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Denglisch and the Anglicization of German

written by: allychevalier • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 2/9/2015

Denglisch, or German mixed with English, isn't just limited to American students struggling to fill in the blanks in their German class. It's a worldwide phenomenon, affecting the speech of native German speakers and fundamentally changing the language as we know it. Here's an overview of the trend.

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    Anglicization and Anglicisms

    Technically speaking, “Anglicization" refers to the process within English when we borrow words from other languages and, well, Germany assimilate them by making them sound a bit more English. This also is used to refer to the reverse process by which other languages borrow English words, the individual words being more precisely referred to as “Anglicisms." While this back-and-forth has been a part of the development of language since we first started communicating with each other, in the last century it has exploded with the global popularity of American and British media and culture.

    This has been especially conspicuous in German, a language closely linked to English both linguistically and culturally. They are both derived from the Germanic language and have evolved largely independently since then. Thus, It should be noted that not all similarities between English and German are due to an Anglicizing influence on their culture, as many existed well before then.

    English has experienced its own influxes of other languages, most notably French, with a smattering of other tongues, just as German is experiencing currently.

    Of course, English isn't the only culprit here. Speckles of French, Russian and Italian may also be seen, especially at a regional level where there was once some invasion or occupation or another, like in the German dialects of Alsace-Lorraine or Berlin (Berlinerisch.)

    It should also be noted that while most German speakers have at least an intermediate understanding of English, required to fairly advanced levels within the education system, proportionally few English speakers know anything of German. Other than the odd song and (translated) novel, German culture has had remarkably little influence on American at large, whereas American culture is all the rage in the malls and movie theaters of Germany. Also, many international businesses within Germany simply conduct all of their affairs, internal or external, in English. Similarly, international companies with a presence in Germany often do not even bother to translate their products in German, leaving them in English. A certain amount of mixing of the languages under these circumstances is hardly surprising.

    So, where can we find specific examples of this effect reflected within German itself? Here are a few:

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    Originally English

    Some of the influx of English into German occurs by introducing words for which Deutsch simply doesn't have its own word quite yet. Technology terms from the last century are the usual suspects here. Even if the literal word already existed in German, such as “aktualisieren" instead of “to update," oftentimes the English one is used to express the new meaning, mostly for the specific use in technology.

    Verbs taken from the English language are structured to behave just like German verbs, adding that characteristic -en suffix for the infinitive and conjugating from there. For instance, our English “to reboot" becomes “rebooten", and “to crash" (in the software sense of the word) becomes “crashen." This can create some interesting structural features, such as “downgeloadet" or, as Mozilla Firefox informs users, “gedownloadet." There are no formal or standard rules on how to deal with such words, so expect a fair amount of variation.

    These are usually made more German-sounding for better integration within the language. For instance, cs is often transliterated ks. Umlauts are added, w sounds exchanged for v, and German pronunciation rules reign over these foreign words.

    Sometimes, the English word takes an entirely different meaning in German. “Mobbing" refers to “bullying," or a “smoking" to a formal tuxedo. These are known as “pseudo Anglicisms" or "false cognates."

    All of this is often viewed as a sort of language contamination. No effort is made to just make up new words in the traditional German fashion of constructing new words by breaking up and combining old ones like Legos.

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    Changes In Grammar

    Inconsistently, there has been a change noticed to the very syntax of the German language.

    Idioms have also changed directly in response to English culture. For instance, the “Das ergibt Sinn," literally “That gives sense," has changed to reflect the idiomatic translation into English, “Das macht Sinn," “That makes sense."

    Use of prepositions in German has also seen something of an upset. For example, “in" is supposed to be declined in certain cases to “im." However, Germans are dropping use of “im" and solely using “in," and using it in circumstances where in German other prepositions might be used, but in the corresponding English phrase, we would use “in."

    The Genitive case in particular has experienced a fair amount of Anglicization. Possessives in English are shown with 's. In German, it is shown with a declination of the words involved, or, with proper nouns, with just an s. Increasingly, Germans are passing over this traditional case and simply showing possessives in the English manner. This change has its very own (German) word: “Deppenastrophe", the “moron's apostrophe." This corresponds with a general decline in use of, well, declinations with German colloquial speech.

    German sentence structure itself is changing to reflect English standards. For example, in German, after the first verb they are all placed at the end of the sentence. However, Germans are beginning to follow the English structure instead: With multiple verb set-ups in English, we simply string the verbs along in the order in which they interact with nouns, prepositions, and other pieces of a sentence.

    Foreign words are typically put into the neuter gender, even if by following the usual German rules they would fall under the feminine or masculine gender.

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    Creative Expression, Or Corruption?

    One of the more witty uses of Denglisch is by punning on those false cognates. For instance, a slogan of Berlin roadsweepers is “We Kehr For You", “kehren" being the verb “to sweep." Clever puns in advertisements, in songwriting, even in everyday conversation, are not faulted by any party.

    Use of English is often considered quite fashionable with many German youth, connecting them closer to the cultural icons they hold in such high regard. Commercial use has extended to the point where products are marketed to seem more American by using English words and catch phrases. Describing things as “Kool" is a pretty cool one. Geddit? This has had some flip-flopping on the part of advertisers as to whether Denglisch was truly more effective than pure German, but English is still highly present.

    However, there are language purists in the German community who have been put into a state of high alert. There have been a wide variety of initiatives launched to combat what they view as language contamination and a renunciation of German national identity, from public policy makers to professors. Such movements haven't appeared to gain national acceptance, however—especially among the perpetrators of Denglisch, the everyday German.

    All in all? It's a subjective judgment whether Anglicization on a global scale, and Denglisch in particular, is a bad thing. Remember, however, that a passing glance into this issue is simply not the same as native experience. I highly encourage you to read editorials, English, German or Denglisch, on the matter. Artistic commentary also abounds, for instance, in the form of musical satire.

    Whatever your opinion, expect to hear a fair bit of Denglisch in Germany, especially if you'll be with a younger crowd, and be prepared to hear something of this very familiar language and not just German.