Monday, November 24, 2008


On Monday I took a day off from the studio and went into Essen, checking out a few of my favorite second-hand stores and doing some errands. One of the places I visited was the new Limbecker Platz shopping center, a gargantuan building at the edge of the downtown area. It's been built recently (the second phase is still under construction) and takes the place of the old Karstadt Department store. There's been controversy about the mall and I can't say that I'm much of a supporter. I loved the old Karstadt, which reminded me of a department store from my childhood. But in a country with an annual rainfall of 23 inches, it's hard to argue categorically against indoor retail space.

As I wandered through the mall, I was attracted to a permanent display about the archaeological work that was done at the site when the building was going up. Artifacts were very professionally displayed and the accompanying text put each object in context, but as I got to the end of the glass case, I came to the following notice: Die Fortsetzung der Ausstellung finden Sie im Basement. Häääh? Since when is "basement" a German word?

The truth is, this is just one example of a flood of such words that are inundating standard German. A lot of them are technical, but most are just words someone thinks sound cooler than the German equivalent. In the case of "Basement," they're just plain wrong. The continuation of the exhibition wasn't in a basement, but simply on the lower floor of a building someone invested several million Euros in. I doubt if they'd be happy to hear their bottom floor, slathered in flocking and faux marble, referred to as a basement.

But the stampede to an all-English vocabulary continues in spite of its appropriateness. What was once Kundendienst, becomes first Service, then Support and ultimately just Hotline. Words are brought into the language like cancel, download and flat-rate and within a few months I hear people declining them in speech, as a flight is gecancelt, a file is downgeloadet or flat-rate becomes possessive: Zeitdauer des Flats. Sometimes the change is less radical and a noun like Ergebnis loses its currency and is replaced by a word like Resultat. Resultat comes right out of Latin, but why is it suddenly preferred to Ergebnis? Could the cause be its similarity to the English, "result?"

All languages borrow words from one another and fundamentally, I think it's a good thing. English has raided other languages rapaciously and mostly to the benefit of those of us that speak it. German loan words are well represented, such as, Bildungsroman, Blitzkrieg, Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, Gestalt... But what I see going on in German is alarming to me, maybe because I've got so much invested. As fast as I can learn German vocabulary, it's being replaced by a language I already speak. It's led to an odd situation, in which I've become the purist, trying to out-deutsch the Deutsch. I turn to my German fellowshopper when the elevator arrives at our floor just as we press the down button and say, "Eine günstige zeitliche Abstimmung!" He replies, "Ja, gutes Timing." I might as well just hang out in the Basement.

1 comment:

Charlie said...

It must be British "basement" as opposed to American "basement." The Brits use the word to refer to floors of bigger, commercial buildings which are half-submerged, and reserve the word "cellar" for the same thing in houses, and "subcellar" for a level totally underground beneath the house. (Wikipedia now makes me look like I'm knowledgeable of everything.)