Updating German

Once upon a time I jokingly said that if Germans spoke English they would take over the world. I now suspect that this may not be such a joke after all. With the UK out of the EU, there is little to challenge the German leadership of the block and as they increasingly embrace English as an (almost) gender neutral, easy to learn, language, the possibility that Europe can move forward towards a united continent, draws closer. Reasons for the rapid spread of this offshoot dialect of German, seasoned with French and Latin and spiced with words stolen from around the world may, at first, be difficult to understand. After all, we all have a mother tongue, absorbed along with mothers’ milk. Why do we need more? The answer is of course business, the driver of our lives and supplier of all the material things we hold dear. How much easier it is to do business with somebody you can actually speak to.

It is the relative ease with which a little bit of English can be learnt that gives it the edge over alternatives. You can go a long way with a little bit of English, not so German. And though Spanish might be equally easy to pick up, it doesn’t (apart from South American) have the global connections which English has developed over the past 200 years, first with the British Empire, then with the USA.

With eight years of teaching English in a German speaking country, let me predict the way both the German and English languages will change over the coming years. First, efficiency. It is clear that, for what ever reason, language changes are being driven by a desire to be efficient. The need now is to express ideas with precise words with clear meanings. As an example I give you zeitgeist. Count the syllables. There are two. Now look at the English translation and you get, yes its true, zeitgeist. Now if you ban this, clearly German, word from English you would need to write “spirit of the times”. Count the syllables and you get five. Zeitgeist is clearly more efficient. Similarly iceberg is more efficient than the English word for berg, mountain. The Titanic may have hit an ice mountain, but they called it an iceberg.

The second motivator for the “Anglicisation of German” is actually the size of the language. German has many compound words, words made by adding nouns together. For example, luftkissenboot. You don’t need to be an expert in German to figure out that this is a boat which kisses air or, in English, a hovercraft. So I would contend that English has more discrete words and as another example offer sicherheit, a German word which can mean either safety or security. In English they have separate meanings. Now of course, German speakers can understand the difference in meaning because they can compare the context in which it is used. Unfortunately, there is a whole industry based on context free words. I mean of course the advertising industry. Advertisers need to catch the audience with one or two words. They have no time for context. So German marketeers default to English for a snappy headline and, due to the spread of English pop songs, they are understood.

Yet the biggest problem which is hitting the German language, particularly in Austria, is its gender bias, and the struggle to overcome it. Formerly the word “Österreicher” meant Austrian people. The drive to eliminate gender bias now dictates that “Österreicher und Österreicherin” is used. Clearly this is a bit of a mouthful. We may yet come to a time when “Austrians” is adopted as the simplest solution!

PS, actually, the German word for kiss is küssen not kissen, kissen is a pillow. In my mind the hovercraft “air kisses” the sea but for Germans, the air is a pillow on which the hovercraft rests. As they say, “the devil is in the detail”!

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