Do words go to vocabulary heaven when they die? A Berlin author is out to find the most beautiful "endangered" word in the German language -- and to save other dying words from a morbid fate.
New words enter the German language every day. Many of them are borrowed from English, like "Blockbuster" and "Brunch." Others -- like "cool" and its more German-sounding equivalent "geil" -- belong to an ever changing youth culture.
Omissions are just as common as additions. Some words simply fall into the black hole of disuse. Some are forgotten because they no longer apply to modern life. Still others are eventually rejected for sounding old-fashioned or out-of-date.
The older, and more literal "Schutzmann" (protection man) has been updated as "Polizist" (police officer), for example, while "Spielautomat" (slot machine) has replaced "Groschengrab," which refers to the same thing, but in a more colorful manner. It literally means "penny grave."
Endangered word list
Bodo Mrozek, a 38-year-old author from Berlin, has taken on the Sisyphean task of rescuing endangered words and even trying to reinstate some of them into modern German speech.
"If you grew up in the 1980s then you heard about forests being cut down and whales becoming extinct," said Mrozek in an interview with the Tageszeitung. "But no one lobbied for words and that's why I think it's important to take on this underestimated threat."
In his quest to find the most beautiful endangered German word, Mrozek has invited the public to suggest their favorites through Feb. 28, 2007.
The person who submits the winning word, selected by a panel of five well-known German authors, will receive a trophy shaped like a cheeseball adorned with toothpicks. In German this party appetizer is called a "Käseigel," which literally means "cheese hedgehog" and, appropriately, is among the many endangered words Mrozek is lobbying for.
So far, 25,000 words have been submitted, 800 of which have made it to Mrozek's so-called Red List of endangered words.
English less threatened
According to Mrozek, German words are in greater danger than their English counterparts.
Germany's authoritative Duden lexicon is content to let words slip through the linguistic cracks. It simply omits those that have fallen out of use, Mrozek told Tageszeitung.
The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, sees itself as a documenter of the English language and still contains words from Shakespeare's time, added the author.
Trend-setting with old-fashioned words
Mrozek says he hopes that lost words can be rejuvenated if people overcome feelings of being "uncool" and start using them again.
While Mrozek's efforts to solicit submissions has met with success, it will likely be more difficult to convince people to invite their friends to "Gabelsfrüstück" (literally, fork breakfast) instead of "Brunch" or to come along to the local cinema on Friday night for the lastest Hollywood "Kassenschlager" (literally, cash register hitter) instead of a "Blockbuster."
To some, the older German version sounds a bit too folksy. In a country where patriotism is still equated with nationalism, some German-speakers are concerned about sounding too German -- even right-wing -- and not international enough.
For those words that can't be resuscitated, a graveyard could be constructed, said Mrozek. It would have to be in an endangered area, such as in a derelict town in eastern Germany or a run-down industrial park in western Germany. And the craftsmen, whose professions are likewise endangered, would use endangered tools to fashion gravestones for the words that have passed out of the standard vocabulary and into word heaven.