Is German a Mixed Language?
    The Role of Latin, French, and English in the History of the German Language

    Professor at the lectern, 1340 In this age of globalisation, no language in the world can maintain absolute, original purity. But did such linguistic purity ever exist? Or is it wishful thinking, a mere construct?

    Gottfried Leibniz wrote in the General Instructions for the recently founded Berlin-based Society of the Sciences – the society that would later become the Prussian Academy of Sciences in which he played such an instrumental role – that the academy would ensure that ‘the ancient German main language would be maintained in its natural, proper purity and independence, and would not ultimately be allowed to evolve into indistinctness and an inconsistent mishmash.’ Leibniz was referring to the hotchpotch of German and French in the German language at the time. Nevertheless, the language of communication at the Prussian Academy from its foundation in the year 1700 right up until the late eighteenth century was in fact French. This was, after all, the era in which Frederick II learned Racine by heart at the break of day in his military camp and expressed the opinion that there was no German literature worth speaking of.

    Is history repeating itself? Is our ‘ancient German main language’ disappearing once again? Is it once again evolving into ‘indistinctness and an inconsistent mishmash’? Is our language being reshaped and condemned to standstill in some areas? Is its ‘independence’ under threat? Will English become the universal language of the next generation, compared with which other national languages will assume the status of a dialect? Such predictions are indeed being made.

    Leibniz generally wrote in Latin or in French. He advocated the preservation of the ‘lingua europaea universalis et durabilis ad posteritatem’, the European universal language that would endure to posterity. An essay entitled Unanticipated Thoughts Concerning the Practice and Improvement of the German Language, which Leibniz wrote around the time of the establishment of the academy but never published, was published after his death. This essay begins with the beautiful sentence: ‘It is well known that language is a mirror of the intellect and that people, if they elevate the intellect, also employ the language well, a fact illustrated by the examples of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs.’ Leibniz’s stance is that of a patriotic philosopher of the Enlightenment and his theory is that a well-employed language (i.e. a well-developed language) results in a general broadening of horizons. Earlier, Leibniz wrote: ‘Science is to be compared with light, and it is in the general interest that this light be poured out on every individual.’

    Leibniz’s Unanticipated Thoughts is a critical survey. It highlights gaping holes in the contemporary German vocabulary, points to entire fields of abstract sciences, the ‘art of government’ (i.e. the politics of the era), ethics, and emotions that were not cultivated; he calls for development, the development of non-fiction prose in these areas as well as comprehensive lexicographical work. Leibniz outlined a lexicographical project that has to this day not been fully completed. At the end of the essay, he asks what ‘is needed for the continuous use of the language’ or ‘what three good qualities are necessary in a language’. In his own words, the necessary qualities are ‘richness’, ‘purity’, and ‘splendour’. This trio of qualities, which was much cited in the century that followed, appear again in the work of Leibniz’s executive organ, Johann Christoph Gottsched, as ‘richness’, ‘clarity’ (i.e. comprehensibility), and ‘brevity or emphasis’.

    Leibniz's Unanticipated Thoughts is the mostwell-founded and important essay about the history of our language. In it, he gave expression to a more general dissatisfaction, a widespread concern. ‘Out of this dissatisfaction,’ wrote Eric Blackall in his work on the development of language in the eighteenth century, ‘emerged one of the great literary languages of modern Europe. But it was not a miracle. It was a process of steady and often quite conscious development in which widely differing forces took part.’

    The influence of English

    The situation today is, historically speaking, completely different. The independence of the German language is not being called into question. It has a backbone in the form of an extremely varied development; the structure is stable and capable of integration. However, a considerable change has taken place silently and over time. English has become the world’s barely disputed number one language, its so-called lingua franca. Today, our country is largely bilingual. The fact that it is also multilingual and that numerous language communities live in it is another major topic for discussion. Our purpose here, however, is to examine the language contact between German and English.

    The overwhelming majority of German academics now publish in English. This means that when the German Academy for Language and Literature awards its annual Sigmund Freud Prize for academic prose, it is increasingly faced with a diminishing number of academic disciplines from which to choose the winners. Previous winners like Adolf Portmann (1965), Werner Heisenberg (1976), and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1988) generally wrote in German; the generation of German scientists that followed writes in English.

    Industry and commerce is another similarly broad area in which English is prevailing. Even the Deutscher Schraubenverband (German Fasteners Association) recently switched over to English.

    Technology – especially communication technology – is an integral part of the universal age and is receptive to international vocabulary. It is obvious that these borrowing procedures are triggered by extra-lingual causes. They are not borrowed because of a deficit in the borrowing language. Until now, the main reasons for borrowings have been: 1) the superior strength of the neighbour, 2) the neighbour’s cultural edge, i.e. the so-called ‘culture gap’, and 3) its prestige, the fascination that leads to imitation. However, all these reasons have long been superseded by a fourth, namely the necessity and the technically implemented reality that is international travel. This is why the side effects of this change in language are evident in day-to-day language use. A German tourist holidaying on the Canary Islands might find the weather so beautiful that he might phone home and say that he has gecancelt his Flight and let his Ticket lapse.

    In the rail sector, Germans no longer notice that they are welcomed on board the Intercity train. Departure is emblazoned on the schedule board, cool drinks can be ordered in the trendy bar, Ausgang City is written on the exit leading to the city centre, and the ticket office, once known as a Reisezentrum, has recently been renamed Servicepoint.
    While previous generations referred to their typewriters as Schreibmaschinen, Germans now use English terms for their office equipment: Internet, Laptop, Beamer, and PowerPoint are all legitimate words in the German language.

    Our neighbours – highly experienced journalists – no longer refer to their weekly Federball sessions, but to Badminton; they no longer go joggen, but instead cycle up the Schauinsland (a mountain!) on their Mountainbikes. How dreadfully dull the literal translation, Bergrad, sounds in comparison. And they tell us that we should really consider Nordic Walking in order to stay fit. Youngsters, Tweens, or Kids – as they have been known in German at various stages – went through a phase of using a language still more characterised by the English influence. The following dialogue, for example, was overheard at the Mariensteg in the city of Freiburg: ‘Ich bin ausgezogen,’ says a young man, after moving out of the parental home. ‘Die parents?’ asks his female friend, assuming that his parents were the problem. ‘Nein,’ he replies, ‘meine connections zur family sind total okay.’

    What does this development mean overall? How does it compare when we look back at the development of our language? If our language is no longer developed in certain areas that shape and determine the public sphere, if it does not keep pace with global developments, will it in the long term become a kind of dialect? Dialects are languages that seem so intimate to us because they are no longer developed in public spheres.

    Or is the new phase of borrowing a double opportunity? Is the use of English in science, business, and the field of communication technology reasonable in the long term and even advantageous? After all, English facilitates the forging of links and the establishment of connections. Moreover, as far as the future is concerned, is it not true to say that the more precise our command of the English language, the better in every respect it is for us, also in terms of the extension and improvement of the German language?

    Are the many borrowed words in the vernacular, the new language mixture, an advantage because it prepares our language for what is likely to be our future?

    The myth of the uniform language

    We have decided to address this issue in two steps: first by looking to the past, and secondly by examining the current situation.

    First of all, I should like to ask whether there has at any stage in our past been extensive language contact between German and another language, and if so, how did the linguistic community react to it?

    To start with, I would like to anticipate two preliminary questions and address two ambiguous prejudices that I believe could muddy the waters: what is actually affected by borrowings from other languages? Language as a structure, as a system, or as a practised, acquired form of use? Language as a system is the most flexible, receptive social structure humans have, and also the most resistant and conservative. It has endless powers of regeneration. It uses a simple trick: as Wilhelm von Humboldt put it, language makes infinite use of finite means. It works on the one hand with flexible individual characters (words) and on the other with flexible rules of connection (grammar). The structure (vocabulary plus grammar) allows for the most varied uses of words that become temporary customs and social norms, which the linguistic community either accepts or against which it defends itself.
    The second prejudice that could cloud our view relates to the idea of an age-old vernacular that comprises a uniform substance. Our language area was never at any time monolingual; our language was never at any time a homogenous unit. The fact that humans are by nature monolingual creatures that have a mother tongue from which they derive an identity – any other languages being foreign languages – is a myth propagated by the nation state. Moreover, it cannot be proven that there has ever been a pure, unmixed language in recorded history.

    One can view the history of our language from the viewpoint of the way this language accommodates the impression of strong language contact, how it takes shape as a result, benefits from the borrowings, and how, on the other hand, it – in a kind of counter movement – develops its own contours, its independence. Both of these trends can be observed, historically one after the other, in the language’s contact with Latin and French respectively. I shall attempt to illustrate this fact by making ten propositions that span more than a thousand years. I apologise in advance for not going into every detail.

    Ten propositions on the multilingual aspects of the German language

    1. Bilingualism has been the norm throughout the history of the world’s civilisations. For over one thousand years (from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries), the most formidable counterpart of the German language was written and spoken Latin.
    The same can be said of the majority of vernaculars in Europe. Unfortunately, no one has yet written a comparative history of European languages, which would be most enlightening in this regard. ‘Never before has there been so much Europe,’ wrote Kurt Flasch in our magazine, Valerio, in 2005 inan article entitled ‘Latin and the Vernacular: A Historical Precedent’. For further examples of how the vernacular copes with the culture of a foreign written language, one can look to China, India, Tibet, Java, and the Arabic- and Persian-speaking areas.

    2. Of all other languages, the contact with Latin has thus far had the most profound effect on the German language.
    The effects of this contact can be seen in:

    - the distribution of the two languages in different social spheres (diglossia). Churches and monasteries, the law, university education, large parts of the literary world, administration and diplomacy were to a great extent and for a long period the preserve of Latin and the counterpart of the largely oral vernacular, namely in:

    - personal bilingualism and language mixing. The following is an extract from notes on a lecture given by Paracelsus in Basle (the German sections have been translated into English): ‘Si vis curari, noli sprützen aquam in die fistel.’ And in the records of Luther’s dinner table conversations, we find his famous statement about his German: ‘I speak in the manner of the Saxon chancellery language, quam imitantur omnes duces et reges germaniae; all cities in the Empire and princely courts write in the manner of the Saxon chancellery language of our elector. Ideo est communissima lingua germaniae.’ Luther was bilingual and moved – not only at the dinner table – between German and Latin as if through an open door.

    - its effect on grammar. This area is incredibly large and demonstrates the depth of the penetration of the Latin language. The fact, for example, that the auxiliary verb werden is used to indicate the future in German is a result of the Latin influence. Right up until the Late Middle Ages, the ‘German future’ did not exist as a grammatical category; it was instead indicated using adverbs such as the German equivalents of ‘tomorrow’, ‘in the coming year’ or by use of modal verbs such as ‘can’, ‘may’, or ‘must’.

    - its effect on style. Under the influence of Latin, academic language in Germany, for example, developed as follows: Latin or Greek material was used for specialist vocabulary while the rest of the page was filled in using German words. I call this the ‘Fachwerkstil’ (timber-frame style).

    - its extension of the German vocabulary. The scope of this extension is virtually impossible to determine. It affects verbs, adjectives, and substantives alike. Even the word deutsch (German) is a hybrid, a combination of the Old High German word theod or thiod (people) and the Latin ending -iscus. Deutsch, teutsch, tiusch, diutsch all originated in the word theodiscus and meant ‘vernacular’. In addition to the borrowing of Latin words (Objekt, Subjekt etc.), there are also what are known as calques or loan-translations. The word Objekt (object) was originally translated literally using the calque Gegenwurf and later Gegenstand. Large numbers of both types, i.e. borrowed Latin words and their loan-translations, have been forgotten in the past thousand years, destined to go down in linguistic history as short-lived successes.

    3. Luther’s German did not emerge out of an independent development of the oral language culture, for which he had a good ear; instead, it was a borrowed creation from the Latin written culture; it was an artificial language.
    In many cases, the German used by Paracelsus is like the reverse side of a piece of Latin wallpaper. Moreover, when one reads the portrayal of the Roman Empire written by Theodor Mommsen, the first German winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, even the syntax sounds Latin.

    4. We were trilingual in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and parts of the nineteenth centuries. We not only spoke German and Latin, but French too.
    In the seventeenth century, during the reign of Louis XIV and around the time of the foundation of the Academie Française, the French language was incredibly vibrant and charismatic. One built and gardened in the French style, dressed and ate à la française, conversed and loved in French. In fact, German texts were at one stage so saturated with French that the anglicisms of today seem harmless in comparison. In 1682/83, the young Leibniz wrote: ‘As evidence, I draw your attention to the language produced at our biannual trade fairs; sometimes everything is muddled together in such a dreadful way that it seems to me that some people never seem to give a thought to what they are writing. It even seems as if some of these people have forgotten their German and never learned French.’

    5. The French language also had a lasting effect on German. Peter von Polenz's magnificent three-volume history of the German language sees this effect in the inclusion of Germany in the modern, Western European cultural context.
    As was the case with Latin, the process of borrowing from the French language created a diglossia. Entire spheres of language – at court, among the aristocracy, in architecture and horticulture, whole academic disciplines, philosophy, conversation, and letter-writing styles – were largely dominated by French.

    Around 1800, Joachim Campe estimated that borrowings from Latin and French accounted for approximately one-fifth of the total German vocabulary. In his Dictionary for the Explanation and Germanisation of Foreign Terms Forced upon Our Language published in 1801 and 1813, he undertook to create and adopt German equivalents. The resulting dictionary was absolutely fascinating. Most of Campe’s words did not prevail. For example, he translated Mumie (mummy) as Dörrleiche (desiccated corpse), Kardinal (cardinal) as Purpurpfaff (crimson cleric), Paradies (paradise) as Wonnegefilde (realm of bliss), and Souterrain (basement)as Erdkammer (earth chamber). However, close to 300 words contained in his column of translated words are still used to this day: Gesetzgebende Versammlung (literally: legislation-passing assembly) for Legislative (the legislature), Minderheit for Minorität (minority), verwirklichen for realisieren (to implement or realise), Tageszeitung (literally: daily newspaper) instead of Journal, and Stelldichein (literally, as in French: be there) for Rendezvous. Readers familiar with the German language will notice that the so-called foreign words are also still in use. While the translations enriched the language, they did not, as was Campe’s intention, eradicate any so-called ‘foreign expressions’ from it. The two words sound different, and are considered to be of different styles; in short, they do not have exactly the same meaning. They have become an illustration of the fact that there are no synonyms. Campe’s original impulse was to educate the general public, make the language transparent for the public, and eliminate barriers to comprehension. In this regard, he was a disciple of Leibniz. Nevertheless, his German language, which was free of all foreign phrases, seems strangely sterile.

    From the Napoleonic Wars of the early eighteenth century right into the first half of the twentieth century, purism has been carried by waves of nationalist motivation. Goethe was an ardent opponent of such purism. ‘The violence of a language is not that it refuses the other, but that it devours it.’ He also said: ‘A curse upon all negative purism that forbids the use of a word in which another language has grasped a meaning more fully or more sensitively.’ (Maxims and Reflections, Nos. 979 and 980)

    Past and future

    We now turn our attention to the second perspective, the active development of the independence of our language:

    6. An independent German ‘literary language’, a written civilisational language, has been developed in fits and starts since the High Middle Ages.
    The era of the House of Hohenstaufen (around the year 1200), the first half of the sixteenth century, and the eighteenth century were the most productive eras for literary language. During each of these periods there was a shift in the leading cultural and language media.

    7. The ‘continuous’, uniform use of language advocated by Leibniz emerged both out of the Latin and French languages and in contrast to them, and it did so independently of the modern state, without a central institute, and without an academy or language supervision.
    We were, in linguistic terms, a cultural nation long before Bismarck’s wars of independence created a German state.

    The awareness of the deficiencies of the language in the seventeenth century – i.e. language criticism and language analysis – and the lexicographical work, language work in societies, magazines, translations, prose and poetry that followed became an effective factor in the history of the language. The most active person in this field was Gottsched, who compiled works on the art of language, literature, and speech in the first half of the eighteenth century. At the end of that process, we had a developed, differentiated, elaborated, and generally transparent, comprehensible standard language, not only in the field of literature, but also in the field of non-fiction prose. There can be no question of a ‘pure’ language. However, Leibniz’s three demands – richness in virtually all areas, general comprehensibility, and an awareness of form (i.e. style) – would appear to have been met. Naturally, the renowned language critic Carl Gustav Jochmann identified a gaping hole in the early nineteenth century: German lacked the language of the political middle classes.

    8. It was the conscious, active work of a variety of parties that led to this state of affairs.
    The most important genres or tools in this regard would appear to have been translations (England played a significant role in this respect), the development of non-fiction prose, and the belles lettres.

    9. In the century and a half between the nineteenth century and the 1960s, our country was comparatively monolingual; the German language dominated in almost every sphere.
    During this period, academic non-fiction prose was written, was read by the public, became part of general education, and in many cases earned, in addition to its factual content, the status of literature in its own right.

    10. A third incisive period of language contact began almost half a century ago, namely the contact with the English language. It is likely that this contact will have a profound effect in the long term.
    Uwe Pörksen
    is Emeritus Professor of Language and ancient German Literature at the University of Freiburg, where he now lives. This text was published for the first time in the German Academy for Language and Literature’s Jahrbuch [Yearbook] 2007 (Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2008, pp. 121-130)

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

    Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to