December 21, 2004
BERLIN JOURNAL

Kai Wiedenhoefer for The New York Times
Have English borrowings gone too far? Germans seem unworried. A parcel service says, rather prosaically, "Parcel Distribution Without Borders."

A Snappy Slogan? In German? Don't Smile. Try English.

By RICHARD BERNSTEIN

BERLIN, Dec. 20 - Not long ago, Lufthansa, the airline, made a bit of news when it changed its slogan from "There's No Better Way to Fly," in English, to the German, "Alles für diesen Moment," or "Everything for This Moment."

What was the German national airline doing with an English slogan aimed at its German clientele in the first place? Who knows really? But whatever it was doing, many companies in Germany have used English, or some mishmash of German and English - the not very beautiful term for this is Denglish, a combination of Deutsch and English - to appeal to their German customers.

Now, as the Lufthansa example illustrates, there are some signs of a reversal, or, at least, the German press has reported on a few other companies reverting to the language that the population of this country actually speaks. The chain of perfume shops called Douglas (a German company, pronounced DOO-glahss) went from "Come in and find out," to "Douglas macht das Leben schöner," or "Douglas makes life more beautiful."

Similarly, German McDonald's switched from its previous slogan, "Every time a good time" to "Ich liebe es," German for "I love it." Certainly, McDonald's could have used its current English motto, "I'm lovin' it," here, and everybody would have understood. But lest you think that there is a paradigm shift going on, McDonald's competitor, Burger King, went the other way, from the German "Weil's besser schmeckt," "Because It Tastes Better," to "Feel the Fire," in English.

In fact, the news here in the land of Goethe, Schiller and Thomas Mann is that Denglish is on the march, and, as always, there are people who find it amusing and others sort of tragic.

A private company in Hanover, Satelliten Media Design, in conjunction with Hanover University, keeps track of one key aspect of the entire mixed language phenomenon, annually tabulating the 100 words most used in German advertising. In the 1980's, only one English word made the list. The word, a bit improbably, was "fit." By 2004, there were 23 English words on the chart.

The first four words are still German - wir (meaning we), Sie (you), mehr (more) and Leben (life). In fifth place is the English "your," followed farther down the list by world, life, business, with, power, people, better, more, solutions and 13 more.

The situation seems to be similar pretty much everywhere in Europe and in many other parts of the world as well. And everywhere there are those who care deeply about protecting the native language and others who feel that languages have always borrowed from one another. And, anyway, what, in a democracy, can you really do about it?

The Nazis tried to invent more German-sounding words to replace the many Latin-root words that had crept into German over the centuries. Nobody seems to be complaining today that interesting is "interessant" in German, as it is in French, or that floor is "etage," and that when audiences clap, they "applaudieren."

Regarding Denglish, it's not hard to see the appeal of English, its ability to provide a kind of quick verbal punch, compared with the polysyllabic nature of German. That's probably why, on the cover of the newsmagazine Focus, the health headline was about your "Herz-check," your heart checkup, the standard German word for check being the more dilatory "Untersuchung." Deutsche Telekom, the phone company, used to use the phrases "German calls" and "City calls" in itemizing phone bills, though these days, apparently in consideration of those people in this country who prefer their bills in Goethe's language, it uses the terms Deutschlandverbindungen and Cityverbindungen.

There are mysteries in this, not least of them why that's Cityverbindungen rather than the more purely German Ortsverbindungen. But this is not a subject where rigor and consistency prevail. Why does the popular Chinese restaurant on Berlin's Kantstrasse call itself Good Friends, rather than Gute Freunde? Why, in an opposite sort of example, do the posters for "Phantom of the Opera" call it "Das Phantom der Oper," when, in this particular instance, everybody would understand the original English?

Who knows really, but one can guess. In the subway station at Savignyplatz in the old West Berlin, there's a poster advertising a nearby shop for "Tattoos and Piercing." The German word for tattoo is Tätowierung. There is a word for piercing, "Hautstechen," but nobody uses it. Maybe the store owners thought that clients would find German a bit staid and formal for those particular services.

The truth seems to be that English is hipper and quicker in general. Almost all pop music is in English, whether sung on the radio or by the high school rock band practicing in the garage. At the other end of the culture, English is the everyday language of the European Union. If you bump into somebody at the supermarket cashier, it's a lot quicker and easier to say "Sorry" (pronounced with a guttural "r") than "Entschuldigung," with its four syllables (though, of course, many Germans do say "Entschuldigung").

Still, for many Germans, it seems a lot simpler and maybe more cheerful to say "Happy Birthday," than "Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag," which sounds a bit like a streak of Hegelian metaphysics. Or, if you are promoting a retail bonus points program, would you call it HappyDigits, or would you, in the interests of linguistic authenticity, invent a German term, maybe "Fröhliche Zahlen?" Doesn't seem quite as catchy.

But how to explain the Denglish verbs? Smalltalken, brunchen, mailen, floppen, managen, abcoolen and many others? These are not used to save syllables or avoid complexity. They are simply in vogue, whether for better or worse. For the verbs, linguistic globalization, or, if you prefer, linguistic imperialism, seems the only explanation.


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