The Death of the German Language

The reports of its death are premature

Lately, the Germans have had more important things to worry about than the death of their language. But once they have dealt with the collapse of the euro and the resignation of their flaky President Köhler, they’ll get back to worrying about the demise of German, one of their favorite things to worry about.

As I wrote in my book, The German Way, it is no accident that the term “angst” comes to us from German. Worrying is a national pastime in Germany. Next to soccer (Fußball), worrying is the number one German pastime. To be sure, there are sometimes truly serious things to worry about. I think the endangered euro falls into that category, since it also has to do with European unity, the EU and all that. (By the way, Angela, you really could be more of a cheerleader for European unity.)

When it comes to their native tongue, Germans are terribly conflicted. On the one hand, they take immense pride in what a difficult language Deutsch is, almost daring foreigners to learn it. (You thought the genitive case was hard? Wait ’til you get to the dative!) They also love to quote Mark Twain in this regard: “My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in 30 hours, French in 30 days, and German in 30 years.” – from Twain’s humorous essay entitled “The Awful German Language” in A Tramp Abroad (1880). (Also see a nice PDF version in English and German from the US Embassy in Berlin.)

And yet, Germans seem genuinely surprised when people are reluctant to learn or use their language.

After German reunification in the 1990s, there was a brief period when Eastern Europeans, so relieved to be rid of Russian as a required language, turned to German. Even the Poles (no great fans of things German) began studying German. But then reality set in, and Eastern Europeans preferred English, like everyone else. (See: “The Downside of English as the Universal Language“) Suddenly, the German dream of Deutsch rising again to be a key European language and dominant in science and technology, as in the 19th century, evaporated.

It is, in fact, in the area of scholarship and science where German has probably faded the most. Most German scientific and academic journals, formerly all in German or mostly in German, are now English only. Most international academic or scientific conferences held in Germany are either dominated by English or exclusively in English. But then some Germans go a bridge too far, predicting the disappearance of German as a scientific language, and even the end of scientific thought in German.

But the Germans don’t just worry about German internationally, they also worry about the survival of German in Germany! There are several organizations and publications devoted to preserving die deutsche Sprache, including the Verein Deutsche Sprache (VDS), the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (GfdS), and a magazine called Deutsche Sprachwelt (loosely, “The World of German”).

All these organizations have one thing in common: saving the German language — primarily by keeping English out of it. They also don’t like German spelling reform very much, preferring the old-time version. But “Denglish” – the mixing of German and English – is the one evil that these organizations see as the main culprit in the decline of the German language. Again conflicted, Germans seem to want this both ways: (1) Using English in German is cool, but (2) English in German is corrupting “real” German.

A 2008 CDU proposal to add a clause to the German constitution making German the “official language” of Germany was eerily reminiscent of similar proposals in the US: “The language of the Federal Republic of Germany shall be German.” The reaction of Germany’s large minority Turkish community was also very much like that of Hispanics in the US. (I wrote more about this in 2008 in “Save our Deutsch!“) Much of the talk about preserving the German language in Germany has familiar echoes of U.S. English, ProEnglish and the “English as the official language” movement in the US.

Most people think that English didn’t begin to influence German until after World War II, but the process began long before that. “German” words such as “der Smoking” (for tuxedo) or “der Snob” (for snob) date back to the late 19th century. But the process of anglicization accelerated greatly after the war, due to the enduring presence of American troops and American brands (McDonald’s, IBM, etc.) in the country. Most Denglish is much more recent. (One of my favorites is “der Beamer” for LCD projector.)

Not everyone takes Denglish so dead seriously. American-born Gayle Tufts, now a resident of Berlin, makes a good living in Germany entertaining Germans by poking fun at their language and her own unique version of it, which she calls “Dinglisch” – and which she claims is the result of her not having had time to learn German grammar.

German author Bastian Sick has written several top-selling humorous books about the misuse of the German language (including Denglish), based on his longtime Zwiebelfisch series for the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Less light-hearted defenders of Deutsch have another favorite target: the Internet. But what an easy target that is! Look at how it’s supposedly also killing English. Many Germans like to point to all the anglicisms related to the Internet: die Mail (email), der Browser, der Computer, online, etc. — and how they are bad for German.

Yes, there probably is too much English in German today, but all these people predicting the demise of German fail to understand a basic truth: The only language that doesn’t change is a dead language. When German is no longer undergoing change, then we’ll know it’s really dead.