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13. Links between German and English

Despite Mark Twain's satirical comments about the German language, English-speakers will find a lot of similarities between the vocabularies of English and German. Words such as Bruder and Vater seem much closer to their English equivalents "brother" and "father" than their French equivalents "père" and "frère". There is also a marked correspondence between the tenses of certain English and German verbs.

  Verb Present Past Tense Past Participle
German: trinken trinkt trank getrunken
English: to drink drink drank drunk
German: sinken sinkt sank gesunken
English: to sink sink sank sunk
German: beißen beißt biss gebissen
English: to bite bite bit bitten

This is because both English and German both belong to the Germanic family of languages, whereas the Romance languages (French, Italian and Spanish) do not. English came into being as a variety of West Germanic in approximately 500 BC. It was not until 400-700 AD that the second (High German) sound shift took place, which separated English from High German. This sound shift took place in High German, but not in English (or Dutch or Low German, the group of dialects that are spoken in the north of Germany). A brief summary of the key changes that took place in the High German sound shift will show just how related the English and German languages are.

Change English German   English German
p - (f)f sleep schlafen   ship Schiff
t - ss street Straße   eat essen
k - ch book Buch   oak Eiche
p - pf pound Pfund   apple Apfel
t - z ten zehn   two zwei
b/v - b,p rib Rippe   seven sieben
d - t day Tag   red rot
th - d thing Ding   brother Bruder

Given the shared roots of the two languages, it is unsurprising that the vocabularies of modern German and English have a lot in common. It has been estimated that approximately 35% of the non-technical lexicons and the majority of the most frequently used words in English are of Germanic origin.

'Denglish' or 'Engleutsch'

Although words such as Kindergarten, Rucksack, Angst and Schadenfreude have entered the English language, the seemingly inexorable rise of English on the global stage has meant that in recent years it is German that has had to endure an influx of lexical items from English. English words beginning with the letter 'C' that have entered or are starting to enter the German language include the verbs 'chatten', 'cheaten', 'checken', 'covern', 'cruisen' and 'crunchen', and such nouns as 'Casting', 'Chickband', 'Chill-out', 'Chinos', 'Coffee-Shop', 'Coming-out', 'Cookie', 'Couchpotato', 'Covergirl', 'Creative Consumption', 'Crossdressing' and 'Cyberspace'.

Opposition to the rise in anglicisms runs deep in certain sectors of German society. In an opinion poll published in two regional papers about modern German, 77.7 per cent of those who replied agreed with the statement "In general, too many imported words are being used", with only 18.7 per cent disagreeing and 3.6 per cent abstaining. A number of societies have sprung up, often with a strong internet presence, to complain about the creation of "Denglish" or "Engleutsch", a hybrid form of English and German. Their pleas for loyalty to the German language are in turn often criticised for their perceived anti-American subtext and their tendency to overlook the fact that German has always been an importer of loan words.

English loans were able to spread quickly in German because of the influence of the mass media, particularly through magazines like Der Spiegel. West German newspapers and magazines indicated that there were no guidelines and that every journalist could make his/her own decision as to lexical selection. Such a choice is qualified by a restriction to words that are generally understood (e.g. in Stern) and a tendency towards a pseudo-modern form of German characterised by a heavy use of anglicisms (especially in Bild-Zeitung). Many periodicals actively employ anglicisms in an attempt to appeal to a certain market. This is particuarly true of magazines such as Elle, Petra, Vogue, Cosmopolitan etc. which market themselves at successful career women.

Advertising, in the press, on television and on hoardings, is a key channel through which English loans have slipped into German. The motivation behind advertising is often to appeal to people's snobbish tendencies either so that they will buy a certain product or so they will apply for certain jobs. The pseudo-loans Dressman and Twen are inventions of the advertising industry and words such as Bestseller, Designer, Image, Lock, Pack and Trend all find heavy usage.

The most easily understood motive for the borrowing of a word from a foreign language is when the actual object or concept is also imported. This is the case in such English loans as Airbag, Computer, Laser, Landrover, Lumberjack. When crazes start in the English-speaking world and spread to other countries the English designation usually spreads as well, for example Skateboarding, Aquaplaning, Aerobics.

This is particularly true of certain areas of the vocabulary, for example pop and rock music, with LP, Band, Hit, Song, Rock, Pop, Fan, Album, Single, Star being the ten most frequent English words, and fashion, where out of sixty-nine frequent loan words, forty were of English origin.

Often, however, the motive for borrowing is the desire on the part of certain speakers to show that they know a certain language by lacing their own speech with borrowings. Foreign words have a greater prestige than native ones in certain areas, for example in fashion, when Line is used instead of Linie and navyblau instead of marineblau.

Some new lexemes, which resemble English but do not exist in the language, have been created in Germany, often involving the compounding of English morphemes, e.g. der Herren-Slip (men's underwear), der Layouter, der Showmaster, der Talkmaster and der Slipper ('slip-on shoe', NOT a 'slipper'!). There are also English transfers that are consistently used in a different sense in German:

  • der Shootingstar (= 'rising star', not 'something that is falling to earth with a bump'!)
  • der Top-Preis, der Superpreis (= 'good price', as opposed to 'high price'!)

Integration of English words
English verbs are more easily integrated than nouns and simply add '-en' such as killen, testen, dopen. They are always conjugated in the same way as weak (regular) verbs, killte, gekillt. The verb babysitten is only used in the infinitive, possibly to solve problems as to whether it is separable or not - it would be absurd to say 'ich sitte eine halbe Stunde baby'!

Most adjectives such as smart, clever, cool, fair, postmodern also present no problem in German since they simply add the appropriate adjective endings, for example ein faires Angebot. But some adjectives do not inflect since they mostly occur in predicative position, for example down, groggy, sexy, ladylike. You would therefore say 'er ist down', but not 'er ist ein downer Junge'.

 Web Links 
Verein für deutsche Sprache The Verein für deutsche Sprache is highly critical of the mixture of German and English due to the perceived lack of identity that it cause in the German language.
Deutsche Sprachwelt A periodical that provides a general portal for those who are concerned with preserving the German language in its current form.
Die Apostroph-S-Hass-Seite On this webpage, Daniel Fuchs chronicles the increase in the incorrect usage in German of the English apostrophe to indicate possession - and even plurals.

Weiter!Part 14: 'False friends' in German

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