Understanding ‘Germlisch’

The Strange and Wondrous Things That Happen to English in Vienna

News | Joerg Michner | February 2007

Have you ever been to a country where you could not understand the language, like Vietnam? Or Hungary? Experienced travelers are not that easily confused.

But what happens if you come to a country where you don’t understand your own language? To English speakers  in a German-speaking country, this usually happens on their first day.

You might hear the radio DJ praising the new Viennese "shooting star," read about Austria’s favorite "talkmaster" interviewing a celebrity and have your business associate ask you for your "handy" number.

The logical consequence is a mixed state of bafflement and musing: Why do these people use English words that don’t make sense? And that you have never heard before? Americans  tend to think these are British words, and Brits tend to think these are stupid people.

The Brits may actually have a point, for why is a rising star, a talented newcomer, referred to as "shooting star," which is actually quite the opposite? How did the "talkmaster" master his talking, and what’s more – where did he graduate from? And what is a "handy" number exactly, as numbers usually come in quite handy when you need them…?

The answer to all this is actually quite simple: In the German-speaking world, English sells. Of course, sex sells too, like everywhere else, but sex in English sells even better. While German is probably the most suitable language for legal and technical purposes, English is the more creative, the better sounding of the two. You can peak the English charts singing something meaningless like "Obladi Oblada," but you wouldn’t sell a single copy of a product named Kleinstweich Fenster (Microsoft Windows).

Particularly strange are situations where German native speakers are speaking English, believing that the English (sounding) word they use is the actual word used in English – a so-called pseudo-Anglicism: A few years ago, some – probably self-appointed – marketing experts had a brilliant idea. In their minds, the German word for backpack suddenly was out, un-cool and not trendy enough. Eventually they decided to advertise their product with the flashy new name body bag. Allegedly the German airline Lufthansa sold body bags on their in-flight service for a while, causing massive unease among English-speaking travelers. Had the marketing experts consulted the dictionary, they would have learned that another English word for backpack is rucksack – the only German word for backpack. And a body bag, well, that’s something else.

In comparison, one can only smile at a Pullunder (a sleeveless sweater vest that can be worn underneath a sport coat, obviously as opposed to a pull-over), when someone is singing playback (to ad-lib), or when a football player is wearing a "dress" instead of a jersey. And when your business partners are hectically looking for a "Beamer" before their presentation starts, they are not trying to bring a German luxury car to the conference room on the 12th floor, but are simply in search of a video projector.

Naturally, the youth culture is forging the trail in discovering or inventing new words, so it does not surprise that marketing strategists actually jumped a bandwagon here. In the 1980s, Austria’s since deceased pop superstar Falco conquered the airwaves worldwide – making him the only Austrian to ever top the US Charts – with his smash hit Rock Me Amadeus. While many of his songs exist in both a German (Viennese) and an international (English) version, the original German versions are probably the birth of what is today called Germenglisch – a mixture of Deutsch and Englisch. A great example would be the second verse from his 1986 hit The Sound of Musik (note that the English version’s title is The Sound of Music): "Der Bube fragt den König: hey baby / do you wanna dance? / Sie machen history / denn sie sind scharf wie nie / the first pre-elected Rock ‘n’ Roll band." Paired with Falco’s coolness and style, he soon became a role model of sorts for youths in Vienna, and eventually – with lesser impact – for the rest of Austria and Germany. Soon it became vital to throw in as many English words into German sentences as possible in order to be cool – whether or not you or anyone else actually understood them properly. One of the greatest Viennese relics from this time is the saying ‘auf Jennifer’ (‘Jennifer-style’), meaning ‘fast’, derived from the name of 1980s pop singer Jennifer Rush, whose last name sounds like the German word rasch, which means ‘quick.’ But then so does the English.

Soon advertising campaigns, radio jingles, product names – basically everything that is intended to generate a profit – became English, or at least ‘spiced up’ with English expressions. Marketing managers did their math and started to use English as a tool, a means to an end: Young people have a strong urge to be cool, to belong, so they are more willing to buy products that respond to their definition of coolness.

However, in recent years companies have started to rethink this strategy as an increased number of people – potential customers – began to resist the prevalence of English in German. A number of societies have been founded promoting the use of existing German words instead of introducing and (over)using new English ones.

Unlike France though, where the government had introduced a radio quota in 1994 requiring stations to play at least 40% French artists during the daytime, in Austria, politicians have stayed out of the discussion. At least so far. One reason might be gemutlichkeit, the Austrian version of the British policy of appeasement, but it is more likely that companies have themselves realized that they are going down a dead end street.

Several studies – the most recent being a Nov. 2006 survey by Endmark, a German marketing consultant specializing in brand names – confirmed that the majority of German consumers hardly understand English slogans. For example only a mere 8% of the target group understood British car manufacturer Jaguar’s slogan ‘Life by Gorgeous’ – a devastating number in marketing. After a similar study conducted in 2003 by the "Agentur für Benennungsmarketing" (Agency for Branding) showed equally bad results, the majority of the companies in that study had changed their advertising language from English to German.

Putting all financial aspects aside, linguists have been alarmed for years. For centuries German was one of the most influential languages in the world: German words can be found nearly everywhere, from Japanese to Swahili, from Hebrew to Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin). And what would English-speakers do without words like Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist, Kitsch or even Fahrvergnuegen, which has actually been introduced to the English language by a Volkswagen advertising campaign in the US? Maybe certain people in German-speaking marketing divisions need to be reminded of this next time they are planning a campaign; after all Staubsauger (‘dustsucker’) simply is a much better word than vacuum cleaner…

English native speakers should remain calm over the bastardization of their language, because at the end of the day, the Viennese call the first floor (or ground floor, if you wish) parterre, while the correct French word is actually le rez-de-chaussée.

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