Denglisch - The German language under attack?

by Edward Langley

Languages have always had to change. It is this that keeps them. New words have been and continue to be developed to allow for the expression of new concepts and ideas and cross-cultural interaction often results in the adoption of words from other languages. With modern transport and globalisation, this historically slow process has been rapidly accelerated. English is the lingua franca of the 'Western' World and its prevalence has presented some new challenges. This is very much the case in Germany, where the influx of English words, referred to as 'Denglisch' (a portmanteau of the German words 'Deutsch', meaning German and 'Englisch', meaning English), is a sensitive subject.

Some people argue that the use of English words in German, such as sale, meeting, company, lifestyle, etc is simply not necessary as there are already equivalents for these words in German (Schlussverkauf, Besprechung, Firma and Lebensstil respectively). Others argue that the use of such words gives a sense of international openness and that this is important for German business. English is also important to many young Germans who support international openness, but also feel that English words often allow themselves to more effectively express themselves. For these youths, English words just sound 'cool'.

What about Germans who don't have an understanding of English? Broadly speaking, younger Germans have at least some understanding of English words and they are regularly bombarded with English media, which they have been able to understand and to some extent assimilate. This is not the case for the older German generation. Their grasp of English is often very limited and the use of English words in retail and media leaves many feeling excluded and angry.

So there is a generational divide, but it is important to note that younger generations have often used slang words which cannot be understood by the older generation and the whole point of this has been to create a kind of linguistic space which belongs to them and cannot be penetrated by older generations. This revolution also helps to keep languages alive - the invention of new concepts and the expression of new nuances should ultimately lead to the enrichment of a language. The difference here is that the lingustic generational divide is maintained not by young Germans revolting against the older generations, but by German businesses and government who wish to prosper in a globalised economy in which English is the dominant language. This can leave old people behind and many feel it will ultimately alienate younger Germans from their cultural and linguistic roots.

Another issue is that the Denglish phenomenon does not only involve the use of loan English words, but also to German interpretations of originally English words. These so-called pseudo-anglicisms often lead to confusion, particularly when it comes to translation. For example, the word Parking in German does not refer to the act of somebody parking a vehicle, but instead refers to a car park or place where someone would park a vehicle. Another example is the word Smoking - in German this has nothing to do with the action of smoking something, but instead means dinner jacket or tuxedo. These false friends can be problematic, but most reputable companies that provide translation services keep track of these words and can ensure there are no crossed wires - a relief to any German company hoping for success in any English-speaking market!

So what is to become of the German Language? It is spoken by over 120 million people worldwide, so is there really a chance it could, as some argue, become so flooded with English words that it will become no more than a mere dialect of English? This is the key question in the Denglisch debate, but the answer is not a simple one. English is likely to continue to dominate as the lingua franca and will continue to influence the German language. The amount of influence English will have, although currently heavily influenced by a globalised economy and both economic and political ambitions, will ultimately be decided by the people that speak German and use it to express themselves. Older people in Germany will for now have to put up with Denglish and can only try to ensure that the younger generations don't forget their roots by promoting interest in German language and culture. If German can be enriched by some English words, it can only be a positive thing - as long as a healthy balance is maintained.


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