25 January, 2017

Denglisch Redux: The Frustration Continues

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I've written before about Denglisch, or the mixing of English words into German, but it's such a fascinating and frustrating topic that it deserves some more attention. In my previous post I focused on the phenomenon of Denglisch in general and gave a few examples of English words used incorrectly* in German. In this post, I'm going to talk more about incorrectly* loaned English words, and while I'll try not to spend the whole post complaining, my frustration will almost definitely sneak in a bit. Instead of basing the post on an article, like I did last time, I will focus on examples of Denglisch I've come across in my everyday life, whether it's in conversation, on product packaging, or in entertainment media.

In the time since my previous post about Denglisch, my general opinion of it has not changed much. It still frustrates me that so many English words are used in German, often without any adaptation to German spelling or pronunciation. After stewing over this for quite some time, I've identified four categories into which my frustrations fall:

1. There's already a German word

Very often English words are used in German for things that there is already a perfectly good German word for. Examples include using Management instead of Verwaltung, Drink instead of Getränk, Story instead of Geschichte, Sound instead of Ton... The list goes on. The goal here seems to be to make the person speaking/writing or the topic under discussion sound cooler or more modern, since that's how English is typically seen within German culture, but to me it feels like an unnecessary intrusion into a language that is already so rich and expressive.

2. The wrong* English word is used in German

As often happens when words are loaned from one language to another, the meaning of the word sometimes changes in the recipient language or that language loans the wrong* word. The most frustrating example I come across on a daily basis is the word "Mail," which in German doesn't have the English definition of "items delivered by the postal service," but rather means "email." I'm assuming Mail is a shortened form of "email," but was the shortening really necessary? I passive-aggressively express my distaste for this use of Mail by always saying or writing Email instead.

3. The wrong* form of the English word is used in German

I have a particularly strong bone to pick with one example of this in particular, so get ready for some slightly language-nerdy ranting about morphology (i.e. word formation).

I find it incredibly annoying when words are inexplicably loaned into German with the -ing ending for absolutely no reason. The worst offender in this category is the word Shooting, which is used in German to mean "photo shoot" but, as Americans know all too well, is actually used in the context of mass shootings and gun violence in English. I hate that Shooting is used in such a mundane context in German, and I never use it that way myself because it immediately calls to mind traumatizing events in America's recent past that have affected me very strongly. It baffles me that whoever first decided to use the word Shooting or Fotoshooting in German didn't do just two minutes of research to find out how the word is actually used, because the association with traumatic events could have easily been avoided.

This is just one extreme example of a phenomenon that is out of control in German: loaning nouns with the -ing ending where the ending isn't used in English. The -ing ending is sometimes used with nouns in English, but it is usually used to create an uncountable, abstract concept noun and usually not, as it is used in German, to create a countable noun.

To describe what I mean by abstract vs. countable, I'll provide some example sentences with a misuse of -ing that I saw recently: "Scorings" instead of "scores." "Scoring" in English is used for the general concept or act of assigning a numerical value to a thing or performance, as in the following example:

"The scoring during the Olympics is sometimes unfair." (Note: singular)

Contrast that with "score," the countable noun meaning an individual numerical value assigned to a specific thing or performance:

"The judges' scores for that event were very high." (Note: possibility of plural)

Germans just don't seem to grasp that an -ing noun in English can't usually be used in plural or to mean an individual thing. The -ing suffix seems to be added to words willy-nilly to make them sound more English. Other offenders include "Peeling" instead of "peel" (in the sense of a facial scrub), Posting instead of "post" (in the context of a blog or social media post), and, one that I heard in a podcast recently, "Learnings" instead of "lessons." (I cringed so hard at that one.)

4. It's ruining the phonetic pronunciation of German

German, despite having grammar that is horribly complicated for native English speakers, is incredibly consistent in terms of pronunciation. Once you learn how each letter and certain combinations of letters are pronounced, you can easily read a German text aloud even if you have no idea what you are saying. And then English words come barging in and ruin all of that with their nonsensical pronunciations and varying vowel sounds. It's like my favorite part of the German language is being destroyed by my least favorite part of the English language.

This goes back to my earlier point about words not being adapted to German spelling and pronunciation: if the words loaned from English were changed either in spelling or pronunciation to match German phonetic rules, I wouldn't have such a problem with it. But as it is now it's like a giant "screw you" to children learning to spell and non-native German speakers who don't already speak English.

What are all those asterisks* about?

You'll notice that every time I've written "correct," "incorrect" or "wrong" I've marked it with a star. Well, there's a reason for that. From a linguistic point of view, once a word has been loaned into another language and is generally understood among the population, it is not subject to the restrictions and meanings placed on it in the original language. With this in mind it doesn't make sense to criticize German for "incorrectly" using English words, since those words are now technically German words and can't truly be considered English anymore. They are now on their own path and will undergo the same kinds of changes in meaning and usage as any other "normal" German word, and there is nothing that English can do to stop that.

As someone who is interested in languages and understands that the nature of languages is to change, I still have hugely conflicted feelings about the phenomenon of Denglisch. The linguist side of me understands that loaning words and subsequently changing them is a natural process of language development and is inevitable when English-language media and culture dominate globally (which is a whole other concept that frustrates me), but the English speaker and German language learner in me still puts up a fuss over the prevalence of English words and their "incorrect" use. I just have to remind myself (pretty much constantly) that this sort of linguistic evolution is normal and is something that I just have to accept.

It helps (just a bit) to remind myself that this happens in English, too. To name just one example, we loaned the word "salsa" from Spanish into English with a different meaning than the original Spanish word has, and the same is true of other loan words from other languages. (For those of you who don't speak Spanish, "salsa" is just the Spanish word for "sauce," but in English it is used in a much narrower sense to denote a specific type of tomato-based sauce, which is more accurately called pico de gallo in Spanish.) Loan words often come to have broader or narrower meanings in the recipient language than they had in the original language; for example, the German word "Gesundheit" was loaned into English as something you say when someone sneezes, but it is not used in English with the literal meaning of "health" as it is in German. Or the loaned word could apply to different subsets of similar things in each language, as in the case of the words "box" and "container" in English vs. German, and there's nothing wrong with that.

... in theory. I think this is something that I will continue to struggle with, knowing full well that all of my frustration and ranting will do absolutely nothing to stop the tide of natural language change. I also know that I am sometimes guilty of perpetuating the prevalence of English words in everyday German, since I sometimes throw an English word into a German sentence when I can't remember or never learned the German one. I hope that one day I can make peace with this trend, but until then you might just see another blog post or two about it.

For my readers in Germany: does Denglisch frustrate you, too? And for people from other countries, has English influenced your language in a similar way? Let me know in the comments!

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