This is how French has influenced the German language

Long before English became the lingua franca in Europe, another language was already making its mark on the German-speaking world.

This is how French has influenced the German language
The Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin boasts a French cathedral. Photo: DPA

France was long revered as the cultural, educational and diplomatic powerhouse of Europe, and the French language was widely used in aristocratic circles across the continent for many centuries. 

Germany was no exception to the trend – French became the main language used in the German court in the Middle Ages, as the nobility aspired to emulate the prestigious French courtly model.

READ ALSO: The German words we use everyday – that are actually French

It was not long before French Lehnwörter (loan words) began to slip across the border. In those days, the vocabulary borrowed from French was often linked with knightly activities, trade goods and courtly customs. 

Famous chivalric tales of knights and maidens from the period are littered with French loanwords such as baniere and just, Medieval German terms for baniere (banner) and jost (joust) that come from Medieval French.

Some of these words are still often used in the language today: Abenteuer (adventure), for example, comes from the Medieval German word āventiure, taken from the Medieval French aventure.

It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, when French influence really began to take hold.

The Thirty Years War (1618-48) exposed all levels of German society in certain regions to the French language, as well as introducing a wide range of new words referring to military and technical terms such as Regiment, Bataillon, Infanterie and Artillerie.

Huguenots come to Berlin

Day to day language amongst everyday citizens, however, remained largely unaffected until the counter-reformation of the late seventeenth century. Thousands of Huguenot protestants were forced to flee to France due to religious persecution and settled in Brandenburg and neighbouring Berlin, bringing their language with them.

As a result of this mass migration, it is estimated that roughly a third of the Berlin population came from France at the time. The Huguenots are credited with having a significant impact upon the intellectual life and everyday German language of the area.

The Französisches Gymnasium in Berlin was set up for the children of Huguenot families. Photo: Manfred Brueckels

READ ALSO: German Word of the Day: Mutterseelenallein 

This increased influence garnered mixed reactions amongst the German-speaking population. The aristocracy, on the one hand, embraced French language and culture in many ways, seeing them as the epitome of all that was cultivated and elegant on the continent. 

In many cases, German equivalents for new cultural imports did exist or could have been created, but as French was seen as the height of fashion it was deemed preferable to adopt the foreign term. 

New desserts (for example Blancmange) as well as methods of preparation (such as marinieren) made their way into German vocabulary, as well as words referring to new clothing items (such as Bracelet, Cravatte) and new dances (for example Polonaise).

A threat to the language?

Others, however, were more resistant to the change. Many critics saw the proliferation of French words in the German vocabulary as a direct threat to both the integrity of the language and the cultural and moral values it represented. 

After French King Louis XIV’s attempts to annex German territory in the 1680s, this hostility became open opposition to France’s policies and a conscious campaign to combat their influence.

Some critics took a more satirical approach, mocking the fact that many written works in German had become peppered with foreign borrowings and were increasingly unclear as a result.

Purists, on the other hand, saw the French language as a threat to the innately ‘pure’, ‘superior’ German language and lamented Germany’s ‘subjection’ to their French neighbour. In the seventeenth century, a number of Sprachgesellschaften (language societies) were set up in a bid to limit the needless use of foreign terms.

Some particularly fervent opponents coined German alternatives to foreign borrowings. Some of these did catch on, such as Briefwechsel (translates as ‘letter swap’, from the French term correspondance), whilst others enjoyed less success, such as Polsterbett (translates as ‘cushioned bed’, from the French term sofa).

READ ALSO: The German words we use every day – that are actually French 

Attempts to restrict foreign influence were largely unsuccessful in the long term, and many French words survived multiple waves of attempted ‘Germanization’ over the centuries. 

Popular Gallicisms in everyday German include Tante (Aunty – from French tante), aktuell (current – from French actuel) and Pommes (chips, from French pommes de terre).

The word for this beloved fast food dish comes from the French term 'pommes de terre'. Photo: DPA

Nowadays, the reaction to the growing influence of English on the German language is equally as mixed. Young people use ‘Denglish’ to appear hip and trendy, whilst societies such as the German Language Association see Anglicisms as a sign that their language is deteriorating. 

Those against Anglicisms and Gallicisms may ultimately be fighting a lost cause, however – in our increasingly globalised world it is likely that foreign borrowings are here to stay.

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10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.