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Word! The Language Column
Words That Make Waves

Illustration: Une bouche ouverte avec une pilule sur la langue.
How does the German language integrate foreign words? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Why do certain words stir up powerful emotions? Needless to say, Duden dictionary editor Kathrin Kunkel-Razum has other worries right now, in the throes of the coronavirus crisis. But this instalment of our Word! column on the German language shows how far back lexicographers often have to go to track a foreign word’s way into the language – much as epidemiologists trace a pathogen’s path into a population. And the word in question is about hope for the future.

By Kathrin Kunkel-Razum

It is 18 March 2020 and I’m sitting helplessly in front of my laptop. The corona virus pandemic is raging, the world is shutting down, and nobody knows exactly what the next days, weeks and months will bring. I have to finish this article for my Word! column, which doesn’t seem a high priority to me right now. But I’m going to pick up where I left off writing it before the pandemic broke out: namely, wondering why it is that certain words trigger such strong emotions in us – and such heated arguments. So let's take a look back at two controversial entries in the dictionary that made waves earlier this year. We’ll start with one about hope for the future.

Surprising news

We Duden editors remember well the first working week in January after the Christmas holidays because things weren’t nearly as quiet as we’d expected. That week began with the news from a Turkish newspaper that we’d just added the Arabic expression inschallah [English spelling inshallah: “if God wills” or “God willing”] to the Duden. We rubbed our eyes in disbelief because this was indeed news to us. So we looked into the matter. Various press agencies, newspapers and social media got wind of the story too – and were no less amazed than we were to discover that inschallah made it into the Duden, the pre-eminent spelling dictionary of the German language, back in 1941!

Where does Karl May fit in here?

Then as now, a word’s relevance is decisive in considering whether to include it in a spelling dictionary. So the editors look into factors like frequency of occurrence – as well as problems spelling the word. The latter certainly applies in the case of inschallah. But what about its frequency in German? The Duden Verlag archives didn’t make it through World War II, so we had to consult other sources. Various internet sources, including the Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Digital Dictionary of the German Language, DWDS) and Google Books Ngram Viewer, show that the word’s occurrence in German-language books and documents peaked in the 1860s, followed by a (much smaller) spike in the first two decades of the 20th century and another one beginning around 1940. What might have caused these spikes? We don't know exactly, but likely factors are World War II and the preparations for the North African campaign, which may have inspired people to (re-)read Karl May’s adventure novels, some of which are set in the Middle East and often employ the Arabic expression “inschallah”.

So what’s the takeaway from this story? First off, as banal as it may sound, the “news” of this “recent addition” to the dictionary was fake news. But secondly, it was surprising to see what a stir this (fake) news caused in Germany, setting off a flurry of comments pro and contra the inclusion of this Arabic expression in the standard German spelling dictionary. The Duden was praised by some and slated by others – one particularly chauvinistic example of the latter should suffice: "Inschallah is not a German word of course because it is not and NEVER will be used by Germans. We are and shall remain the Christian West!"

Learning process

The second bone of contention that week in January was the word schwul (colloquial for “gay”). Three young men took issue with our third definition of the word: “in Verdruss, Ärger, Ablehnung hervorrufender Weise schlecht, unattraktiv, uninteressant” (i.e. “bad, unattractive, uninteresting in a manner that causes vexation, irritation or disapproval”). They also disapproved of the example we’d given: “die Klassenfahrt war voll schwul” (i.e. “the class trip really sucked”), which we’d marked as dated teenage slang. They felt that if we had to mention that pejorative sense of the word, we shouldn’t have added an example that would only encourage people to keep using it that way. This entry also sparked public controversy, even in Bild, Germany’s best-selling tabloid. In the end, we clarified our position by revising our note on the politically correct usage of the word. So, after no little fuss, both sides learned from this public debate about a dictionary entry. Let’s hope arguments about controversial entries get resolved this way, with constructive input from our users, in future as well – inshallah! A slanging match doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

I wish you plenty of staying power for the next few weeks!

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? ~ Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.