The German language

A short interview with Holger Klatte, a German studies specialist and the director of the Verein Deutsche Sprache (i.e. German Language Association), about German Language Day and linguistic consumer protection.

Mr Klatte, the Verein Deutsche Sprache initiated a “German Language Day” in 2001 that has been held on the second Saturday in September ever since. Why is such a day necessary?

We launched German Language Day because we believe that the German language is not held in sufficiently high regard in society. Language should bring people together, and plays an important role in politics, business, the media and in our everyday dealings with one another. We fear that English, as it becomes increasingly dominant worldwide, will gradually supplant German, with the result that the different generations will no longer be able to understand one another. An enormous number of English words are used in agencies and editorial offices: “sich connecten” (meaning to get in touch), “meetings”, “sich einen Call geben” (to give someone a call). We are not demanding that every word be translated into German, but there are viable German alternatives for many of the terms.

You are also committing to ensuring that instruction manuals and products contain explanations and ingredients in German – by supporting the “linguistic consumer protection” initiative.

Surely instruction manuals of all things need to be universally comprehensible! And if I suffer from an allergy, it is essential for me to know exactly which ingredients a product contains. And yet the English word “ingredients” is commonly used in cosmetic products, for example. The contents themselves appear in a kind of Anglo-Latin: “aqua” rather than water, and “sodium” and “potassium” rather than the German equivalents Natrium and Kalium. Obviously it is not the fault of the person manning the till in the shop – nor generally of the shop itself; this is something that is decided at the highest level. We contact the companies concerned, write letters and speak to politicians and ministries.

Why is it so difficult to persuade companies to write their product labels and instruction manuals in German?

Often these are international companies, and it costs money to have things translated. What is more, many copywriters regard German as outmoded. We are questioning this. Our association has 36,000 members, many of whom believe quite simply that the German language is beautiful and worth preserving. Our efforts have proved successful in a few cases, with advertising departments then replacing their English texts with German.

A YouGov survey published in August showed that more than two thirds of Germany’s population find the frequent use of foreign words annoying – yet use them themselves. Can you explain this contradiction?

The study shows how great the influence of English on German is. A normal language user often cannot readily come up with German equivalents. Companies developing new products should give thought to the language they use, however. In many cases German terms exist that are actually more apt: IT experts for instance tend to use the German word “Rechner” (meaning processor) rather than the English “computer”. And when the “airbag” was first fitted to cars in Germany, it was known in the draft documents as a “Prallkissen” (i.e. impact cushion).

German Language Day on 10 September 2016