The Economist (05.09.15), plunging into the niceties of German (title: „Sprechen Sie power?“), hints at its historical contradictions: „Once the language of Schiller and Goethe, then of Hitler, German is hip again“, meaning that German is also pushing its way into English.
As a Brit living in Berlin, I am in fact struck more by moves in the opposite direction – the way bits of English are being taken over by German: ‚paddeln‘, ‚Scheck‘, ‚proper‘; hybrids like ‚abscannen‘ or ‚aufgestylt‘; misused nouns like ‚Handy‘ (a ‚mobile‘) and ‚Smoking‘ (‚dinner jacket‘). To add some recent ones, take: „the real deal, wenn man links wählen möchte“ (Spiegel 10.10.15), „Top-Zustand, Second-Hand-Fahrzeug“, „Low-Order-Methode“ (both Berliner Zeitung 26.10.15), and odd items like „ganz schön spooky hier!“ And of course significant terms in economics: ‚Outsourcing‘ and ‚Austerität‘.
But no question, German is also invading English these days, even if not in the sense of the opening image in the Economist piece*): an eagle wearing a hat and shouting out, Nazi style, the word „Deutsch“. The real motive could, says The Economist, be perhaps that present-day Germany distrusts „hard power“ and inclines more towards „economic prowess and soft power“, to which the strength of its language adds impetus. This need not mean intentionally influencing other European languages, English included. But there are certainly lots of German terms and images out there ready to be taken over. And today’s English seems increasingly to be doing that.
Not, as The Economist notes, that German is ever likely to have ‚lingua franca‘ status (it ties with Spanish, but trails English and Chinese). On the other hand, the economic output of German speakers (Germans, Austrians, Belgians, Luxembourgers, Swiss and others) does give the language some prominence – plus the growing numbers learning German because they come to work in Germany. Yet this alone surely cannot explain why so much German is finding its way into English.
One of my ‚What should it be?‘ pieces (in PRAXIS Fremdsprachenunterricht, Oldenbourg, issue 2014/5) looked at this conundrum. It’s not just words from the war years like ‚blitzkrieg‘, or from food – ‚frankfurter‘ and ’schnitzel‘; or terms like ’spiel‘, ‚wunderbar‘, ‚kitsch‘ and ’schmaltzy‘; or even the use of the German prefixes ‚uber‘ and ‚ur‘. It’s that two fields where German is establishing itself in English have something special about them: namely feeling (‚angst‘, ’schadenfreude‘, ‚weltschmerz‘); and political economics (‚mittelstand‘, ‚diktat‘, ‚realpolitik‘, ‚machtpolitik‘). In these two areas the additions are more than decoration; they add clarity and strength where English appears to need this.
Just to add: it is surely not accidental that German is playing this role precisely at a time when English is showing itself increasingly unsure in its own territory. Terms relating to youth, for instance – what exactly is going on when we say ‚innit‘ or talk of ‚yob‘ or ‚oik‘? And a key one, the use/misuse of ‚actually‘. As Tony Thorne points out (Sunday Times 09.08.09), ‚actually‘ might look like a classic ‚false friend‘ drawn from the French or German, but the real problem is that it has „transited from a meaningful term – ‚truly‘, ‚currently‘ – to what is more usually an empty qualification or hesitation“. To give an example: if a teacher says „Actually, it might be an idea to read chapters six and nine“, is that a suggestion or an order?
Going back to the way German intrudes into English, perhaps its manner of doing this helps bring a bit more clarity into the uncertainty that sometimes marks present-day English.
*) „Sprechen Sie power?“ in The Economist 05.09.15 (image by Peter Schrank)