The German language needs an image makeover. I’m on a mission to help English speakers appreciate how beautiful and clever it can be.
If there were a top ten of the most attractive-sounding languages, French would probably rank number one for most English speakers, whereas poor-old German would feature much further down the list. Many English speakers feel that French sounds like a harmonious piece of classical music but would describe German as the linguistic equivalent of thrash metal. As a lover of the German language, I think it is unfair it has earned this reputation. That’s why I’m always trying to convince my fellow native English speakers of its beauty.
There is no denying that depictions of German speakers in war films and other movies (think of Bond villains and Alan Rickman in Die Hard) have perpetuated this view. Linguistics experts also believe that certain phonetic features of the German language are simply more jarring for English-speakers. For example, consonant clusters in words such as selbstverständlich, where every consonant is pronounced with precision, are said to make German sound harsh. Likewise, the prevalence of fricative sounds, which are produced when air is forced between the palate, tongue and teeth, with words such as ich, Schatz, Vater and zeigen immediately coming to mind.
However, other languages, including French, have their fair share of guttural sounds and are not perceived to be harsh and grating. There are plenty of German words that sound sweet and mellifluous if pronounced in a normal and non-aggressive way. For example, try saying aktualisieren, Schmetterling or Blümchen.
So even though German sounds a little sharper than other languages, its reputation is more likely to be based on history, culture and prejudice. It’s worth remembering that in different eras the German language had much more positive associations, such as intellectualism and high culture.
Renowned English lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent is a big fan of the German language and often praises its richness and expressiveness. On the UK TV show “Countdown” and on her podcast “Something Rhymes With Purple” she highlights the German language’s close relationship with the English language and its unique ability to form compound words to create new ones.
For example, she mentions nouns such as the famously long Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (a captain working for the Danube steamship company) and the many everyday words such as Staubsauger (literally dust sucker for vacuum cleaner) and Kühlschrank (literally cool cupboard for refrigerator) which have the knack of very clearly and succinctly describing an object or concept.
Then there are the many ingenious German nouns that do not have direct English counterparts and have the ability to beautifully encapsulate complex ideas. Examples come to mind such as Fremdschämen (feeling embarrassed on someone else’s behalf), Betriebsblind (immune to your own mistakes) and, of course the more commonly known, Schadenfreude (feeling happy about other people’s misfortune).
I hope that this post plays a part in helping English speakers to appreciate the beauty and ingenuity of the German language – after all, it’s for good reason that it was historically known as the language of poets and thinkers.