We’re All Living In Amerika

Great song by Rammstein, for those of you who are unaware. They’re one of those bands I only recently discovered and they are, well, interesting to a once prudish American.

It’s very easy to tell where the West and the East began and ended in this city. On the side that used to be East Germany, the buildings are almost always old concrete buildings that are absolutely heinous but look historically accurate. All the stores are small, and there are few major franchises.

Then there’s the former West, or as I like to call it, Empire of H&M. I swear to God, if they put one more of those stores in this city I’m moving back to the USA and calling it a day. Yes, I know H&M are a Swedish company, but still, it’s a major franchise. You get the point.

The West is dotted with gigantic malls, even sporting a few Dunkin’ Donuts, which aren’t even popular in Canada! And here, Dunkin’ Donuts is everywhere, making Germans, already a sturdy-built people, fat and unhealthy. I envy their success, but at some point you’d think they’d say enough money is enough, and that this should stay an American thing. The West has lost a lot of its character because of major franchises and, even in the somewhat smaller area of Steglitz, where I currently exist, I often feel more as if I’m standing in New York than in Berlin.

Then there’s the English that is ubiquitous and unavoidable. On the one hand, every country mocks North Americans for their inability to speak other languages. Looking at you, France. Then with the same breath, they’re using words from English, making signs in English, switching to English the moment they hear an accent, etc.

On this note, things can get a bit dicey. I fully realise English is the international language at present. Far more people study English than German. In spite of all I’ve just complained about, I was very happy in Hungary to see that the signs were in English or German, since Hungarian is so far removed from most other languages that no one learns it. That makes sense. No one, unfortunately, learns Hungarian. But German is a widely studied language, and most of the words on signs can be understood without having learnt it. Plus when you go to a country you should have a bit of the language down anyway, in case you end up where no one speaks English. Here, the moment you leave the Ring, the English speaking disappears. But tourists also don’t go outside the Ring most of the time.

Then there’s the fact that English is cool. Many German franchises, and even the Berlin Transit Organisation, have English catchphrases and signs. Like the cafe with a German name and the subtitle “finest espresso”. This makes a bit of sense, since it’s hip to use English in that way. But it also degrades the value of German in a way.

Another axe I have to grind is with German slang and Anglicisms (using an English word or sentence structure in a foreign language). Anyone who has spent three seconds on the streets of Montréal will hear someone discussing how much French he/she can speak, in English, with friends. And next to him/her will be someone muttering a half-French-half-English sentence, probably complaining about how many Anglicisms there are in French. And to be honest, there are good and bad Anglicisms.

Good Anglicisms in German: “awkward”, since there are only a few words which closely approximate the same meaning as English, but they aren’t really the same thing, namely “unheimlich” (uncomfortable) and “peinlich” (painful). And that’s about it.

Terrible Anglicisms in German (so that no one complains I capitalised some things and not others, German capitalises all nouns and almost nothing else):

  • “strange”: e.g. “Das ist so strange”; I’m not really sure why this word exists in German. There are already “komisch”, “fremd”, “seltsam”, “fremdartig”, etc. which all mean “weird” in different ways. Germans also use “weird”, believe it or not. The girl I went on a date with said “strange” and “weird” more than ten times in German.
  • “Meeting”: e.g. “Ich habe ihn beim Meeting gesehen”; again, there are ten or twelve words already in German for this, describing different types of meetings, like “Treffung”, “Rendezvous”, “Termin”, etc. Yes, some are borrowed from French, but that’s a different matter and the words have been used in German for far too long to be taken out.
  • Basically anything business related. Like “Businesslunch”, “Manager”, “Senior Partner”, “Assistant Manager”, etc. There are tons of ways to express this in German without using English words.

But wait, Stadden, says the twelve-year-old white girl on study abroad with her high-pitched valley girl voice, English has stolen a bunch of words from other languages, mostly French, and there are a lot of ones from German, as well!

Yes, Britnayy (I gave her a name), I’d elucidate, but English also began as a slang language so it’s natural it had to steal words from other languages, plus Great Britain was invaded by the French and Romans so we have a bunch of words from them, and every language borrows words from other languages to have different levels of speech, which is entirely fine in my book since I’m a snobby elitist wannabe. But, I would add, English also didn’t have a way to express many of these words.

For example, how do you form a word so convenient as Schadenfreude in English? Damagehappiness? It’s silly. The German one is just fine and it confuses your unenlightened friends.

Or, for another example, Gestalt. A great word to use, since if you say it with enough confidence, anyone who asks you what it means instantly looks stupid and you’ve won any argument. It’s just a nice, neat package.

Or, for another example, this time from French, almost all the words for cooked foods in English are from French. Think of pig (German) vs pork (French), cow (German) vs beef (French). Thanks to William the Conqueror, the lowly Anglo-Saxons raised the animals, which the French then cooked. Anglo-Saxons used one word to describe an animal both cooked and live, while the French used one word likewise. But as English developed and culinary traditions came from France, generally, there was a divergence and we began to opt for German words for live animals and French words for the meats they produce. Fun fact.

But again, we don’t have words for these concepts in English, or they’re too clumsy in our own word formation system to make them useful. For this reason, I accept some but not all borrowings.

It’s entirely fine that English is cool and hip, and that some words get borrowed here and there like we do from all languages, but at the same time I think there’s a point at which it begins to make the language it is borrowed into less valuable and less beautiful.

There is also one other reason I can sort of accept the use of English words in other languages: Much of our borrowed vocabulary in any language depends on the context in which it is used. The reason so many French words exist in German is that the French were the ones who developed diplomacy as we know it today (since they were always retreating), and French was the hip language for a few hundred years. Thus, many official terms in German applying to diplomacy and correspondence are French, since they used the French words in that context. Or in Russian, virtually all words for art are from French, since Peter the Great was obsessed with making Russia a European power, even to the point of changing the word base. In addition, all the nobility spoke English, French, and German to each other (this is why Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, written in Russian, features extensive sections in the original German, French, and English without translation; he was basically saying, “If you can’t read all these without a translation, you don’t deserve to be reading what I have to say”).

So even though I’m bitching that English is destroying everything, there is precedent for it and some language (probably French again based on birth rates but also the French suck can I get an Amen) will throw all its words into everyone else’s languages, just like Persian, Greek, Latin, French, German, and English have already. So maybe I’m being a bit unfair. But at the same time, I feel bad that English is changing the word base so drastically in so many languages.

On a final note, let’s just hope the language that begins adding words to other languages once they take over as the international leaders isn’t Finnish. There’s only one word from Finnish in English, ‘sauna’ (fun fact). And why do we need any more? Who needs ‘hypptyyntyydyts’ (‘wedding night intention news’) or ‘yhdeksankymmentakolme’ (’93’). Yeah, I’ll pass.

(Finnish words from http://thefinnishteacher.weebly.com/the-10-best-wordsphrases-in-the-finnish-language.html and http://www.expat-finland.com/living_in_finland/finnish_language.html )


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