27 January, 2015

"Made in Germany": An Exploration of Denglisch

Many products produced in Germany carry the phrase Made in Germany on the package or the product itself, as a way to highlight that the product is German and to draw attention to the high quality that German products are known for. It makes sense to bring this to people's attention, since recognition of the high quality means more sales and more loyalty to German-made products. What doesn't make so much sense at first glance is that this phrase appears exactly as I've written it: in English. (The German translation is Hergestellt in Deutschland.) This Made in Germany branding came about at the end of the 19th century, when the British government required the label to differentiate imported German products from local British ones. It was intended as a deterrent to British buyers, but that plan backfired when people began to recognize the quality of German products and to seek out the Made in Germany label. As a result, the label stuck, and continues to be used in Germany today.

This is just one small example of how English has woven its way into everyday life in Germany. While in English we have a handful of loan words from other languages, including siesta (Spanish), Gesundheit (German) and déjà vu (French), loaning of English words and use of English phrases are present on a much larger scale in German. Even things that could very well be translated into German, like American movie titles, are often simply left in English. A relevant example that I saw this past weekend was in the cosmetics store Lush. Since Lush is a British company, the original names for all the products are in English. The names are things like "Honey, I Washed the Kids," "The President's Hat" and "Five O'Clock Whistle." One might expect the company to rename the products in German to match the native language of their German shoppers, but they simply leave the names as they are. Many other companies also name their products and services in English, and quite a few businesses even have English names, like the JetWash car wash and the gas station convenience store known as Snack & Shop.

They do this, on one hand, because they can. English is a required subject for every German student starting in fifth grade (and it is taught informally as early as kindergarten), so most students leave school with proficient or even fluent English. This is done because English is well established as the universal language within Europe and in many other parts of the world. In an area like Europe with so many different national and regional languages, it's important to have a common language that allows communication with people from different countries. Due to the historical influence of the British Empire and the more recent globalization of American culture, English has come to fill this role. In addition, a good number of Germans have spent time in either the United States or the United Kingdom and have brought slang and greater English language skills with them. As a result of these factors, businesses selling to the German market know that they can market their products in English and their customers will understand what they are selling.

Another reason that businesses use English as part of their marketing strategy is simply because it sounds cool. Just like Americans might buy a graphic tee with a French word or phrase on it to seem cool and multi-cultural, Germans gravitate toward things in English because of the cool factor. And it's not just on clothing and consumer goods. English phrases are commonplace in conversation, particularly among young people. Words like babysitter, carsharing, camping, chat, jeans, check-in, computer, email, gangster and even phrases like "learning by doing" come up in everyday German conversations quite frequently. This combination of English and German is often called Denglisch (a combination of the words Deutsch and English). I saw a funny video a few months ago that makes fun of Denglisch, which I will share below. A lot of the lyrics are in German, but the final chorus is (sort of) in English, so for those of you who don't understand German, just hang in there.

The widespread use of Denglisch certainly comes in handy for me. If I don't know a word in German, I can often just replace it with the English one and be fairly confident that people will understand what I mean. But as the video points out, Denglisch is not appreciated by everyone. Even though so much English has made its way into German, not all the commonly used English expressions are universally understood. It can be especially confusing for people learning German as a second language who don't already know English. For many, learning German also involves picking up a good deal of English words along the way. I noticed that even my German teachers expected everyone to already understand certain English words and expressions, like no-go, meeting and business. And even for people who do understand English as well as German, having so much English peppering German conversations can simply get annoying.

The annoying part of it for me is that sometimes English words are used in German in a way that differs from the original English meaning of the word. I recently read an article (written in German) that talks about this phenomenon, specifically within the media industry, and some of the examples it gave were non-sensical. The most understated one was the word "spot," which in German is used to mean a TV commercial. This is understandable, since a commercial could conceivably be called a "TV spot," but it just got worse from there. Next was "claim": we native English speakers know this both as a verb meaning "to assert" and as a noun meaning an unsubstantiated statement, or the report you file with an insurance company when you want them to pay for something. In the German media industry, however, the word Claim (capitalized because it's a noun) means tag line or slogan. And then, the worst of all because it's not even a word in English, comes Homestory. Excuse me? That certainly does not have a meaning in English, but in German it is used to mean, as far as I can tell, a personal profile about someone which appears in print. There were equally confusing examples in the video above as well. Does any native English speaker actually use, or even understand, the expressions "good cherries eating" or "everything for the cat"? I certainly don't, and I only have a vague idea of what they might mean.

The extensive overlap I see between English and German in Germany is still a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. Being a native English-speaking American, in my everyday life in America I never spoke anything except English and I rarely used loan words from other languages (and when I did I completely butchered and Americanized the pronunciation). I can't help but feel guilty that my native language, and the culture behind it, has such a strong hold on Germany and the rest of the world. I think if I were German, I would feel like something foreign was invading my language. And even for myself, I can't help but feel resentful of English for following me everywhere I go when I'm trying to make a new start and truly master my adopted language. It's difficult to make myself speak German when there is so much English around me, and I know I would be more comfortable conducting my life in German if English were not so often an option for me. (I still haven't achieved the goal of speaking 100 percent German, and I think at this point, with so much English around me, I probably never will.)

Ever since the first British importer slapped a Made in Germany label on German goods, English has steadily pushed its way into everyday German with increasing prevalence. Denglish has become such a normal part of conversation that I rarely go a day without hearing at least one English word being used in a German sentence. I suppose this is the direction the world is headed in; with America being such a cultural, political and military superpower and the need for an easily learnable universal language, it is inevitable that English will continue to spread around the world. Whether this will spell the end for less widely spoken regional and national languages remains to be seen. What is certain is that I and other native English speakers will continue to benefit, perhaps unwillingly, from its widespread use.


  1. I totally understand how it can be annoying that English is so prevalent even in other countries, it can make learning another language harder because complete immersion is harder.

    Also, I think another phrase from that video was something like "everything is in the butter." Huh? Haha I wonder what those phrases are supposed to mean...

    1. I think all those weird phrases are direct translations from German. Robert told me that "everything for the cat" (alles für die Katz) is a phrase in German that means something like "it was all for nothing." I'm not sure what the other ones mean.