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English Onslaught

DW staff (jam)March 21, 2007

A group of center-right politicians said German is being inundated with Anglicisms that make life difficult for those without a grasp of English. They're calling on the government and industry to stick to "Deutsch."

English names like "Service Point" for a railway info counter are confusing to someImage: picture-alliance

The Christian Union faction in the Bundestag said there is no reason why people should be at a loss in shops or railway stations in Germany simply because they have not studied English. A group of politicians has begun an initiative on Tuesday to encourage both the government and businesses to dispense with unnecessary English, which they say can lead to confusion or incomprehension.

"We can see that more and more people are being excluded from daily communication," said Erika Steinbach, the Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) human rights spokesperson.

McDonalds - ich liebe es Werbekampagne
McDonald's translated its slogan into German years agoImage: AP

She said that advertising in particular is increasingly being written in English and is not understood by a large percentage of population, especially the elderly, immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, and Germans from the former East Germany, where Russian was generally studied as a foreign language instead of English.

She and other conservative politicians pointed to the German rail system, Deutsche Bahn, as a particularly egregious example of unnecessary English usage. The company often uses English terms for its service offerings, such as "Service Point" for its information counters at rail stations, "Surf & Rail" for special Internet-only ticketing, or "Call-a-Bike" for its bicycle rental service.

One-third 'excluded'

According to the group behind the initiative, which is calling itself "Consumer Language Protection," some 33 percent of people in German do not understand English. While this part of the population might be perplexed at the train station or outside a cafe offering "coffee to go," the use of English in some situations could even be dangerous, such as when a label on a space heater says "do not cover" only in English or when a sign in a taxi says "please fasten your seatbelt" instead of Bitte anschnallen.

Englischunterricht für Drittklässler in Nordrhein-Westfalen
These German kids are learning English, which is almost a necessity these daysImage: dpa

Steinbach said she realized English use was too widespread in Germany when she saw an older woman confronted with the word "sale" in a shop window, and thought the store was referring to a river. The woman was also perplexed at by the signs talking about the "news" or the latest "special offer."

She pointed to a 2003 survey showing that more than one half of the 1,100 people between the ages of 14 and 49 polled could not correctly translate various advertising slogans in English.

"This isn't about German jingoism," CDU cultural spokesperson Gitta Connemann told the dpa news agency. "It's about the daily usage of the German language."

Parliamentary motion

The Union bloc is hoping to get its center-left colleagues from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on board and present a parliamentary proposal that would call on business and the government to communicate in understandable German.

Sale - reduziert
This sign is bilingual, but many simply dispense with the GermanImage: dpa

The motion would have three goals: to require the government to write its laws, official statements and other documents and signs in clear German; to ask industries owned or partially owned by the government to describe their products in offerings in German; and to ask private businesses to ensure that their operation manuals and guarantees are presented to consumers auf Deutsch.

"We would be happy if terms were done away with that lead to misinformation," said Christian Fronczak, spokesperson for Germany's consumer protection association.

The initiative has also been hailed by the Association of the German Language, a 27,000-member-strong organization that has long complained of the creeping Anglicization of German.

Gerd Schrammer, the group's spokesperson, told the newsmagazine Stern that while his group has long feared that English words could turn German into an "ugly gibberish," the defense against Anglicisms has a political dimension as well.

"Every English word that we use is a genuflection in front of the ruling world power, the USA," he said.