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GERMAN LANGUAGE

Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

Denglisch - a hybrid of Deutsch and English - can refer to the half-and-half way Germans and foreigners speak to each other. But Germans use plenty of English words amongst themselves - although they don’t always mean the same thing.

A German for Dummies language book sits atop a desk next to a pen and a cup of coffee. Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash
A German for Dummies language book sits atop a desk next to a pen and a cup of coffee. Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

English speakers are no stranger to using certain German words when speaking English—schadenfreude and kindergarten being perhaps the most obvious. The process is possibly even more advanced in reverse.

Many Germans are proud of being able to speak English well, and the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 only accelerated the process, as a redefined international community – with English as the main global language – beckoned.

Now English words are found in all parts of German life. Many Germans don’t even necessarily understand why. English-language cultural influence is certainly a part of German life, but the dubbing of television shows, to use just one example, remains far more widespread in Germany than in many smaller European countries, which use original audio with subtitles.

Here’s a selection of anglicisms that Germans use with each other. 

READ ALSO: Could Denglisch one day kill of English?

‘Coffee-To-Go’ or ‘Takeaway’

‘Ein Kaffee zum mitnehmen’ is correct and your coffee shop owner will definitely understand what you want if you ask for it. But plenty of Germans will ask for a ‘Coffee-To-Go,’ even when speaking German to a German barista. This seems to only apply to coffee ordered on the move, however. If you’re sitting down at a table, expect to order the German Kaffee.

Getting a coffee-to-go in Berlin.

Getting a Coffee-To-Go in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Human Resources, ‘Soft Skills’ and ‘Manager’

‘Personalabteilung’ is still used to describe a human resources department. But plenty of German companies—whether international or mostly German will use Human Resources even in German-language communication. Although ‘Leiter’ and ‘Leiterin,’ meaning ‘leader’ are used, even German job titles will use “Manager.” The word ‘Manager’ has even been adapted to accommodate German noun genders. A female manager, may be referred to as a ‘Managerin’.

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

The world of work in Germany is also notable for importing another contemporary English term. ‘Soft Skills’ is used in German when recruiters are looking to see if a candidate might fit culturally into a particular workplace. The words actually describing these skills, like ‘Führungskompetenz’ or ‘leadership ability,’ often sound unmistakably German though. But there are exceptions. ‘Multitasking’ is used in German as well.

‘Clicken,’ ‘Uploaden,’ ‘Downloaden’ and ‘Home Office’

As technology that came of age relatively recently, German has imported many English terms related to technology and the Internet. While web browsers might use ‘Herunterladen’ instead of ‘download’ or ‘hochladen’ instead of ‘upload,’ Germans are just as likely to use the slightly Germanized version of the English word, hence ‘downloaden’.

READ ALSO: Seven English words Germans get delightfully wrong

Even before ‘Home Office’ appeared on German tax returns, to calculate what credit workers could get from remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘Home Office’ was still widely used in German to describe, well, working from home. It can be confusing for English speakers, though, especially those from the UK, because the Home Office is a department in the British government. 

English words that have slightly different meanings in German – ‘Shitstorm’ and ‘Public Viewing’

There are English words Germans use that don’t always mean quite the same thing to a native English speaker. An English speaker from the UK or Ireland, for example, might associate a ‘public viewing’ with an open casket funeral. Germans, however, tends to use “public viewing” almost exclusively to mean a large screening, usually of an event, that many people can gather to watch for free. Placing a large television at the Brandenburg Gate for German Football Team matches is perhaps the most immediately recognisable example of a ‘public viewing’.

Then there’s what, at least to native English speakers, might sound outright bizarre. But former Chancellor Angela Merkel herself used “Shitstorm” more than once while in office. In German though, it can refer specifically to a social media backlash involving heated online comments.

Another typical English-sounding word used in German differently is ‘Handy’ – meaning cellphone (well, it does fit in your hand). It can sound a bit strange to English speakers, though. 

Other words, however, more or less mean what you think they do – such as when one German newspaper referred to Brexit as a ‘Clusterfuck’.

READ ALSO: Shitstorm ‘best English gift to German language’

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works. 

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