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How to combine German and English

September 1, 2021

From "Handy" to "Oldtimer," the German language is riddled with Anglicisms that can be confusing, says DW's Louisa Schaefer, but that can be celebrated too.

Yellow, blue, pink and white letter beads with the word 'Sprache' in the center
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

One of the sweetest things both of my twins said to me when they were learning to speak was "Dank you." Raising them with a German father and me as a US-American mother (in Germany), it appeared to be the penultimate expression of bilingual politeness. "Dank(e)," of course, is German for "thanks" and seemed to so organically spill out of their mouths.

Perhaps because many German native speakers have a hard time pronouncing the "th" sound, it also seemed to be a pretty clever, efficient way of getting around that "th" messiness.

It was in these moments when my kids were little that it was hard to tell just which "Muttersprache" they would adopt. Muttersprache (literally: "mother language," but we would say in English "mother tongue" or "native language") is one of those amazing, absolutely convincing hybrid words that are possible in German: melding different words into one, giving them a new meaning that is both lovely and apt.

English is virtually everywhere

My kids are fortunate to grow up bilingually. When I was a kid growing up in the US Midwest, I envied other children who spoke more than just English.

Today, with the internet and social media, nearly everyone across the planet can utter an English word or two; sometimes those words even become part of the other language, and people barely notice.

Much has been said about the Anglicisms that have either crept or bull-dozed their way into the German language over the years. Often enough, however, these English words are used differently in German: like "Handy" for "cell phone" and "Oldtimer" for "vintage car."

English words the Germans use wrongly

Years ago, it would irk me how Germans, especially in the business or marketing fields, would throw around the colloquial expression: "know-how." They would use it in a formal setting, in which we native English speakers would rely on the more elegant term "expertise."

That's a thing of the past. Nowadays, in German, you'll hear English words: influencer, lockdown, binge-watching and cisgender. In fact, the just-in-August-published edition of the Duden dictionary, the preeminent German language reference work, includes such words, in English. This is much to the chagrin of language purists who say that all these Anglicisms are leading to the corruption of the German language.

Languages evolve

Any linguist will tell you that languages are constantly evolving — or not. If fewer and fewer people speak them, they become endangered or go extinct. If spoken widely enough, they develop over time. They reflect what is happening in a cultural or societal context.

So, it's not at all unusual for a German to say: "Mein Computer updatet gerade das neuste Software." (My computer is updating the latest software.) It used to make me roll my eyes. Now, it's totally normal.

A cartoon with three businessmen discussing at a meeting
In the DW series 'That's so German,' cartoonist Fernandez also pokes fun how widespread English terms are in German

Andrea-Eva Ewels, managing director of the Association for the German Language (GfdS), told DW that such developments do not endanger the German language: "Our language is not declining; it is just changing because the world is constantly changing."

WhatsApp and Twitter posts are not maiming the German language either, she added. People were able to reduce their speech to a bare minimum when telegrams were sent centuries ago.

"Language changes all the time: that's natural," Aria Adli, linguistics professor at the University of Cologne, told DW. "If parents complain that today's youth don't speak proper German, one could just as well say that the older generation hasn't learned to speak the way people speak today."

Painting with sounds

In the recent, extremely hot summer, it wasn't unusual to hear the phrase "flip-flops" in German conversations. I love it in English because of its onomatopoeia-ness — the words resonating the sound of what they are referring to. (Incidentally, the German word for onomatopoeia is actually pretty cool, too: "Lautmalerei," which literally translates as the painting of a sound.) 

Even after over 30 years in Germany, I still learn new words all the time. In a newspaper ad, I recently came across the actual German term for flip-flops: "Zehengreiferpantoletten." That encompasses a whopping 23 (yes, 23!) letters in German. Despite looking at the illustrating image and reading the language fluently, it still took a second for my brain to compute. Literally: "toe-gripping sandals." 

Flip-flops vs. toe-gripping sandals is a perfect illustration of how differently the two languages work: In this case, the English term is so musical. But, the German, ah, the German is so visual. It's made up of three different words put together — and a tongue-twister to boot! 

Read more: Millions of Germans have trouble reading and writing

Flip flops presented in a circle according to rainbow colors
Languages evolve, say linguists: 'Flip-flops' has become a common term in German tooImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Whatever works

There you have it, language purists: both the German and English are possible. And that's exactly what my bilingual twins have learned over the years.

When they were around 4, they would express love by combining a bit of both languages, saying, "I liebe you." 

Now, virtual teenagers at 12, they utilize the same strategy: whatever works best. Around 90% of the time they speak to me in German, unless they want something, and then they cleverly ask for it in English. Now, THAT is Muttersprache for you.

A typical conversation:

1.) Their describing their school day (in German)

2.) My asking them (in English) to do their homework

3.) Their responding with "Ich habe schon den ganzen Tag geworkt." ("I've worked all day long" — except they slyly employ the English verb and conjugate it the German way.)

4.) Lastly, in perfect English, their asking: "Mom, can I have some money/watch Netflix/play video games?"

The bottom line is that languages can enrich each other when they are cleverly and creatively combined. Whatever works. Dank you very much.

You'll find more from Meet the Germans on Instagram,  YouTube  or at Meet the Germans

DW Editor and reporter Louisa Schaefer smiling into the camera.
Louisa Schaefer Culture editor and reporter based in Cologne/Bonn, originally from the US