The vain battle to promote German.
IN THE fight against English, France is famously out in front. Now Germany is joining in. Guido Westerwelle, its foreign minister, has begun a campaign to promote German as the “language of ideas.” The European Union’s diplomatic service should hire German-speakers, he told its chief, Catherine Ashton. Peter Ramsauer, the transport minister, plans to expel anglicisms from his domain. Ideensammlung will replace brainstorming; meeting-points will become Treffpunkte. Mr Ramsauer knows of “no country in the world where people treat their own language so disrespectfully.”
Germans have been resisting foreign words ever since they began writing, says Falco Pfalzgraf of the University of London. German is “watered-down and oversalted” with foreign words, said the founders of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (“fruit-bearing society”) in 1617. Such groups taught Germans to prefer Abstand to the French Distanzand Augenblick to Moment. (Some coinages failed: Meuchelpuffer was shot down byPistole.) The Napoleonic wars and, later, the German empire brought more linguistic cleansing. Second-class status was a spur. Unlike Latin and French, German was never the language of diplomacy and culture. Frederick the Great mainly spoke and wrote in French.
The second world war stripped Germany of its cultural defences, allowing English to infiltrate unopposed. Sat.1, a broadcaster, is “powered by emotion”; Audi, a carmaker, “driven by instinct.” Even scholarship succumbed. Archaeology, a bastion of German-language research, is buckling, lament scholars at the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. So have teenagers, who now chillen and smsen. When Germany’s Lena Meyer-Landrut takes to the Eurovision stage on May 29th to sing “Satellite” in English, purists will cringe. Walter Krämer of the Verein Deutsche Sprache (German Language Association) blames Hollywood.
Since reunification in 1990, Germany has pushed back. A Neue Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft was founded in 2007. Mr Krämer’s Verein, with 31,000 members, publishes an index of 7,200 anglicisms, four-fifths of which, it claims, crowd out good German words. A pet hate is “blockbuster”, originally a 1942 coinage for city-destroying bombs. Mr Krämer, who lost six relatives to Allied bombing, prefers Kassenschlager (“box-office hit”).
A famous 19th-century postmaster fended off Adresse with Anschrift and Kuvert(envelope) with Umschlag. But Germans hesitate to follow France in making laws in favour of their language. The government considered but discarded the idea of making German the official language. It may let courts hear international cases in English. Perhaps Germans realise that English poses little threat to the mother tongue of 100m people. If alien words could kill, English might not have survived the Norman conquest.