Word! The Language Column
It's all in the mix: Language contact and change

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Languages are alive. This is obvious from the fact that words and phrases from one language are repeatedly adopted in another – usually as a means of enriching the range of expression.

By Olga Grjasnowa

A number of letters I’ve received from readers of my latest book point out that German is particularly well suited to philosophizing. One reader attributes this dictum to Mikhail Lomonosov, an 18th-century Russian poet, naturalist and language reformer. I couldn’t verify that, but there’s obviously no dearth of major philosophical works written in German – as well as poetry and prose, dramas and even comedies. Needless to say, moreover, German is a very complex language, as many learners of the language will agree. Then again, I think the notion that you can do certain things particularly well in German is nonsense and merely perpetuates certain preconceptions, though unfortunately I don’t have room in this column to enumerate them. Besides, it clearly implies a negative corollary: if the language lends itself to doing some things particularly well, there must be some other things that can’t be expressed well in German – and as a writer of German, I cannot let that contention stand.

Butterbrot and Wunderkind

Many words in German are so apt that I’m always trying to integrate them into Russian. I could say “assimilate”, but Russian grammar always gets in the way. Take the word “Termin” (i.e. “deadline” or “appointment”), for example: one would be hard put to find another word that conveys such a sense of urgency, immutability and importance. But to translate Termin into Russian, I’d have to decline it like a Russian noun, in which case it wouldn’t sound very German anymore. Which leaves me with a dilemma: do I stick to German grammar and use the word unchanged, or do I add the Russian suffixes of nominal declension even though the result sounds terrible? And yet Russian already has lots of loanwords from German, e.g. Butterbrot (bread and butter), Schlagbaum (barrier, turnpike), Gastarbeiter (immigrant worker) and Wunderkind (child prodigy), to name just a few, and they’re declined according to the rules of Russian grammar. Anyway, this quandary trips me up mid-sentence in Russian and I have to weigh the pros and cons. Languages actually tend to adopt foreign words very rapidly: German has borrowed plenty of words from Greek, Latin, French, English and many other languages, and it still does. Linguists call this “language contact”: when people take a shine to certain foreign words and expressions they hear in their daily interactions and adopt them in their own language. This is what Joe Biden did when he used the Arabic word inshallah in a televised debate during the election campaign. And for an example closer to home: there’s a little French bakery near my flat where they make the most incredible baguettes, croissants and pains au chocolat by hand. The bakery is called “Le Brot”.

Rapid change

In my nuclear family, we speak four languages at home: German, English, Russian and Arabic. Sometimes we carry on whole conversations in different languages simultaneously and understand one another nonetheless. And if ever we don't, then usually not because of the language. Even when I'm with friends who also speak Russian and German or Russian and English, we often switch back and forth between languages – not because we have gaps in one language or another, but because it's fun. And it's only fun if you know exactly how to mix languages. Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novel Ada or Ardour in English, but packed it with allusions and puns in Russian and French, and if you “get” them it makes for a one-of-a-kind reading pleasure. Mixing languages is also a key element of German rap. The best example is the rapper Haftbefehl, who goes about it in a highly artistic and intelligent way. Language contact and borrowing enlivens our languages – and ourselves, at least when we’re not locked down and social-distancing to keep a pandemic at bay.

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.