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Angst In Germany Over Invasion Of American English


It seems hardly a sentence is spoken in Berlin that doesn't have an American English word in it.

One word that especially grates — and I confess to a certain bias, having learned German as a toddler when it wasn't so Americanized — is a word pronounced "sogh-ee." Or, as Americans say it, "sorry."

"Sogh-ee" your package is late.

"Sogh-ee" your hot water is off.

"Sogh-ee" we can't help you.

Anatol Stefanowitsch, an English linguistics professor at the Free University of Berlin, says it makes sense that many German businesses have adopted that word.

"I mean, 'sorry' is quite a useful way of apologizing because it doesn't commit you to very much. It's very easy to say 'sorry.' The closest equivalent would be Entschuldigung, which is, 'I apologize,' " Stefanowitsch says. "That's really like admitting that you've done something wrong, whereas with saying 'sorry,' you could also just be expressing empathy: 'I'm so sorry for you, but it has nothing to do with me.' "

"Sorry" is one of more than 10,000 American words Germans have borrowed since 1990. Language experts here say English is the main foreign language that has influenced German over the past six decades. This cultural infusion is pervasive, with English used by journalists, by scientists and even at the highest levels of government.

"Germany doesn't really have a very purist attitude to language — unlike France, where you have an academy whose task it is to find French alternatives for borrowings; or if there is a new technology that needs to be named, then the academy will find a name," Stefanowitsch says.

Even purely domestic enterprises like the German rail system are getting into the English game. Christian Renner, waiting at Berlin's main station for a train home to Frankfurt, says it's useful to know English words if you want to find a waiting area.

"I'm not sure if calling it a 'lounge' is better than using the German word 'warteraum,' " Renner says. "I guess it's more modern or hip."

Also confusing to some German passengers is the word for the main ticket "center," instead of the German word "zentrum."

To some language experts, like Holger Klatte, the widespread Americanization of German is problematic. Klatte is the spokesman for the German Language Society, which has 36,000 members worldwide.

Languages do tend to affect one another, but the influence of English in Germany is so strong that Germans are having a hard time advancing their own vocabulary.

"Languages do tend to affect one another, but the influence of English in Germany is so strong that Germans are having a hard time advancing their own vocabulary," he says.

Klatte says that can be a problem for Germans who may not know any English.

"The second world war and Nazi times have led Germans to downplay the importance of their language," he says. "Unlike the French, Finns and Poles — they promote their languages a lot more than we do."

Stefanowitsch believes this linguistic angst — a word that migrated from German to English — is overblown. He says a quarter of all German words are borrowed from other languages. That's more than what's found in Mandarin Chinese, but far less than the 40 to 80 percent seen in English, he says.

Plus Germans integrate the words they borrow — for example the suffix "-gate," as in Watergate, which was voted last year's Anglicism of the year in Germany. Stefanowitsch says it has been used, among other things, to describe the NSA spying scandal on the German chancellor as "Merkel-gate."

"Borrowing doesn't mean that a language loses its vitality. It's an addition of creativity. No language has ever disappeared because it borrowed words," Stefanowitsch says.

But he says there are pitfalls to overdoing Americanized German.

Take, for example, the word "handy," which is what Germans call their cellphones. Stefanowitsch says people here assume it's an English word, and it may have come from the word "handheld" to distinguish it from car phones when cellular technology was relatively new.

He says the danger to such made-up words is that Germans could end up using them when trying to speak actual English.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.