Cultural Diversity

From “Kaffeklatsching” to “Wischi-Waschi”– when German Words Take a Trip around the World

Bus in Finland
In Canada, women meet for a ”Kaffeklatsch”, Australians dance to “oom pah pah” music, and the Japanese go to “arbeito”. The project Ausgewanderte Wörter (i.e. Emigrant Words) presents German words that have made their way around the world.

Germans surf through the Internet with a secure “firewall,” say “sorry” instead of “Entschuldigung”, and are nonplussed when their children simply say “super”, instead of “megacool.” Anglicisms are increasingly present in every-day German. But linguists and committed conservators of the German language deplore what many regard as a matter of course: Is the German language endangered by the strong influence of English? Enough moaning and groaning, found the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache e.V. GfdS (i.e. Association for the German Language), and began a counter-movement in 2004: The project Ausgewanderte Wörter (i.e. Emigrant Words) was born.

“We wanted to find out what German words are used on an every-day basis in other countries,” says Prof Dr Rudolf Hoberg of the GfdS. Words such as “Kindergarten,” “Gemütlichkeit”, “Sauerkraut” and “Bratwurst” had been noted long since as German imports abroad. The project’s central questions were: Are there more? How far have German words really travelled? Do they have the same meanings abroad or completely different ones? “The response to our first advertisement was enormous,” says Prof Hoberg. So enormous that the search for German words abroad was announced internationally in cooperation with the Deutscher Sprachrat (i.e. Council on the German Language): Over 6000 words of German origin that had emigrated to all parts of the world and found new linguistic homes were sent in. The large, colourful collection of many and various funny, astonishing and perplexing stories, anecdotes and reports can now be read in the project’s publication which was named the same, Ausgewanderte Wörter, and published in November 2006 (available only in German).

I don’t want to schlepp!

If one wants to go on a trip in Poland, he or she takes a “rejs”; the German word is “Reise.” A Bulgarian packs his “kufar” – suitcase – to go on vacation; the German word is “Koffer.” But the English prefer small hand-luggage because “they don’t want to schlepp too much around”; the German word is “schleppen” - to drag. Since the Turkish rail system was started in 1913 with German assistance, Turkish train conductors have cried “fertik” (“fertig” – i.e. “ready,” or “finished”) when the train is about to leave the station. In Cameroon train stations are called “banop” (“Bahnhof”) to this very day, thanks to German-Cameroon cooperation.
“The vocabulary of the German language is far better-known abroad than we thought,” says Prof Hoberg. Although the destinations of German words are to be found all over the world, most of the contributions came from Eastern Europe and the Anglo-Saxon cultural areas. “There are long-lasting German traditions in both areas, and therefore many people speak our language there,” explain Dr Karin Eichhoff-Cyrius and Dr Lutz Karnisch of the GfdS.

Strawberry “schmier” on Brazilian bread

In Québec, if something no longer functions or is no longer fun, it is “kaputt” (“broken”). If one is anaesthetized in Tansania he or she is – in all seriousness - “nusu kaput” (“half-kaputt”). The way in which German words are typified in Afrikaans (the language of the Dutch settlers in South Africa) is also very amusing; an impatient German is an “Aberjetzte” (“aber jetzt!” means “on the double,” or “ASAP!”). A submarine in Afrikaans bears the beautiful name “kanitzeen Boot” (“Kanitzeen” evidently derives from “Ich kann es nicht sehen“ – „I cannot see it“ - i.e. „invisible“). When Germans cannot remember the right name for something they call it a “Dingsbums”; the corresponding word in Polish is “wihaister” (originally “wie heißt er?” meaning “what’s its/his name?”) In Finland, someone who is always mouthing off about his opinions and ridiculing those of others is called a “besservisseri” (in German, a “smart-alec” is a “Besserwisser”). Someone who wants to buy marmelade or jam in Brazil would be well-advised to ask for “schmier” (“schmieren” means “to spread” or “to smear”). Equally striking was the formulation of an American Presidential candidate in 2004. In a speech he described his opponent as being too “wishy-washy” (in German “wischi-waschi” means lacking a clear-cut standpoint – “wischen” means “to wipe up” and “waschen” means “to wash”).

Of "katzenjammer" and "Brüderschaft"

Some German words just seem to have something persuasive, even convincing about them. Thus, in English “katzenjammer” refers to a desperate, depressive mood. In the USA, if someone wishes to avoid the religiously-tinged “bless you”, he will simply say “Gesundheit” when his neighbor sneezes. In Russia, the word “Brüderschaft” (“brotherhood”) is an invitation to a glass of wine or vodka as a gesture of friendship – the Russians have only changed the original pronunciation of the “ü” to a normal “u.”

But many words lose their original meanings in the course of their wanderings around the world. It remains a mystery why British youth use “uber” of all things (originally “über,” meaning “above”) as a comparative for “super” or “mega”. And the word most frequently submitted to the advertisement, the French word for “skylight” “vasistas” (“was ist das?”, meaning “what is that?” in the original German) still leaves many questions open. “The project does not attempt a linguistic investigation. Some words that were sent in might well be only passing fads,” says Prof Dr Hoberg.
But one thing is clear: Language seldom offers so much fun as emigrated words. In the course of globalization, and through books, television and the Internet, the German language is going forth unstoppably and will surely produce many more stylistic blossoms and bloopers in the course of time. Just as all other languages do as well; because languages recognize no borders, they just pack their suitcases and go. We wish you a pleasant journey!

Bettina Levecke
works as a freelance journalist.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Translation: Ani Jingpa Lhamo

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December 2006

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