Wanderlust Sends German Words Traveling | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.08.2006
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Wanderlust Sends German Words Traveling

What do autobahn, fest, flugelhorn, angst and gesundheit all have in common? You guessed it: They all come from the language of Goethe, Thomas Mann and Rammstein. You know more German words than you think you do.


Model Heidi Klum probably doesn't eat many hamburgers, under any name

As many parts of the world are trying to pluck out the bits of English that snuck their way into the local language, the thousands of German words that managed to do some literal traveling of their own seem safe abroad.

Kindergarten, for example, is one of many German words that have gotten around and been warmly received in far off places.

"Germans introduced kindergartens and so the word was adopted as well," said Peter Lucko, a professor at the Institute for Anglo-American Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin. "It's kind of cute that in Australia the word is shortened to just 'kinder.'"

German philosophy and science color foreign languages

Lese-Oma im Kindergarten

Kindergarten: Both the word and the idea were exported from Germany

For a long time, German was considered the language of culture, philosophy and science, and ideas as well as the German inventions often maintained their German name when implemented abroad.

The Nazi period, however, tarnished the language's reputation, particularly in the English-speaking parts of the world, leading to words of war and destruction being taken from Nazi propaganda -- and associated with Germany.

Blitzkrieg is among the adopted German words that stem from the Nazi period, Lucko said.

"The verb 'to blitz' comes from it, which means something like 'suddenly' or 'to ambush.' It can be transferred to other contexts, like football or even tennis: 'He blitzed him in the first set' or something like that," Lucko added.

Was ist das? A skylight, of course

Einfamilienhaus Richtfest

Don't forget the "what do you call it"

The negative overtones of the German language seem to have faded over the last half a century, though a contest sponsored by the Goethe Institute and the German Language Council showed just how popular the language of Heinrich Heine and Günter Grass has become beyond the German-Swiss-Austrian triangle.

Participants were asked to submit German words or expressions used in their language and to explain the meaning the foreign term may have taken. Some 850, mainly positive, entries have been submitted during the contest's first month.

The most frequently submission so far is not a word but a group of words: w asistdas.

"Not was ist das?," Cem Dalaman enunciated, referring to the German expression "what is that?" which has been modified in his native Turkish. "It's said together and very quickly. Wasistdas. That's the Turkish word for 'skylight.'"

Connections made through language

Habseligkeiten - schönstes deutsches Wort

"Habseligkeiten" (property) was deemed the most beautiful German word in 2004

"First of all, the contest is interesting for Germans because they get to see where and how their language is used. On the other hand, we also want to make people abroad aware that there are elements of their language that come from ours, and we can establish a connection in this way," said Katharina von Ruckteschell from the Goethe Institute.

Two years ago, the Goethe Institute called for nominations for the most beautiful German word. Of the 40,000 submissions, half came from abroad.

Hamburgers: a tasty misunderstanding

German words particularly tend to pop up in regions where German immigrants have settled, such as North America, Eastern Europe, and Russia.

Eine Portion Pommes frites mit Ketchup p178

Frikadell's ideal side dish doesn't come from France, but that's a different story

One of the world's most common German words is hamburger -- though in German it's actually a misnomer. Germans actually say a Hamburger is a man from Hamburg and that Hamburgers call hamburgers Frikadelle. Got that?

"A hamburger originally meant a steak cooked in the traditional Hamburg way," Locko said. "In Berlin it's called Bulette, in Hamburg Frikadelle -- a fried meatball in a bun."

When Americans first saw the filling treats brought over by German immigrants, they probably confused ham from Hamburger with the English meat type and assumed burger referred to the rest of the meal, Locko added.

Historical anecdotes often accompany adopted foreign words, whether they are misunderstood or their original meaning is maintained. The Goethe Institute and German Language Council are planning to publish the most interesting results of the borrowed word contest in October.

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