If you had told me as a child that I would one day speak, think and dream in English most of the time, publish texts and have heated debates in this language, I would have definitely not believed you. I started learning English when I was eight. I then went to a middle and high school which was one of the first in Austria to teach certain subjects such as Geography, History or Biology in English. English pop songs were (and still are) much more popular than German ones. But most of the time, we had no clue what the lyrics were actually about.
Learning languages takes time and effort. Whenever I learn a new language I find the beginnings a bit frustrating – I may already understand what somebody is saying but answering takes a while or sounds clumsy. I only got more confident after the age of 14 – the internet was becoming a thing, we connected more at a global level, English video cassettes became available (yes, cassettes as in VCR not DVD 😉 ) and I did my first language trips abroad.
English and German are closely related languages and many words used in English stem from German. For example, “father” is “Vater” in German, “milk” is “Milch” and “son” is “Sohn”. German words such as Zeitgeist, Kindergarten, Dachshund and Doppelganger are used in English.
Even though the two languages are so closely related, the devil is in the details. (Note to all German speakers: “is in the details” and not “lies in the details.”) For the longest time, I ended questions with “,or?”, because that is what we do in German if we want to say “isn’t it?”. Like many German speakers I also struggled (and sometimes still do) with not over-pronouncing the “V”. I once asked a friend about her trip to Turkey: “Did you have to wear a veil when you entered the mosques?” At least that was what I thought I asked. What I actually asked was if she had to wear a whale, because I over-pronounced the “V”. And I learned that “Nice to meet you.” is only used when you meet somebody for the first time. After that, it is “Nice to see you.”
Going back to middle and high school: in German, we call this type of school “Gymnasium”. But gymnasium is not a school but a place to do sports in English. This is just one of the many so-called “false friends” of German and English.
Probably the most important false friends example is the German word mobile phone. We call it “Handy”. And many German speakers do not even know that “handy” in English has a completely different meaning – “handy” means something is useful.
English has become more and more important since I went to school. There are English Kindergartens, student exchanges and, needless to say, social media has connected the world even more. Using English terms has become a cool thing. Speaking of “cool” – this was one of the trendy words in the nineties when Anglicisms were an exception rather than a norm. Over time, these English expressions have become more and more popular and a kind of hybrid language has developed – Denglish (Deutsch with English).
During social distancing in Austria, I realised that it is still very “cool” to mix in English expressions into German sentences. I wonder if German speakers do that intentionally to make them appear more cosmopolitan. No matter the level of English, Anglicisms are a thing; even if the person using them may not be able to have a conversation in English.
Recently, I discovered a new trendy expression: “handlen”. Politicians and business leaders love to say things like: “Wir werden sehen, wie wir die Sache handlen.” (“We will see how we will handle the situation.”). This word seems to be everywhere. It also has become a noun – “das Handling”.
When I come back to Austria, it usually takes a few days to adapt to talking German again. I unintentionally mix up German and English simply because I do not speak German abroad. I only do when I talk with my Austrian family and friends on the phone. I sometimes forget words or expressions in German and need to use the English one. (For those who may wonder: I do think and dream in English when I am abroad.)
When I first heard “handlen”, I was in “German-thinking-mode” and understood “Hendl”, which means “chicken” in Austrian dialect. It was one of the press conferences of the lockdown and I wondered what a chicken had to do with social distancing. But then I noticed this is a “sophisticated” expression to use.
There are plenty of English expressions which have entered the Austrian/German vocabulary – very often with a completely wrong meaning or interpretation. Here are some of my favourite examples:
- Roundabout: My colleagues in corporate loved this expression. “The project will be roundabout EUR 5 Million.” Nobody seemed to realise that “roundabout” in English is a road junction at which traffic moves in one direction round a central island and does not mean “about” or “circa”.
- When German speakers wear a tuxedo, they call it “Smoking”.
- “Oldtimer” is a popular Denglish expression for vintage car.
- A “public viewing” in the German speaking countries does not involve a laid-out coffin at a funeral but is a gathering in a public place to watch the soccer championships.
- If you hear a German speaking person talk about a “messie”, they are not referring to the soccer champion. They are talking about a messy person by making “messy” a noun.
- The Denglish version of Gin and Tonic leaves out the “and” and makes it “Gin Tonic”.
- A recent trend among Millennials and Gen-Zs is to say that something is “nice”. But instead of pronouncing it in the proper English way, the “I” is being stretched and it should be given a German accent. “Das ist aber niiiiiiiiice.”
- Jumpsuit is very often pronounced “jumpsuite”.
- “Bag” is used instead of the German “Tasche”. “Sie kauft sich eine Bag.“ (If you want to sound even more sophisticated add a: “Die ist wirklich niiiiiiiice.”)
If you are a German speaker and want to learn more about our hilarious Denglish use of English terms and expressions, I highly recommend “The devil lies in the detail” by Peter Littger.
Have a good week ahead! I hope you can “Hendl” everything. 😉