Living in a Denglish World

Denglish_WordDenglish is combination of “Deutsch-English” and describes hybrid words and phrases borrowed between the two languages. There was a recent article in a local German newspaper about someone who sued the German Federal Employment Agency because one of its offices was called “Jobcenter.” The lawsuit contended that because the official language of German federal agencies is “German” (or Hochdeutsch / High German to be more specific), the Jobcenter did not fulfill its federal mandate. Or something like that. Another article notes the rising number of pseudo-anglicisms in German, such as Fitnessstudio for the gym or Beamer for projector. My favorite is Smoking for tuxedo. The most widely known, and the first one that any German language learner remembers, is Handy for mobile phone. Mobile phones are indeed handy but then again so is a hammer.  

For the purists and the critics, the rise of Denglish threatens the very foundation of German language, grammar and culture. And if you have ever heard someone say that a project needs to be gestartet, gemanaged or gechallenged, such concerns may in fact be justified. Yet for this native speaker of English, the rise of Denglish is also flattering and weirdly life-affirming. My language, the one I learned as a kid, serves as the main source of inspiration and creativity for other non-English languages. The words I know and speak are seen as cool, useful and worth repeating.

But as someone who also tries to keep two separate languages going in my head, trying to speak in the German-English hybrid often leaves me confused and speechless. Try ordering a drink at a German Starbucks, especially one of the fancier concoctions. “Ich hätte gern einen grande Caramel Macchiato mit Skinny-Milch.” This sentence contains words from at least four different languages as well as two coined words. Or try ordering a Happy Meal at a German McDonald’s. “Ich hätte gern ein Happy Meal mit Chicken Nuggets, Ketchup als Soße, Sprite und einem Batman Spielzeug.“ Even the simple phrase “zwei Cheeseburgers” sets off the incorrect/impossible alarm bells in my head. Note: the Batman toy is not for me, I swear.  

My brain hurts just thinking about these phrases. It all feels so jumbled. A few words from home, a few words from abroad and a few others that make no sense at all. But I have the feeling that an English speaker can at least understand the McDonald’s sentence and probably much more so than listening to someone order at a traditional German restaurant. This is our globalized world, where words are borrowed, repackaged and reiterated. This is our world where traditional words and grammatical correctness are sacrificed for speed, fashion and creativity. I don’t know where it is all headed. Maybe my experiences at German Starbucks and McDonald’s point to the future of a single globally-shared mumble jumble of words and phrases. Maybe, but until that day, we’re all stuck with Longdrinks, Tee Chai Lattes and Kaffees To Go.


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