Deep impact
English is exporting not only words but grammar into other languages

by R.L.G. | BERLIN

GERMANS joke about their bad English. In Berlin, you can buy fridge magnets with German expressions over-literally translated into English, like “It is me sausage”—a word-for-word rendering of Es ist mir Wurst, or “it’s all the same to me”. “German Quatsch” on Twitter has many more. But educated Germans usually speak English quite well. The reality is that, to a deeper extent than commonly realised, German is changing under constant influence from English.

In “Denglisch”, as with its cousins Franglais and Espanglés, what most people notice is decades of word borrowing: le week-end, das Recycling, el jonrón (“home run”) and the like. Like it or hate it, borrowing of this kind is unlikely to stop; in a press conference yesterday in Berlin, on the possibility of the Greek government issuing IOUs as a kind of parallel currency, the English word “IOUs” was used about as many times as the perfectly good German Schuldscheine, in a press conference conducted entirely in German. (Of course the word “Grexit” was also in the air; the Germans have jokingly coined their own, Graustritt, but do not use it.)

Words are the most visible and common form of exchange. But they are not the deepest. Germans are noticing that English is changing their fixed phrases, and even grammar.

In English, something “makes sense”. For Germans, though, “es hat Sinn” (it has sense) or “es ist sinnvoll” (it’s sensible). The German is actually more logical. How, as in English, is something sensible actually making sense? The question is unanswerable; language is weird, and idioms especially. But nonetheless, many Germans are starting to say es macht Sinn, a loan-translation straight from English. Germans are proud of being thoughtful and logical; the idea that making sense is something they would have to borrow from the English might give a traditionalist the shivers.

The influence of business English is noticeable elsewhere. People working in multilingual offices will find themselves saying “I’ll call you back”. In German, that would normally be ich rufe Sie wieder an. But the word-for-word English loan-translation is gaining ground: more Germans are saying ich rufe Sie zurück.

Bastian Sick, a former language columnist for Der Spiegel, listed many more in a piece titled Ich erinnere das nicht, “I don’t remember.” The title is both the problem itself and an example of it: increasingly, Germans do not remember that "to remember", sich erinnern, is a reflexive form and so should be Ich erinnere mich nicht daran. Another example is using Ich denke… to introduce an opinion, something that would traditionally come after Ich meine… When discussing things that happened in a given year, Germans traditionally just mention the year, shorn of any adornment. But they are starting to use “in 2015”, English-style.

When Germans borrow a verb from English, tough decisions loom. Some words will take the German set of conjugation endings fairly easily: ich google, du googelst, er googelt. (“I Google, you Google, he Googles.”) The Duden dictionary, the standard reference in the country, has taken up googeln and prescribes the right endings. But some words or forms throw Germans for a loop. Downloaden looks like one of German’s “separable” verbs made of two parts, and in the perfect tense (used for past events) a -ge- goes between the parts: anrufen becomes angerufen, herkommen becomes hergekommen. So downgeloadet? But Down is not a traditional separable German prefix. So gedownloadet, then? Germans vary between the two, as well as an even more English form: gedownloaded. (The native heruntergeladen fights a rearguard battle.)

Other languages are seeing the same thing happen: English forms are not just being borrowed, but taking deep root in the home language. Spoken Quebec French, surrounded by English on all sides, allows sentences like Ça c’est la fille que je parlais avec, with colloquial English word order, the preposition at the end: that’s the girl I was talking with. Some linguists think this is a natural evolution, not an English borrowing. But many natural changes happen, as with biological evolution; not all survive. This one in Quebec is surely more likely to do so if its speakers are deeply familiar with the parallel version in English.
In many of the cases, the English version is simpler: ich erinnere das nicht is shorter and more straightforward than ich erinnere mich daran nicht. But even fairly complex grammar is usually easy for native speakers; the mind is a miracle that way. So the change to English betrays not simply a preference for simpliclity; it shows that speakers of German or French find themselves thinking rather a lot in English, so much so the English patterns spring to mind as readily as the German.

Those who write anguished letters to newspaper editors will never like this kind of thing. A more positive way to think about it is that it simply shows cultural exchange, the result of intensive contact. English, after all, is a Germanic language with a lot of French in it, not only in vocabulary but also grammar. At least the English influence, now running the other way, is not a result of physical conquest and colonisation. The French Academy will never like it, but the open secret is that nobody obeys the French Academy anyway.

Jul 16th 2015