Butchered words and incorrect grammar on WhatsApp and Twitter, and Anglicisms everywhere: For years, critics have been complaining that the German language is deteriorating. But are they right?
"Difficult." "Harassing." "Infuriating."
When it comes to the German language, the 19th-century American writer Mark Twain expressed his views bluntly. In his 1880 essay The Awful German Language, he argued that a gifted person could learn English in 30 hours, French in 30 days and German in 30 years.
"It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it."
In the essay and in his subsequent lecture The Horrors of the German Language, Twain called for radically simplifying the German language. It's a process that is well underway today — and unfortunately so, in the opinion of many Germans. As early as 2008, two-thirds of Germans believed that their language was deteriorating quickly. Online communication, insufficient reading, Anglicisms and youth slang were some of the reasons they named as contributing to this decline.
In 2012, then chairman of the Council for German Orthography, Hans Zehetmair, said language decay was primarily occurring among younger generations that generally use simple vocabulary in text messages and tweets. "German is being reduced to a 'recycling language' in new media. It is being increasingly shortened and simplified and rehashed without any creativity."
Language adapts constantly
According to Andrea-Eva Ewels, the director of the Association for the German Language, one of the Germany's most important government-sponsored language institutions, the reality isn't nearly that dire: "No, our language is not disappearing. It's just consistently changing, in part because the world is changing more rapidly and extensively than ever before," she told DW. "Today, for one, we no longer speak like we did in the 6th century or the Middle Ages."
Ewels believes that language has to constantly adapt to new living circumstances in order to serve as a method of reflection and communication.
That's why she doesn't think that WhatsApp or Twitter is deforming German, as is so often claimed. There is nothing new about using simplified grammar and limited spaces to present comprehensive messages, she says, pointing to the telegram's similar restrictions.
She also says that from a linguistic perspective, there is no proof that the way young generations use language contributes to its decay. "Youth have always had their own language that they've used among themselves and that is very creative, spontaneous, direct and flexible. Young people see their language style as a way to distinguish themselves from adults, and as a space for language innovation and looser usage."
While educators have been sounding the alarm over insufficient spelling and grammar knowledge among school and university students, Ewels says it's nothing. Her association has been receiving complaints from teachers for decades. She sees the neglect of German grammar, such as correctly using its four cases, as part of a natural evolution.
"The transformation of a language always leads to the simplification of its structure. Grammatical functions that have merged with other existing functions and therefore become unnecessary slowly disappear from use."
Germany has a long tradition of bemoaning the decay of the language. In 1721 German Princess Elisabeth Charlotte wondered in a letter to her friend whether Germans had become foolish to the point of letting the language go to seed and making it impossible to understand. In 1852 the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer complained about the "methodically driven adulteration," saying that, "Those incompetents should unleash their stupidity on something other than the German language."
Uproar over foreign words was also common in past centuries. In 1617, at a time when French was spoken in the higher social circles across Europe, a regional German royal founded the Fruitbearing Society ("Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft"). One of its primary goals was keeping High German, or "Hoch Deutsch," free of "interference from strange, foreign words."
Language purists against anglicisms
Just over 400 years later, the German Language Association has this very same aim today. These language purists vehemently push back against Anglicisms and call for greater loyalty to the German language, including through listing it in the constitution as the country's official language.
These positions and constitutional demands leave people like the director of the Association for the German Language shaking their heads. "We take people's complaints seriously, but we see foreign words that do not have a German equivalent as an enrichment of our language," Ewels says. She argues that even as English is increasingly important in Germany, thanks to its position as the global lingua franca, the supposed threat it poses to German through their coming in contact with one another is comparable to the discrepancy between scientifically measurable air temperature and the so-called felt air temperature.
She points out that statistically every third to fifth word in German comes from a foreign language, with roots in Greek or Latin. Only 1-2% of words are based on borrowed English terms. In fact, the most used Anglicisms is "okay" — and according to a 2016 study by polling institute YouGov, it is used frequently by 90% of those people who actually say they reject Anglicisms.