Could you pass me my Handy, please? How Denglish influences modern German language

Let’s jump right in: The term „Handy“ causes plenty of confusion between Germans and native English speakers. The German word for mobile phone sounds so very English that it’s hard to grasp that it actually isn’t. Germany’s biggest telecommunications corporation, Deutsche Telekom, introduced „Handy“ to their marketing in the early days of mobile communication, deciding that „cell phone“ wouldn’t do it for the German market and the actual German „Mobiltelefon“ sounded far too bulky. Welcome to „Denglish“, where languages meet, and not always in a good way. Or at least that is how language purists like to see it.

Complaints about other languages interfering with traditions and heritage are very common all around the world. With the huge footprint the English language left around the globe, it’s no surprise that worries about its influence on local languages are quite common. What Germans call “Denglish” is known in Spain as “Spanglish”, the Danish refer to it as “Danglish”, the French even introduced laws to reduce the alleged damage that “Franglais” does to their native language.

The term “Denglish” has been used in Germany since 1965. Back in the days, it had much to do with the influence of American and British youth culture – music, movies, the hippie revolution, the peace movement – but also with the Cold War and the rise of the USA as a superpower. English already had a strong basis around the world as a result of the British Empire. The American Empire, although quite different in form and shape, took its place.

This sparked criticism with two main groups at first: Conservatives, who didn’t like all that “new stuff” coming from the anglo-saxon world, questioning the status quo on various levels. It was easy to blame the social movement of 1968, for example, on this “modern stuff”. And what kind of noise was rock music, and why did boys have to grow their hair long like girls?

Cultural imperialism vs. Conservatism

Ironically, the other side of the political spectrum did not agree with the influx of English language either. “American cultural imperialism” was not welcome in leftist circles, who during the Cold War saw this as a take-over of local societies. Given the faltering British Empire and the end of the dark times of colonialism, that was a rather logical conclusion on many levels.

Decades later, both positions have melted together and gave way to another group of critics: The language purists. “Language encodes culture”, they say. “And if we do not care for our language, we give up on our heritage.”

This conversation gained such a strong influence that the word Denglish now found its way into the standard German reference work “Duden” as “a pejorative term for German with too many English expressions mixed in.”

Language nerd Bastian Sick, an editor of the reputable magazin Der Spiegel, gained massive popularity with his 2004 book “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod” (“the dative [case] will be the death of the genitive”). Denglish was one of his main topics, and he went further than other critics by not just pointing out English words that made their way into everyday language, but also matters of grammar and spelling. His criticism made sense in the eyes of many, but his rather arrogant attitude also made him some enemies.

Ironically, “making sense” is one of the terms he went to war with. Germans use this expression: “Das macht Sinn”, but Sick argued that this simply doesn’t work. Others claimed that the usage of “sense making” goes back as far as the 19th century. The battle still rages, as far as I am aware.

Sick also introduced the “Deppenapostroph” (idiot’s apostrophe) to the conversation. Traditionally, Germans do not use an apostrophe to indicate possession. “Tom’s car” is simply “Toms Auto”, and “Andrea’s restaurant” is “Andreas Restaurant”. Whether the growing use of an apostrophe by many Germans is a sign of language deterioration is a matter of opinion. It does help the readability in many cases. Sadly Germans fall for the same mistakes as many English people and use the apostrophe where it really doesn’t belong – in s-plurals. “Car’s”, “shirt’s” or “sausage’s”

The “cool effect”

English terms are, however, used for other reasons than cultural imperialism. English is among the easiest to learn languages of modern times, and its spread around the world has changed the original language so much that many a mistake one could make might just be a local speciality. Africans, Indians and Americans use a very different English than the British. And to be honest, not even the English can make up their mind. Rules of spelling and pronunciation change from village to village.

To Germans, English words also sound modern, fresh, cool and chic. On top of that, English is a highly unprecise language, compared to German. English terms can be used more loosely and lack the slightly bureaucratic feeling that precise compound nouns, German style, can leave.

This turned Kartenverkaufsschalter into “Ticket Sales” and Dienstleistungszentren into “Service Points”. General well-being is now “Wellness”, physical education is “Fitness”, an “Arbeitstreffen” is now a “Meeting”, and the “Ablauf der Abgabefrist” is so much better when it’s called a “Deadline”. Do you notice the capital letters at the beginning of the words? Of course, English terms still are written properly – nouns are capitalized. Period.

Of course, declension and conjugation of English words also follows the German grammar: “Du kannst das downloaden” (you can download this) and: “Ich habe das downgeloadet” (I downloaded this). “Wie war dein Meeting gestern?” (how was your meeting yesterday?) – “Oh, ich habe das gecancelt.” (Oh, I cancelled that) Most interesting: Germans assign a gender to every noun. Downloads, for example, are male: “Der Download”. Meetings, however, are neuter: “Das Meeting.” Deadlines are female. It probably would be an interesting task for a linguist to find out how these genders were assigned.

The “cool factor” of anglicisms is also utilized in marketing. Branding mobile phones as “Handy” is one example. That addressees are not native speakers and often don’t know the exact meaning of an English term makes things essentially easier for advertizing. Nokia is “connecting people”, Bayer offers “Science for a better life”, “There’s no better way to fly” than with Lufthansa… and the Postbank delivers “Mehr Performance” (more performance). All of these claims would not have sounded nearly as slick using German.

Sometimes, however, that backfires. The drugstore chain “Douglas” advertized “Come in and find out” as their main slogan. Most Germans read it: “Enter the store and also find your way out again.” While not being trapped in a drugstore is kind of a positive message, it still didn’t work as successful marketing.

The big fun!

Really funny for native English speakers are adapted English terms that have a different meaning in German. A body bag, for example, is a fashionable bag, worn over the shoulder. Understandably, it might cause concern when a German friend tells about the body bag he just bought. A tuxedo is a “Smoking” for Germans. An LCD projector is a “Beamer”. And a classic car is called an “Oldtimer”.

Some native English speakers seem to see the Denglish invasion with a certain level of schadenfreude (a great German word that demonstrates how amazing the German language works when it comes to describing things in detail), but they should take it slow… After all, English is a Germanic language at its core. 1500 years ago the Anglo-Saxons settled in England, bringing their very own Germanic language that became the root of Dutch, German and many Nordic languages.

It was further invasions and waves of immigration that set English apart from its original German core. English vocabulary today is 26 per cent Germanic, 29 per cent French, 29 per cent Latin, 6 per cent Greek and the remaining 10 per cent hail from other languages. Very obviously, it was immigration and the mix of cultures that shaped the English language.

That makes it all the more sad that the English-speaking world also features language purists and xenophobes that try to “keep their heritage” by fending off foreign influences. In Germany, the word for this fear is “Überfremdung” – being taken over by foreigners. The word “Über” should be well known to English speakers.

Living languages change. Whoever wants to protect their heritage, has to keep it alive and interesting. This needs innovative ideas, but also the will to modernize and adapt.

German popular music has shown the way. The German music community is vivid and active, and German pop music is highly successful on its own. Sometimes it might copy international trends (or maybe just adapt them to add a specific German flavour?), but when it comes to preserving language, pop culture surely does a great job.

The language of Goethe is not the same language that’s spoken today.

But neither is English the language of Shakespeare.

One Comment

  • Deutsch Centre
    July 8, 2023

    The funny thing about “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod” is that it translates as ‘The dative is the genitive his death’ which is as grammatically wrong in formal German as it is in English but in some German dialects, that’s how the genitive is produced (My father’s car = My [or even: Mine] father his car). So the book title is a tongue-in-cheek pun.

Write a comment