The beauty that is the German language

by Andrea Brugman, translated by Saveen Uthappa-Eck

Admittedly, “beautiful” is probably not the first word that springs to mind when describing the German language. Unlike French or Italian, people rarely gush over German. Mark Twain found the language awful because of its complex grammar and wrote a long essay to explain why. Enrico Caruso refused to sing in German (“How can I sing in a language with so many consonants?”) and Irish comedian Dylan Moran compared the “horrible sound” of the German language to “typewriters eating tinfoil being kicked down the stairs”³.

Andrea Brugman

In the ear of the listener

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder – or in the ear of the listener. I spent fifteen years living in the U.S. and remember clearly how I felt on my first visit home after two years. I was listening to a report on German radio in the car and was transfixed by the beautiful sentence structure and choice of words. I found I just couldn’t get out of the car until the report had ended, despite having already been at my destination for some time. It must have been the language, and not the content, that fascinated me because now I can’t for the life of me remember what it was about.

Since then, I’ve never stayed away from Germany for such a long time. Around once a year, I would find myself on a ten-hour flight to Frankfurt; arriving exhausted but excited on German soil. I was often accompanied by my husband, and later on by our daughter: as a baby, toddler and pre-schooler. Being jet-lagged meant I spent the subsequent three-hour train journey in a trance-like state, dozing off every now and again despite trying very hard to listen in on the snatches of conversation around me.

The farther away we got from Frankfurt Airport, the more nuances the language took on. From Nuremberg onwards, the train announcements – which used only to be in German and over the years started to include English – were made in the dialect so familiar to me. “Ve velcome you on se trrain. Se next shtop is Neumarkt.” The accent was music to my ears; we were finally on our way home!

Photo credit: Andrea Brugman

Flux of language

As we all know, the world is constantly changing. It’s not just that train announcements are made in English and that the pronunciation has improved. The German language is also transforming rapidly, as I was surprised to discover on my annual visits home. Germans no longer went in for “Entspannung”; they “relaxten”, “chillten” or were into “wellness” – a word that isn’t actually used by native English speakers. Words like “geil” became “geilo”; the suiffix “o” making this colloquial term meaning “cool” even cooler. Suddenly there were no “idiots” or “fools”, but “dumbasses” running around.

I was especially struck by how rapidly English had influenced the German language. Copywriters in particular seemed to love English and at times I struggled to find a single German word in advertising posters. Did all Germans understand that the Mitsubishi slogan “Drive alive” had nothing to do with life and death? Or that the slogan “Come in and find out” of the perfumery chain Douglas wasn’t an invitation to a maze that was potentially hard to escape from? Not likely. Even English words that have now become commonplace in German can prove tricky to understand or pronounce. I recently overheard an elderly lady who was window shopping with her friend mispronounce the word “sale” when she said: “Oh my! Look, they’re having a saale again.” It reminded me of a relative who told me years ago that her daughter had a “blind date with an old acquaintance”.

English also seems to confuse some “users” in the computer world. Even the three-decade-old program “Excel” has its pitfalls. And it starts with the name. While the emphasis on the second syllable in English sounds sophisticated, the German pronunciation “axle” evokes images of a comical animal that’s perhaps related to the Axolotl; a cute Mexican salamander. David Attenborough would’ve presented this adorable axle as a guest on his “Life” series.

Of identity and other crises

Jokes aside, this is a serious issue! The truth is, some Germans no longer feel all that comfortable in their native tongue. As translators, we always need to keep our readers in mind – we have to ensure they feel at ease reading our texts and are able to understand content without any difficulties. Of course, we could pepper our writing with linguistic challenges such as puns or foreign words. But we need to do this consciously and tactfully, without making our readers feel like “dorks”; a word my now eight-year-old daughter likes to use.
Language is a significant part of our identity. I know from my own experience what it feels like when you start to lose your grip on your mother tongue.

Despite having German friends in the U.S. and making frequent trips home, after a couple of years the sinking feeling set in that my German was slowly losing its fine nuances. I started to communicate predominantly in English in new aspects of my life, such as buying and renovating a house, or during pregnancy and after the birth of our daughter. I often struggled to find the right words when talking about these things in German. As my use of my mother tongue became coarser, I started to question my identity. My work as a translator undoubtedly added to my quandary. Who was I? Not really “German” anymore but also not really “American”, despite having an American passport.

We’re all now living in a time of crisis that transcends our personal lives. There’s huge conflict in many parts of the world, fuelled by alternative facts in this post-truth era. Let’s hope we can soon overcome these crises and put them behind us. Perhaps change has already begun: I solved my identity crisis through my move back to Germany in 2013. And with the help of the beautiful German language!


[1] Mark Twain, „The Awful German Language“, Aufsatz, 1880.

[2] Hans Conrad Zander: Napoleon in der Badewanne. Das Beste aus Zanders Großer Universalgeschichte. 3rd edition, 2011, P. 94. https://books.google.de/books 

[3] „Dylan Moran on Germany“, YouTube-Video, aufgerufen am 03.03.2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoLIU2NI66w.

4 responses to “The beauty that is the German language”

  1. Jonathan Smith says:

    I started learning German in my third year at grammar school, having started French in my last year at primary school (this was unusual in the UK in 1963) and Latin in my second year at grammar school. Personally I have always loved German and I still think that it is a beautiful and expressive language and not at all “guttural”, as some people, who know very little about it, seem to believe. It is the language of the Lutheran Bible, Goethe, Schiller, Brecht, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler und so weiter and it is capable of the most exquisite profundity, subtlety and devotion. Moreover, it is not to be underestimated in the world rankings, where I believe it comes at around position number 10 in terms of the number of native speakers, depending on how you view the statistics. So it is one of the major languages of the world and the first language of about 95 million people worldwide and the most widely spoken native language in the European Union. German is also still popular as a lingua franca in many parts of Northern and Eastern Europe.

    Deutsch ist eine wunderbare Sprache!

    Schöne Grüße!

    Jonathan Smith FCIL

    • Thanks for your comment, Jonathan! We couldn’t agree more. Even though we work with the German language on a daily basis, its richness continues to amaze and inspire us. Deutsch ist wirklich eine wunderbare Sprache!

  2. Andrea Brugman says:

    Hi Eva,

    Thank you very much for your comment. This is exactly what we at BVIW strive for – to produce translations that sound as if they were authored in the target language. The translation is supposed to be as good as or better than the source text. I absolutely agree with you, my colleague Saveen did a brilliant job. Whether my original article is as compelling as her translation is for someone else to judge. 😉

    Best wishes,

    Andrea

  3. I pride myself on being able to spot a translation when I read on, but this one is brilliant. It reads as if the original writer had thought in English. I wonder if the original German is as confident?

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