Schlechtes Englisch Goes Viral in Germany

The architecture of a German sentence is complicated and beautiful, but it doesn't always translate well. To a German-trained tongue, English pronunciation can be almost as challenging as the syntax.
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BERLIN -- Who in Germany stands in the public and badly English speaks will for that be punished.

The architecture of a German sentence is complicated and beautiful, but it doesn't always translate well into English. And to a German-trained tongue, English pronunciation can be almost as challenging as the syntax. Nobody understands that better than the Germans, who have flocked to Facebook and YouTube to mock two of their leaders whose English is nicht so gut.

The bigger embarrassment of the two is Günther Oettinger, the new EU energy commissioner from Germany. A YouTube video shows him lecturing a German TV audience about the importance of English fluency -- and then committing excruciating pronunciation errors while delivering a speech in English. ("Everybody dos as he pleases," goes one gem.) The performance has registered hundreds of thousands of views; there's even a rap edition. Oettinger's language has been dubbed Schwänglisch, after the Schwaben region where he acquired his accent.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, meanwhile, has become a Facebook star through an English-speaking alter ego named Westerwave. ("Welle," the second part of the minister's last name, means "wave" in German.) Westerwave offers daily status updates in atrocious English purporting to record the minister's life. The page mostly consists of tragic translations of German sentences. For example: Westerwave announces that he has "grounded" a new Wiki. In German, gründen means to found.

There has been pushback recently to the steady Anglicization of Germany. In fact, Westerwave was launched after Westerwelle refused to take a question in English from a BBC reporter at his first press conference after the German elections, saying it was customary to speak German in Germany. Despite a storm of criticism, Westerwelle stuck to his position, saying he wants to do his part to ensure German doesn't become a fourth -- or fifth-tier language in Europe. (His English, by the way, beats Oettinger's, but doesn't shine.) Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer has taken a harder line than Westerwelle, banning Anglicisms from his ministry. Thus, the ministry's "Travel Management" office became a humbler Reisestelle, and "Task Forces" were brought back to Earth as Projektgruppen. Ramsauer was quoted in the press as saying: "I want more German to be spoken in this office again."

Indeed, stupid Anglicisms seem to have spread through Germany in recent years with Autobahn speed. Many are superfluous, like those used in the Transportation Ministry. Others are clunky: a magazine titled Fit for Fun, for example. Still others are misplaced, at times morbidly -- certain backpack models are sold here as "body bags." And some Anglicisms are just mystifying. A telecommunications business in Berlin named itself "handy-cap," apparently attempting to play on the fact that Germans call their mobile phones handys (yes, that's the plural) without bothering to consider the meaning of "handicap." The operative assumption here seems to be that if you just say it in English, it's got cachet.

Fortunately, there is a counterpoint to this onslaught of awkward Anglicisms. In social settings, the younger set uses a deft German-English wordplay that doubtless enriches both languages. Some words are repurposed -- "check" in slang German means to understand a concept, and it's used far beyond hip hop circles. Many words are subjected playfully to German grammar rules -- if somebody was dissed in Germany, they've been gedisst. Yet others are thrown in for emphasis. As an acquaintance told me recently during a conversation about the vicissitudes of work life: "Das Business ist strange."

Ramsauer's effort is evocative of the French policy of outlawing certain Anglicisms. But of course, the French and German tongues cannot be insulated against English. And to make policy in the name of protecting German is to target the wrong problem. The issue is bad English, and the solution, in a sense, is more English. When people realize that there is no cool and a lot of clumsiness to a slogan such as "Come in and find out" (which a German beauty-store chain actually once used), they'll either come up with something better, as so many young Germans do in their daily lives, or go back to German. All politicians can do is to promote good English, and hopefully do better than Oettinger in leading by example. Meanwhile, silly and superfluous English can only be purged with the tool of irony, in the style of Westerwave. As he would put it: Unartful expressions on duration will not sustain themselves.

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