Language: the extraordinary rise of Denglisch

The winner of the German youth word of the year 2020 is “Lost”. Yep. If you’re a native English speaker, you’re probably thinking…wait, what?

Voted for by the public, and with 48% of the vote, the word most used by the German youth is an English word. In fact, the three words that made it to the final public vote were all English words – Wild, Cringe and the winner, Lost.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The German language has been adopting British words for quite some time.

It’s pretty common to hear Denglisch – the fusion of German and English – these days. Especially among younger millennials and Generation Z. Apparently, it’s “fashionable” to speak in English.

I wanted to delve a little deeper into the world of Denglisch because weirdly, I don’t think I’m that keen on it.

What is Denglisch?

Denglisch is widely described as the overuse of anglicisms and/or pseudo-anglicisms within the German language. It may seem that Denglish is a relatively new phenomenon. But the term actually dates as far back as 1965. And the borrowing of words dates back even further.

We have always borrowed words and phrases from each other across the globe. English itself has borrowed heavily from Latin, French and other languages in the past. Of course, language influence is to be expected whenever people from two different languages interact. It’s part of how our world and linguistics work. So it’s not a new thing.

However, the recent influx of English vocabulary and grammar in the German language has been described by some as corrupting the national language. Peter Lang states:

“German suffers from a kind of infectious disease, a raging Anglictis. A mishmash is emerging, a hybrid means of communication, popularly called Denglish. Everywhere you look it’s overrunning our vocabulary.”

(Mythos, Religion, Ideologie: Kultur- und gesellschaftskritische Essays – Peter Lang – p.293)

You can also find Denglish referred to as McDeutsch (presumably a reference to the increased influence of US pop culture and consumerism within Europe – feel free to correct me).

While it’s extremely popular among the younger generations, I actually find myself agreeing with critics that it has become somewhat of a problem.

Why is Denglisch so popular?

Its roots stem way back to the 19th Century with loan translation and loanwords (the direct translation of loan words or phrases from English). Words such as Fernsehen for ‘Television’ (literally translated to see far) and Pferdestärke for ‘Horse Power’ (literally Horse Strength).

Its popularity grew after WWII with the Allied occupation of Germany and the heavy influence of US pop culture. Words such as Jeep, Quiz, Show etc. 

The next surge came after the Cold War, in 1989, with an increase in business/technology terms in English. CEO replaced Geschäftsfuhrer, for example.

It’s hard to find academic research on this, but I would also argue that over the past 10-15 years, the Internet has created yet another explosion in its usage.

Denglisch and Social Media/the Internet

As of 2019, 18% of Internet users worldwide are aged 18-24 and 32% are aged 25-34. That amounts to almost half of Internet users being millennials or Gen Z-ers. When you take into account the fact that approximately 60% of online content is in English, it’s easy to understand why English is an increasingly popular language to speak for young Germans. 

The rise in streaming services for film/tv, music and podcasts, has meant that it is now more accessible than ever for people to consume English content.

Types of Denglisch

This fantastic article by ThoughtCo groups Denglish into five different categories.

Denglisch 1 – the use of English words in the German language that attempt to incorporate German grammar. Examples include Downloadenich habe es gedownloadet (I have downloaded it) and Google ich habe es gegoogelt (I have Googled it). 

Denglisch 2 – the excessive use of English phrases and slogans within marketing and advertising campaigns. For example:

Denglisch 3 – the arguably bad influence of English spelling/punctuation used in German words and phrases. They particularly point to the incorrect use of the apostrophe. Germans call it the Deppenapostroph (idiot’s apostrophe). The German language uses the apostrophe in a different way to English, but many people still use it incorrectly in written German (in fairness, a lot of English people don’t really know how to use an apostrophe either!). There is a great blog here that provides info on how to use the apostrophe correctly in German.

Denglish 4 – the mixing of English and German vocabulary in sentences, particularly when speaking, by native English speakers, when they have weak German skills (hands up if you do this – I do!!).

Denglisch 5 – the coining of faux English words that don’t exist in the English language or are used with a totally different meaning in German. Examples include das Handy – the mobile phone, der Smoking – the tuxedo, der Oldtimer – the classic car.

So…what’s the problem?

As a native English speaker, I feel like I should be glad that Denglish exists and is popular and on-trend for people of my generation. It’s amazing! And surely it makes it easier for us?

Well, no, not really. I had no real knowledge of the German language before moving to Germany. I’m trying to learn Hochdeutsch from scratch (trying to do that when I moved to southern Bavaria is another story for another day!). The fusion of English and German languages cause a lot of confusion and struggle for me. 

I’m trying to learn correct German grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. Very often, this weird mishmash of the two languages ends up being used in conversation or in written communication. It’s easy to start picking up bad habits.

I also think it’s sad that western capitalism is so ingrained in our lives that its language is seeping its way into other languages. In some cases, it’s even putting those languages under threat. An example of this is the Welsh language. Although there has been a huge push over recent years to ensure that the language does not die off.

A German resurgance?

Fear not, though. Generally speaking, the Germans aren’t all too happy about anglicisms creeping into their language either. In 2013, Deutsche Bahn  famously made huge changes to the number of anglicisms on their trains and in their train stations by issuing employees with a glossary that contained approximately 2200 words they were to stop using. There was concern about the continuing rise of English use on their trains, both on signs and in spoken announcements.

Anecdotally, because I no longer drive here, I was catching a lot of trains pre-Covid, and I did notice that only certain trains carry English announcements now. These are, in my experience, the trains headed for tourist destinations.

There has also been a rise in people learning the German language. An estimated 15.4 million people are expected to be learning it right now. Over 9 million of these are in Europe. Of course, it’s suspected that coronavirus has played a part in the language learning resurgence of 2020.

As well as this, Germany is Europe’s largest economy and a hugely important trading partner for Britain. We already have a huge language skill deficit and that is one of the reasons we rely on foreign employees in building positive corporate relationships. Post-Brexit, it’s going to be harder for foreigners to gain residency in Britain – Priti Patel is making sure of that (let’s not go there…). Therefore, British German speakers will be very attractive to employers.

Hopefully, with pressure from the Germans to decrease the use of Denglisch, and more and more people learning Hochdeutsch, this trend may die down.

Meaning I can get back to being frustrated at the German language only.

A long read today. If you made it to the end, thank you and congratulations.

Bis zum nächsten Mal / until next time,

Steffi x

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