Thursday, October 23, 2008

An Evil Guide through Cross-Cultural Communications

Germans have a reputation of being intolerant. That is not true. But maybe it's just their lack of self-confidence that passes only too often as tolerance. I'm discussing issues such as the ubiquitous humble caving in to an alien death cult at my other blog, everyday issues that are more a matter of manners and style than of survival I discuss here. So let's talk about the ever-increasing distortion of our language by Anglicisms, which, I hope, even those with no knowledge of German will enjoy.

The German language comprises about 500,000 basic words, which include now several thousand Anglicisms, a development that has all people with an intact sense of what makes a language precise, correct and -- last but not least -- beautiful, reeling. But different from the French who actually try to curtail the Anglification of their language by law, Germans, who have otherwise rules and regulations to govern each and every passing wind, have limited their interference to an addition to the teacher's curriculum, offering help on how to spot Anglicisms. Teachers seem to bother very little about the growing use of Anglophone colloquialisms anyway, be that because they consider it a mainly temporary thing or because they believe that colloquial language is not a matter of education at all, or maybe because of that obnoxious 'the-Hun-is-either-at-your-throat-or-at-your-feet' phenomenon. However, the outcome is the reason for what The Times called German "linguistic submission".

Everybody knows the Brit who sticks his finger into the water anywhere on the globe, licks it and states: "Saltwater -- British!" But everybody knows, too, the German in Tyrolean hat and loden coat, who tries to go by as an Englishman on the strength of his mediocre language skills. Maybe I ought to say "used to know" because Tyrolean hats and loden coats are not worn anymore by those not yet in their nineties, but the archetype remains and I do not even WANT to know what they are wearing nowadays. The outfit may have changed, the attitude hasn't. I used to sell souvenirs at Blarney Castle as a student and when I encountered compatriots it seemed only natural to me to addrss them in German, but I found out quickly that they were positively miffed because somebody had rained on their linguistic parade, however poor.


I confess, I am a tiny wee little bit of a language purist and try to avoid Anglicisms wherever feasible, although I'm not dogmatic. I translate a lot of technical stuff and walk the tightrope between technological precision and linguistic aesthetics on a daily basis and I probably crashed more often than I realize. I like to play games with my bilingual friends, bantering faux Germanisms and Anglicisms at wit, but at least I know what I'm doing. To know the rules means to be allowed to play with them.

But what really puts me off is the everyday, unthinking, unnecessary, slack, vain and dumb usage of Anglicisms. With them, even a suburban bimbo thinks she gets some sort of cosmopolitan airs and graces and even an advertising agency from Wuppertal, Bergkamen-Oberaden or Buchloe manages to appear like a globalized multinational organization or so they think. But isn't that what all German companies above a certain turnover-level want to be: Global Players! (This is Neudeutsch, by the way.) Never mind that their clients haven't the foggiest what they're getting sold, and the customers, users and consumers further down the food chain even less. That all those pretentious phoney-, malaprop- and dumb-isms go together with a hearty distaste for the American culture of which most of it is derived is an issue too "political" to be discussed her, but I had to mention it as not to burst.

Another thing is the absolutely loathsome way of giving German films English titles, because they sound less awful that way, mainly because hardly anybody understands what they stand for anyway. If those morons would only know the agony to be asked by one's bright, 80-ish mother what "Suck my Dick" (Yes, the title of a German film!) means, they'd never do it, but then they probably don't HAVE bright mothers or they wouldn't be morons.

Okay, I'm off my soapbox now.

Here is some practical advice for those on both side of the fence, Germano- AND Anglophones, how to avoid the worst pitfalls:

First, there is the recurrent problem of which German article goes with which English word, a problem, for which I don't have a solution to offer save: avoid them (the English words, I mean). I am very tolerant and thus I will put up (although not gladly) with professional linguistic monstrosities like Team-Building-Event, but I will NOT stomach any straying into the private sphere. It is Körper NOT body, one has a Verabredung NOT a date (and yes, there IS enough time for the three more syllables!) and spätes Frühstück NOT brunch.

A more funny (ha ha, not peculiar) aspect of the bastardization of our language is the growing number of embarrassing English words in German -- a damn nuisance as well, but at least entertaining. Ever seen "Big Willy, der Superspender" (Big Willy, the super donor) toilet roll dispensers in public lavatories? Or "Children's Strip Tickets" (special public transport tickets in Munich for children)? Or the cotton wool wads called "Balls"? Why on earth they have to use the English plural and not the German one, which would spare them the embarrassment, is beyond me, but maybe it's not 'cosmopolitan' enough. (Just for the record, be careful if you talk to a German about "eggs" = "Eier". It might cause intense discomfiture!)

On the other hand, don't be puzzled or embarrassed by words that contain "Fa(h)rt". Yes, it's pronounced just like that, but rest assured, it's just derived from the verb fahren - to drive and thus bears no discomforting connotation. Einfahrt means way in, Ausfahrt means way out, or exit off a motorway. Fahrt means a car-, bus, coach or train journey, Fahrtzeit is the time taken for same journey. There are many more compounds, just watch out.

Then there are those phoney Anglicisms, which aren't known in English or, at least, to fox the unwary, not in that context, like Military for three-day-eventing (because it was originally an officers' sport), Smoking for dinner jacket/tuxedo, Handy for mobile/cell phone, Dressman for a male model, Whirlpool for Jacuzzi, Zappen for channel hopping or Cut for morning coat. To most English speakers aspiring to learn German it is most confusing and to those Germans walking the opposite way disappointing to learn that their English vocabulary is -- not English at all.

Another phenomenon that will never cease to amaze me is the thing that easiest identifies a German as such as soon as he opens his mouth. What is that? Neither, as one might think, the too moist and somewhat awkward pronunciation of the tee-eitch or the artless flat "a". No, it is the stubborn mix-up of "vee" and "dubbelyou"! I could, to a certain extent, understand why Germans pronounce both alike and like "vee", because the German language has no "dubbleyou", but if it were only that easy! It drives me positively up the wall when Germans say (and you can bet your ass that they ALWAYS do) "Gone vith the Vind", yet, at the same time, "Miami Wice". WHY?

Then there are certain words that need to remain untranslated because they are, well, untranslatable. Mainly because they don't have an equivalent in German as the underlying concept doesn't actually exist here. "Sophisticated" is a word that you'll find untranslatable, simply because Germans ARE hardly ever sophisticated. The same applies to "understatement". Not that all Germans are braggarts, but the particularly British notion of understatement totally clashes with the German inclination for straight-to-the-point openness or, as some would call it, rudeness. So, dear native English speaker in Germany, beware of understatements, because telling your colleagues -- or, Heavens Forbid, your boss! -- that your vocational efforts "aren't going too badly" will seriously dampen your career prospects. To clue you up on straight German talk, and I hope this will give the native English speakers among you an idea about cross-cultural communications with Germans: I once used to work for a chap who asked his sales force, when sales figures turned a bit sour, whether they would like to pick up their teeth with broken fingers because he was soon going to use a baseball bat on them, and as he was a strapping seven-footer (no kidding!) that was doubtlessly quite an incentive. I really liked that chap. He had a priceless sense of humour and we got on like a house on fire.

Reversely, "Innigkeit", "gemütlich" or "schwärmerisch" are words that are not translatable into English at all, because they are weighed down with a wealth of late 18th and 19th Century German literature that starts with the Blue Flower of Romanticism, ends with the Holocaust and is incomprehensible to anybody who hasn't gone through the agony of a German higher education. "Intimacy", "enthusiastic" or "cosy" don't even BEGIN to cover them, but then, English Romanticism culminated in Miss Marple Novels and not in the Holocaust.

But I digress… Lets talk about euphemisms, a term that does exist in German (Euphemismus, derived from Greek euphEmismos, from euphEmos auspicious) according to Merriam-Webster "an agreeable or inoffensive expression that is substituted for one that might offend or suggest unpleasantness. In English and specifically in American English, "vandalism", for example, might go under the euphemism of "souvenir hunting", but anything like that would be considered deeply cynical by Germans, as German usage knows generally very few euphemisms, as shown in the case of the unlucky chap who used an understatement to the detriment of his career. Likewise, no German dinner party hostess would be upset if you told her that her pork belly tasted "interesting". She'd take your word at face value and be happy to have offered you a new prandial experience. And where an American may comment "You're looking very healthy these days" (and an educated Englishman would, of course, not comment AT ALL), a German would simply say "You've grown quite fat", without necessarily intending any insult. That said, quite a few (not all) Germans are fond of deliberately hiding her bloody-mindedness behind this German trait, which they call then "honesty". Which is isn’t.

Going to Germany? Wanna know more? Ask me!



Thanks to Gudrun Eussner and her thoughts on the German- versus the English Romantic Period.

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