and courtly customs. 

Famous chivalric tales of knights and maidens from the period are littered with French loanwords such as baniere and just, Medieval German terms for baniere (banner) and jost (joust) that come from Medieval French.

Some of these words are still often used in the language today: Abenteuer (adventure), for example, comes from the Medieval German word āventiure, taken from the Medieval French aventure.

It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, when French influence really began to take hold.

The Thirty Years War (1618-48) exposed all levels of German society in certain regions to the French language, as well as introducing a wide range of new words referring to military and technical terms such as Regiment, Bataillon, Infanterie and Artillerie.

Huguenots come to Berlin

Day to day language amongst everyday citizens, however, remained largely unaffected until the counter-reformation of the late seventeenth century. Thousands of Huguenot protestants were forced to flee to France due to religious persecution and settled in Brandenburg and neighbouring Berlin, bringing their language with them.

As a result of this mass migration, it is estimated that roughly a third of the Berlin population came from France at the time. The Huguenots are credited with having a significant impact upon the intellectual life and everyday German language of the area.

The Französisches Gymnasium in Berlin was set up for the children of Huguenot families. Photo: Manfred Brueckels

READ ALSO: German Word of the Day: Mutterseelenallein 

This increased influence garnered mixed reactions amongst the German-speaking population. The aristocracy, on the one hand, embraced French language and culture in many ways, seeing them as the epitome of all that was cultivated and elegant on the continent. 

In many cases, German equivalents for new cultural imports did exist or could have been created, but as French was seen as the height of fashion it was deemed preferable to adopt the foreign term. 

New desserts (for example Blancmange) as well as methods of preparation (such as marinieren) made their way into German vocabulary, as well as words referring to new clothing items (such as Bracelet, Cravatte) and new dances (for example Polonaise).

A threat to the language?

Others, however, were more resistant to the change. Many critics saw the proliferation of French words in the German vocabulary as a direct threat to both the integrity of the language and the cultural and moral values it represented. 

After French King Louis XIV’s attempts to annex German territory in the 1680s, this hostility became open opposition to France’s policies and a conscious campaign to combat their influence.

Some critics took a more satirical approach, mocking the fact that many written works in German had become peppered with foreign borrowings and were increasingly unclear as a result.

Purists, on the other hand, saw the French language as a threat to the innately ‘pure’, ‘superior’ German language and lamented Germany’s ‘subjection’ to their French neighbour. In the seventeenth century, a number of Sprachgesellschaften (language societies) were set up in a bid to limit the needless use of foreign terms.

Some particularly fervent opponents coined German alternatives to foreign borrowings. Some of these did catch on, such as Briefwechsel (translates as ‘letter swap’, from the French term correspondance), whilst others enjoyed less success, such as Polsterbett (translates as ‘cushioned bed’, from the French term sofa).

READ ALSO: The German words we use every day – that are actually French 

Attempts to restrict foreign influence were largely unsuccessful in the long term, and many French words survived multiple waves of attempted ‘Germanization’ over the centuries. 

Popular Gallicisms in everyday German include Tante (Aunty – from French tante), aktuell (current – from French actuel) and Pommes (chips, from French pommes de terre).

The word for this beloved fast food dish comes from the French term 'pommes de terre'. Photo: DPA

Nowadays, the reaction to the growing influence of English on the German language is equally as mixed. Young people use ‘Denglish’ to appear hip and trendy, whilst societies such as the German Language Association see Anglicisms as a sign that their language is deteriorating. 

Those against Anglicisms and Gallicisms may ultimately be fighting a lost cause, however – in our increasingly globalised world it is likely that foreign borrowings are here to stay.

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Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

The German word 'Wanderlust' means "the desire to travel" and is used even in other languages. Here are some of the other words commonly used in Germany to describe the nation's love affair with travelling.

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

Germans are very connected to nature and a lot of the activities they routinely do, even in winter, involve staying outdoors. So it’s no wonder the language also reflects that passion for walking, travelling, and spending time in nature.

Some of the German words that are most famous to speakers of other languages reference this passion. Perhaps most notably, the term “Wanderlust” which has made its way to other dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, with the definition “a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering”.

The word is composed of “wandern“, which means to hike or roam about and “lust“, meaning “pleasure or delight”.

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

This is not the only unique expression the German language has related to travelling. Another of the hard to translate ones is “Fernweh“. It comes from “fern“, meaning “far”, and “Weh“, meaning “pain”. It is used to describe the longing for far-off places – in contrast to “Heimweh”, a feeling many immigrants might be very attuned to and could be translated to homesickness.

The German language also has several interesting and even funny expressions for walkers and travellers alike. The Local talked with German teacher and travel enthusiast Lutz Michaelis to collect a few of the best expressions.

“So weit dich deine/mich meine Füße tragen”

It literally means “as far as my feet will take me” (or alternatively, “as far as your feet will take you”). It is often said as an answer to the question, “where are you going?”.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

“Die Sieben-Meilen-Stiefel anhaben”

“To wear the seven-league boots”. This means being able to walk long distances fast. Lutz explains that it was actually based on a trope in French mythology, in which magical boots could help the wearer cover long distances in a short amount of time. Having been used in The Little Thumb by Charles Perrault, the term was brought into the German language by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Wer rastet, der rostet”

The translation would be “he who rests, rusts”. It is used in the German language to say that being in motion is a good thing, not only with travelling but also to incentivise people to keep learning new things.

“Das Reisen kost’t Geld, Doch sieht man die Welt.”

It’s a very common rhyme used to show the downsides and benefits of travelling: “travelling costs money, but one sees the world”.

“Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.”

It literally means that “travellers shouldn’t be stopped”. However, Lutz explains that the expression is not only used to refer to travellers but also to anyone that might be going through a transitional situation – such as someone wanting to change their jobs, for example.

Rhododendren park Bremen

Rhododendrons bloom in the Rhododendron Park in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

“der Weg ist das Ziel.”

One of the most beautiful ones, and many languages have their own version of it. It translates to “the road is the destination”.

Of course, coming back home, especially for those suffering from Heimweh, can also be something beautiful. One common saying is “Wiedersehen macht Freude“, which means that to meet again brings happiness, used among those looking forward to seeing someone again after a long trip.

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

And one more…

In Germany, there is a common joke about finding German people abroad. The rhyme goes “Hüte dich vor Sturm und Wind, und Deutschen, die im Ausland sind“, which could be translated as “Be on your guard for storm and wind, and Germans in a foreign land”.

“It refers both to the bad behaviour of Germans on holidays or travels and a dark joke and a funny nod to the fact that German troops have invaded other countries”, Lutz, who is a German himself, explains.