To most Germans, today is just an ordinary Samstag (or Sonnabend, depending on where they live). But to German language prescriptivists, it is a quasi-national holiday, a linguistic Fourth of July and Fifth of November rolled into one: the Tag der Deutschen Sprache (“Day of the German Language”), a sort of prescient commemoration day for the German language as it will have been when it no longer is.
In the English-speaking world, prescriptivists are concerned mainly with a small set of words and grammatical structures that they call “bad grammar” – phenomena like the “split” infinitive or the passive (structures which they would like to remove from the language completely), the relative markers that and which (which they would like to see used for restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses respectively), and certain sentential adverbs like hopefully (which they seem to think should never be used to express the speaker’s attitude towards the contents of a sentence). They typically justify their proscriptions and prescriptions by appeals to logic (although they never spell out what that logic actually is).
In Germany, this fruitful field of imposing an undeclared (and largely imaginary) logic on linguistic structures is left largely to one man – Bastian Sick, who has turned it into an impressively profitable business and who was able to literally fill a stadium (a small stadium, but a stadium nonetheless) with his “world’s largest Deutschstunde” a few years ago – something that, as far as I know, even the great American prescriptivist William Safire never managed (or even attempted).
Instead, the vast majority of German prescriptivists are focused on a single issue: To keep the German language free of loan words. Or rather, to keep the language free of English loan words. The Verein Deutsche Sprache, a club for language purists, claims to have 36 000 members (meaning that they, too, could fill a stadium), all of whom are convinced that the German language is about to be wiped off the face of the earth by a deluge of borrowings from English. When asked to provide evidence of this deluge, they invariably point to the word sale (which German businesses have adopted instead of the teutonically unwieldy Sommerschlussverkauf and Winterschlussverkauf), to the information desks in German railway stations which, until recently, were called Service Points, to the verb downloaden (which I will return to below) and to the German word for “mobile phone”, Handy (which I will also return to below although I will have to be quick about it as it is rapidly disappearing due to the fact that mobile phones have become the new regular phones and that people have consequently begun to refer to them simply as Telefon).
This is not to say that there are just those four English loan words in German. Due, initially, to a rising importance of the United States of America as a geopolitical power and, later, to the linguistic realities of a globalizing world, German – like all other major languages – has been experiencing a steady influx of English vocabulary, although text counts outside of shopping malls and railway stations show that this influx is more trickle than deluge. The editors of the DUDEN – Germany’s most prestigious dictionary – put the total percentage of English loan words at 3.6 percent. Given that a word needs to stick around in everyday language use for a while before it is considered for inclusion in a dictionary, this figure may underestimate the percentage found in actual usage somewhat. However, text counts show that the total percentage of recognizably foreign words in running text is around 8 percent; this includes a substantial number of French, Latin and Greek loan words, so even if English words were to account for three quarters of all loan words (which is unlikely), this would put their percentage at only six percent (in comparison, French loan words in English account for almost 30 percent of the English lexicon).
So while German is far from being swamped with English loan words, there would be a long list of examples to choose from when asked to provide evidence for a threat to the German language. The fact that German language purists provide the same handful of examples every time suggests that the fear of linguistic inundation is not based on an observation of actual language use but on something deeper and much darker.
The lack of even the most superficial observation is also evident in the claim often made by German language purists that English words do not fit into the grammar of German and that their presence will ultimately lead to a disintegration of the grammatical system. In this context, the verb downloaden is of major concern to the purists. Like English, German has particle verbs, where an element like herunter (“down”) can be separated from a verb stem like laden (“load”). German speakers, so the purists tell us, will not know whether to treat a loan verb like downloaden like a particle verb or like a simple verb with no internal structure. Thus, they will not know, for example, whether the past participle (signalled in German by the circumfix ge-[VERB]-(e)t) of downloaden should be downgeloaded (particle verb) or gedownloadet (simple verb).1.
The purists are so busy worrying about how this confusion will cause the German grammar to collapse, that they fail to notice that German speakers quite happily use both options (with a preference for the second, although the DUDEN lists the first as the only possible one). They also fail to notice how the English verb download is smoothly integrated into the inflectional system of German, giving us forms like ich downloade, du downloadest, sie downloadet, etc. This integration always occurs; some of the more sophisticated purists sometimes claim that the borrowed color adjective pink cannot be inflected like other adjectives. It seems that nobody has informed the speakers of German of this impossibility, as they quite routinely say things like meine pinke Jacke or die pinkeste Jacke der Welt.
So why do German prescriptivists focus so intensely on loan words (and even avid Bastian Sick fans are less impressed with his claims about the lack of logic in linguistic usage than they are with his claim that the loan translation Sinn machen (from English “to make sense”) does not make any sense at all and that the German expression Sinn ergeben (“to produce, add up to, yield sense”) is much more sensible.
One explanation that is sometimes suggested is that purity in general is a central motif in the collective imagination of us Germans. And looking at German society and its recent history, evidence of a dangerous obsession with purity (racial, environmental, dietary, etc.) is hard to ignore, and this obsession certainly provides a well-entrenched discourse frame for prescriptivist arguments.
However, an obsession with purity does not explain why German purists are not concerned with loan words in general, but only with English loan words. In fact, they frequently suggest alternatives to English loan words that are clearly French or Latin in origin (for example, they enthusiastically welcomed the decision of Deutsche Bahn to rename their Service Points „Information“). Instead, it is a specific disdain of America and all things American that seems to drive many of the language purists. This disdain is also a central motif of German public discourse. Germans do not generally hate America or the Americans (although a small but determined number across the entire political spectrum do), but many Germans agree that American culture – if you can even call it Kultur [insert culturally sophisticated chuckle] – consists of Hollywood movies, bubble gum and a deep ignorance of history, geography, politics and almost every other domain of knowledge. The Verein Deutsche Sprache is very upfront about its anti-Americanism – they claim that speakers using English loan words are amerikahörig (“in bondage to America”) and in the grip of Amitümelei (“America-mania”), that the American Wirtschafts- und Weltmacht (“economic and world power”) has Benennungshoheit (“sovereignty of labeling/naming”) all over the world, that Germans have capitulated culturally to the Americans and that a US-american Monokultur is spreading. The reason for all this, they believe, is the fact that after the Second World War Germany’s political leadership believed their own culture to be devalued and compromised by the Nazi era and welcomed American cultural dominance as a way of driving out the remnants of their cultural heritage (the Verein fails to explain what they consider to be wrong with this belief and this strategy, both of which seem plausible and laudable to me).
So what they are really celebrating today is not the German language at all; it is their resistance to America, their resistance to accepting the deep fracture in their own cultural tradition, and their resistance to the fact that modern German culture is, and should be, one among many pieces in a global cultural puzzle.
Ironically – and it will come as no surprise that prescriptivists fail to notice this, too – linguistic borrowing is not usually (and certainly not in the case of English loan words in German) a form of linguistic or cultural capitulation. It is more of a confiscation of useful language material that is then suited to the purposes of the borrowing language with little regard to the language from which it originally came. The (disappearing) word Handy shows this: it was never (well, almost never (link in German)) used to refer to mobile telephones in English. This did not stop Germans from using the word with precisely this meaning even after the non-existence of the relevant word sense in English became general knowledge. Maybe I just don’t know enough about things like the sovereignty of naming, but it seems to me that the German speech community acted rather independently (insubordinately?) in the case of Handy and the many other “pseudo-anglicisms” they invented over the years.
Anyway, Merry Germanmas.
- There is a third option, that never occurs to the purists: that downloaden is treated like a prefix verb, in which case the ge- part of the circumfix would be suppressed and the past participle should be downloadet [↩]