Achtung, Germans: Denglisch is here to stay
By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent
FRANKFURT (Reuters) – It is known as Denglisch, a hybrid of
Deutsch and English, and cultural purists say it is an insult
to the language of Goethe and should be purged from the
Denglisch has spread steadily as Germans adopted American
phrases in business, advertising, technology, and everyday
“Brainstorm” has become as common a word in German as
“surfen,” “chatten,” and “shoppen” (for surfing, chatting and
In Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital, “uptick” and
“downturn” are familiar terms and posters listing evening
entertainment are headlined “city nacht (for night).
In Berlin, a satirical theater calls itself
quatschcomedyclub (quatsch means nonsense) and visitors to the
foreign ministry can relax at “The Coffee Shop im Auswaertigen
“We are colonizing ourselves, voluntarily,” complained the
German Language Association, a 26,000-strong private group of
self-appointed language guardians who want legal protection for
The association has introduced an award for “language
adulterer of the year” to shame public figures whom it deems
guilty of showing insufficient respect for German.
The leading candidate for this year’s prize, to be
announced in late-August, is Guenther Oettinger, premier of the
state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.
His offence? Saying Germany should adopt English as its
working language and use German at home and on holiday. The
association called him a “language lackey.”
Most Germans shrug off Denglisch and the linguistic
invasion of their language as an inevitable consequence of
But several influential conservative politicians are now
campaigning for a law to protect German. A similar campaign,
modeled on legislation in France, failed five years ago.
KEEPING GERMAN “PURE”
The renewed effort is led by Erika Steinbach, a member of
parliament for the Christian Democratic Union, partners in the
ruling government coalition.
She says 30 percent of Germans speak no English at all but
are ashamed to admit it.
“How far does your mother tongue take you in your own
country?” she asks on her Web site. Her answer: not very far.
“Without English and Denglisch, you are pretty helpless in
German everyday life.”
Judging from attempts elsewhere to legislate the use of a
national language, both English and Denglisch are in Germany to
In 1994, France passed a law meant to suppress Franglais,
Denglisch’s French cousin. The legislation banned the use of
foreign words in work contracts, public announcements,
advertising and on radio and television.
It said foreign words would have to be replaced by words
approved by the Academie Francaise, which serves as watchdog
for the French language.
The law had little effect on the use of such words as “le
weekend” or “le T-shirt” — denounced as language contaminants
Americanisms proved similarly resistant to legislation in
Poland, where young people embraced English after the collapse
of communism and decades of obligatory Russian studies.
There are no signs that the growing dominance of English
around the world — according to one estimate, almost a third
of the world’s population has some knowledge of English — has
been affected by growing anti-Americanism in many countries.
Experts say linguistic dominance is largely a function of
“A language becomes an international language for one chief
reason — the political power of its people — especially their
military power,” said British linguist David Crystal, whose
book “English as a Global Language” is considered a landmark
But the speed and breadth of a language’s universal
adoption may also be linked to how difficult or easy it is to
Mark Twain, in an essay entitled “The Awful German
Language,” quipped that “a gifted person ought to learn English
… in 30 hours, French in 30 days, and German in 30 years.”
WHAT NEXT? GLOBISH?
For those in search of shortcuts, there are rival proposals
from India and France for simplified versions of English called
The Indian version, designed by retired engineer Madhukar
Gogate, provides simplified spelling and pronunciation to make
learning easier for people unfamiliar with Roman script.
The other Globish is being promoted by a retired IBM
executive with a flair for publicity, Jean-Paul Nerriere, whose
French-language Web site touts his book “Don’t Speak English,
He proposes a 1,500-word version of English with elementary
syntax as “the planetary dialect of the third millennium and
integrated solution to the problem of international
The idea mirrors the Basic English developed in the 1930s
by British linguist Charles Kay Ogden. It has a vocabulary of
850 words and was hailed as an instrument for world peace after
the end of World War II.
Legend has it that one of its most prominent advocates,
Winston Churchill, withdrew his support after learning that
Basic English renders “blood, toil, tears and sweat” into
“blood, hard work, eyewash and body water.”
(Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile; e-mail: