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Culture

When German Words Travel, Our Zeitgeist Goes Oom-Pah-Pah

Why do Finnish buses take coffee breaks? And why are the French always puzzled when they look at a skylight? It's because they use words of German origin, sometimes without even realizing it.

Poster for the Migrated Words project

No reason for Schadenfreude: German is an international language

Many students of the German language -- especially those who suffered their way through cruel, Teutonic grammar drills, lost their sense of orientation trying to order their German words correctly, or wounded both their tongues and sense of self-esteem with sharp, unpronounceable compound words -- get rather surprised when they come to Germany and hear the language of Goethe in actual use.

A German language textbook

German grammar is not for the faint of heart

People in Germany are often invited to attend "ein Meeting," asked to bring along their "down-geloadete" information and told "sorry" (with a rolling "r") when somebody bumps into them on the street.

But -- even in the age of digital communication, dominated by the English language and US American pop culture -- it is not only English words that cross national and linguistic borders.

The German Language Council recently organized an international contest called "Word Migrations." People from 70 countries -- ranging from Mexico to Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea to Nigeria -- participated in the linguistic hunt for German words that "migrated" to other languages. Over 6,000 such words were submitted. A winner was drawn from the entries and the award ceremony took place Thursday in Munich.

Coffee break par excellence

"The response to our first advertisement was enormous," said Rudolf Hoberg of the Association for the German Language, one of the organizations participating in the German Language Council.

Photo of a bus

German buses rarely need to go for a coffee break

The winning entry also showed that Germany is not only a language of profound philosophy and utmost, technical efficiency, but also a language of leisure and procrastination.

Susanne Bätjer from Germany was wondering why a Finnish public-transit bus, which she saw in 2005, had the word "Kaffepaussi" displayed on its automated destination display. Do Finnish buses really take coffee breaks? Bätjer learned in the end that the German word for coffee break had acquired an additional, slightly different, meaning in Finnish: "out of order."

Some German words -- such as kindergarten, zeitgeist, and sauerkraut -- have long been known as German imports into the English language. But the goal of the project was to go beyond the obvious examples and explore the extent to which German words have infiltrated other languages.

"We wanted to find out what German words are used on an everyday basis in other countries," Hoberg said.

A colorful collection

The results of this survey -- which one could best place in the category of linguistic anthropology -- told a fascinating story of German technical expertise, colonial history, cultural stereotypes and a delightful sense of humor.

Several people holding vodka bottles

Vodka is a great way to spread international understanding

The Turkish rail system was started in 1913 with German assistance, which is why Turkish train conductors always cry "fertik" ("fertig" -- ready or finished in German) when the train is about to leave the station. In Cameroon, once a German colony, train stations are called "banop" ("Bahnhof"). If one is anesthetized in Tanzania, they are -- all joking aside -- "nusu kaput" (half-broken). In Afrikaans, the language of Dutch settlers in South Africa, an impatient German is an "Aberjetzte" ("aber jetzt" in German means "on the double" or "ASAP").

"The vocabulary of the German language is far better known abroad than we thought," Hoberg said.

And even though contributions came from all over the word -- the Russians raise a glass of vodka to "Brudershaft," a gesture of friendship and brotherhood (German "Brüderschaft"), while some American presidential candidates can be best described as wishy-washy (from German "wischi-waschi," lacking a clear-cut standpoint) -- most of the words were submitted from Eastern Europe and Anglo-Saxon cultural areas.

What's that?

A teacher in a classroom

Learning German is for many students an excercise in delayed gratification

It may come as a surprise, however, that the most frequently submitted entry was the French word for skylight -- "vasistas." In the original German, "was ist das" means, literally, "what's that?" Yet most French speakers probably don't pay attention to the fact that skylights in French provoke, etymologically speaking, a sense of puzzled inquiry about the state of the world.

It is also unlikely that Japanese students who have an odd student job called "arubaito" realize that they are, from an etymological point of view, part of Germany's labor-intensive work culture ("Arbeit" means work in German).

"The project does not attempt a linguistic investigation," Hoberg said. "Some words that were sent in might well be only passing fads."

Whether as temporary guest workers in foreign languages, or as naturalized citizens, German words have long left the confines of the German-speaking world. A large collection of colorful cross-linguistic gems -- along with personal anecdotes and insights into the way cultures collide and enrich each other -- has now been collected and published as a book under the title "Ausgewanderte Wörter" (available in German only).

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