This Post from Freisinnige Zeitung is republished with permission.

[This is part of my series of posts on languages. You can find an overview here that I will keep updated: “Synopsis: Language Posts.”]

I have written about “Words Sorely Needed in English.” That was tongue-in-cheek — actually a good expression lacking in German — because it’s not how languages work: Someone proposes a word and then everybody follows along. Languages are a perfect example of how something regular can emerge by human action, but not by human design, ie. a central plan.

English is by now actually quite reluctant to take up new words from elsewhere, which is funny because it used to be so different. While basically a Germanic language, English borrowed terms left and right in the past: from Celtic and Scandinavian languages, and many others as well. Norman, French, and Latin even turned the language into a hybrid, and so English often behaves more like a Romance language, eg. with precise tenses, hardly any declination, regular plurals, etc. The outcome of all this is that English has a very extensive vocabulary and has perhaps become somewhat complacent.

By comparison German looks like a far more Germanic language. But then it has also swept up words and phrases from a lot of places: There are some of Slavic and Italian origin, others from Greek and also Hebrew (directly and indirectly via Yiddish), many from the French, and lots and lots from Latin. Lately, there has been a stream of new words from English, which are particularly easy to adopt because they often fit in well. German is no more a “pure” language than English, it is often only less apparent that it is so.

As the German Liberal Ludwig Bamberger quipped in his “Deutschtum und Judentum” [hard to translate, literally: Germandom and Jewdom], published in 1880 as a retort to Heinrich von Treitschke’s thinly veiled anti-Semitism (p.28 of the original, p.66/67 in my new edition):

Were culture something that is drawn from the soil of one’s own primal forests, the catchword of a pure German culture, thousands of years old, would contain a fiction compared to which Victor Hugo’s cant about the brain of human civilization being enclosed in Paris might only count as a small exaggeration. Fortunately, though, culture is the opposite of a straight continuation of a single people’s spirit [Volksgeist], and German culture stands so high because it could take in so much and assimilate it. Goethe says at one point that he owes the most to Shakespeare and Spinoza. No people has a “pure culture,” not even the Chinese, and the most cultured peoples have it in the least.

Ludwig Bamberger had had to escape from Germany after participating in an uprising in the Palatinate to defend the Revolution of 1848. He was sentenced to death in absentia and found refuge in France where he became a successful banker. Only after an amnesty following the war against Austria in 1866 could Bamberger return to Germany. A little later he was one of the founders of Deutsche Bank, but left his business career behind to become a politician. He then played the central role in introducing a common currency to Germany, the Mark, instead of the previous Thaler (dollar) in the North and Gulden (guilder) in the South.

I find Ludwig Bamberger one of the most entertaining and insightful political writers of his time. He brings in an elegant style so unlike the stuffiness of many others, and I think it has a lot to do with his long experience in France. As you would say in German he has “Esprit.” It is telling that the word itself comes from the French although its meaning is perhaps narrower than in the original: astounding wittiness combined with effortless elegance.

The German anarchist Rudolf Rocker made a similar point in his “Nationalism and Culture,” first published in 1937 (cf. Second Volume, Chapter 17, I fix a few minor points that seem to be typos):

Consequently, no language is the purely national product of a particular people, nor even of a particular nation. Towards the development of every one of our cultural languages peoples of the most various origins have contributed. This was inevitable, because a language as long as it is spoken at all continually absorbs foreign elements in spite of all the noise of the purification fanatics. […]

In reality, there exists no cultural language which does not contain a great mass of foreign material, and the attempt to free it from these foreign intruders would lead to a complete dissolution of the language — that is, if such a purification could be achieved at all. Every European language contains a mass of foreign elements with which, often, whole dictionaries could be filled. How, for instance, would the German or the Dutch language look if all the words borrowed from French or Latin were removed from it, not to speak of words of other origin? How, the Spanish language, without its countless elements borrowed from the Germans and the Arabs? And what a mass of German, English, and even Turkish words has penetrated into the Russian and Polish tongues! Similarly, the Hungarian language contains a great number of words of Italian and Turkish origin. Rumanian consists only one-half of words of Latin descent; three-eighths of its stock of words are from the Slavic, one-eighth from the Turkish, Magyar and Greek. In the Albanian, until now, only five or six hundred original words have been distinguished; all the rest is a mixture of the most varied elements. […]

For the development of every language the acceptance of foreign elements is essential. No people lives for itself. Every enduring intercourse with other peoples results in the borrowing of words from their language; this is quite indispensable to reciprocal cultural fecundation.

Rudolf Rocker’s life experience was somewhat similar to that of Ludwig Bamberger. Both were born in the same town, Mainz, and had to seek refuge elsewhere when things in Germany became intolerable. Rocker fled to France in 1893 from where he moved on to London. There he came into contact with Jewish anarchists and began to write for their Yiddish newspaper although he initially did not know Yiddish and so others had to translate it for him. During World War I, which Rocker opposed, he was forced out of Great Britain and ended up in the Netherlands. Afterwards he returned to Germany, but had to flee again in 1933. He found an exile in the US where he lived in his final years and also died in 1958.

In his “Nationalism and Culture,” Rocker discusses the many words in German that have come from other languages. As a native speaker you often don’t realize that that is so because the words have been so well assimilated into the language over time that they are hard to recognize. Here are a few where I find it funny how this works:

Fenster, window, Mauer, wall, Wall, and Wand

At first glance, German might look “more Germanic” than English, but it is often not so. The Germans were in closer contact with other languages and so they often imported new words earlier, which means they were even better integrated into the language over time.

“Fenster” means: window. The English word is actually an import from old Norse (the ancestor of the Scandinavian languages) and started out as “windauga,” which is literally a “wind-eye.” But the German word came from the Latin “fenestra,” which again appears to have been borrowed from the Etruscan language that was spoken in Northern Italy, but disappeared around 50 AD. By now “Fenster” does not feel like a foreign word at all. While in Latin it is femininum (as the Italian “finestra” or French “fenêtre”), the Germans looked at it and turned it into a neutrum for some reason I do not understand.

I actually wanted to write about how German has the word “Mauer” and English “wall,” and the latter is Germanic, while the former is of Latin origin until I found out that also “wall” is of Latin origin. The Romans had two words: “murus” for a stonewall and “vallus” for a rampart (which again comes from Old French “rempart”). In English, “wall” took on a somewhat different meaning over time, while the German “Wall” still denotes a rampart. “Murus” must have entered the German language early on. The long ‘u’ later developed into a diphthong ‘au’ in parallel also with English (eg. “hus” > “house” as with German “Haus”). The Germans also did a grammatical gender reassignment here and decided that the word is not masculine, but feminine.

There is actually also a Germanic word: “Wand” (basically derived from “winden” or “to wind,” ie. a originally wall made from rods that are wound into a structure). It also means “wall,” but in a different context: when you look from the inside, while “Mauer” is from the outside or the structure itself. So you would put a picture on the “Wand,” not the “Mauer” (only if the bricks showed). But then “the Wall” was “die Mauer.”

Keks, Biskuit, Monster, fighten, Delhi, and Bagdad

I find this one so funny because as a native speaker you do not realize where it comes from. Also bad news for alt-right trolls: “Keks” means “cookie.” Actually, in Germany, those are not the large ones as in the US, but smaller ones that are perhaps more aptly called “biscuits,” though usually not soft (from the Old French “bescuit” from the Latin meaning: twice cooked, also in German as “Biskuit”).

The word “Keks” was borrowed from the English “cakes” (even in this spelling in the 19th century) and in this pronunciation it fit in with other German words. Obviously the Germans did not get that it is a plural, though! So they treated it as a singular and also decided it is a masculinum. But then you also have to speak about many cookies, and so the solution was to brutally create a double plural: “Kekse.”

And that’s also what the Cookie Monster screams on German Sesame Street (Sesamstraße) where it is actually the “Krümelmonster” (crumb monster). “Monster” itself comes from the Old French “monstre” and that again from the Latin “monstrum” (a miraculous sign). I don’t know how it entered the German language, but in the 19th century the spelling was “monstre,” so it might have come via the French. But then the Germans got the original gender right this time, and it is a neutrum.

There are also other examples how a word that does not fit in is made to fit. My English teacher in school said it made him cringe how Germans use the word “fighten” (turning the English “to fight” into a Grman verb, but still with the English spelling), usually only used in a very narrow sense of fighting very hard, eg. as a boxer. Now in English “to fight” is a strong verb, which means that the past tense is “fought” with a different vowel and not with the final “-ed.” But Germans view it as a weak verb, which would be a past tense like “fighted.” And so the form in German is “fightete” or as a past participle: “gefightet” (the prefix “ge-” used to be there also in Old English, but was then reduced to “y” or “i” and later lost, it’s still there in words like “handycraft” “everywhere,” or enough”).

I agree with my teacher that “fightete” and “gefightet” sounds totally ugly if you know English. The funny thing here is that German has the same word: “fechten.” And it is also a strong verb and, in parallel, the past tense is “focht” and the past participle “gefochten.” However, the meaning of the word has narrowed down and is now mostly “to fence.” The older usage is still present in the word “Gefecht” (the “ge-” makes it into a collective noun), which is something perhaps smaller than a battle, but bigger than a skirmish.

There are also other example how the Germans got something wrong. You can see this with placenames where they probably had no direct contact, but learned about it only in written form. Take for example, “New Delhi.” In Hindi, the “Delhi” is pronounced “dilli” with a marked double ‘l.’ Writing it as “Delhi” leads you to a rough approximation in English. But in German spelling, an ‘h’ means that a vowel is long. It makes no sense to make a consonant long, which does not happen in German.

So the spelling was interpretated as if someone had messed it up and it was supposed to be “Dehli,” and that’s why it is pronounced now with a long vowel in German like in “deli” (which again comes from the German “Delikatessen” and that again from the French and then, of course, the Latin). Actually, people in English seem to have lost track, too, and apparently pronounce “Delhi” now also more like “deli.”

The same also goes for “Calcutta,” which is a reasonable rendering for Bengali “Kolkata.” But in German it is brutally pronounced as it is written with a short “oo”-sound. Or take “Baghdad,” where in Arabic the ‘gh’ is actually a sound like the German or French uvular ‘r’ or even more correctly the Dutch ‘g.’ But people in both English and German did not get it, and pronouce it with a ‘g.’ Actually, in German the spelling has by now been “corrected” to “Bagdad.”

In one of my other posts, I have already mentioned the funny mistake with “yoghurt” in English or “Joghurt” in German, which comes from the Turkish “yoğurt.” However, the letter ‘ğ’ is not pronounced as a ‘g.’ It used to be a sound like the ‘gh’ in Arabic, but is by now silent. All it means is that the two vowels are pronounced with a stop between them.

Hapless Language Planning

As I have written above, languages do not work like planned economies, but that has not kept people from trying their hand, in particular, to cleanse a language from foreign words. Atatürk tried that pretty radically for words from Persian and Arabic in Turkish, and with some success in this sense. But mostly such efforts fail if you cannot enlist the machinery of a state.

The first proposals in Germany came in the 17th century to replace foreign words, and some caught on, but mostly as additional words that did not replace the foreign words outright. Examples would be “Tagebuch” (day-book, for the French “Journal”) or “Augenblick” (eye-glance, for the originally Latin “Moment”). Some suggestions were just too ridiculous, though, eg. “Geistesanbau” (mind-planting, for “Kultur”) or “Haarkräusler” (hair-curler, for “Friseur,” ie. a hairdresser). As Goethe — no stranger to coining new words himself — quipped about these endeavors:

Sinnreich bist du, die Sprache von fremden Wörtern zu säubern,
Nun so sage doch, Freund, wie man Pedant uns verdeutscht.

[Full of sense are you, to cleanse the language of foreign words,
Now, say you, friend, how is “pedant” to be Germanized for us.

With the rising nationalism in the 19th century, there were further calls to purify German, which, as Rudolf Rocker rightly states, “would lead to a complete dissolution of the language” if taken seriously. In 1885, the “Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein” (General German Language Association) was hence founded with the following purpose:

1. To further the purification of the German language from unnecessary foreign components,
2. To foster the preservation and restoration of the true spirit and peculiar essence of the German language— and
3. To strengthen in this way the general national consciousness in the German people.

Already in the 1870s, bureaucrats in the postal service and the railway administration had taken up the cause of replacing foreign words by fiat. Some of their endeavors were successful like “Fahrkarte” (ticket, literally: ride-card) for the French “Billet” or “Bahnsteig” (platform, literally: railway-walk) for the French “Perron.” But others have only survived as second options, mostly in officialese, like “Fernsprecher” (literally: far-speaker) for “Telefon.” These proposals were widely ridiculed at the time. A heavy, and unexpected blow for the ADSV was when in 1889 some of the most prominent writers and professors published the “Erklärung der 41” (Resolution of the 41) that rejected the goal of language purification via administrative action.

All in all, the ADSV had only very limited success with its suggestions. As far as I can tell, “Kraftfahrzeug” (power-vehicle) is a relative success story for the association and has proved rather resilient as a replacement for “Auto” or “Automobil,” but again more so in officialese. Yet, it could not really compete with its length — no, Germans like short words, too — and so at most it is used as an the abbreviation “KFZ” sometimes that has not been able to edge the far more popular “Auto” out.

The Nazis were ambiguous towards such efforts. On the one hand, they were also into all things Germanic, but on the other had, they often could not figure out what that was supposed to mean. For example, they first made the Gothic “Fraktur” script (actually, just another version of the Latin script) obligatory, which had been the standard anyway. But suddenly in 1941, they “found out” that what had been up until then the only true “German” script were actually “Jewish letters.” Over night the Latin script became compulsory.

And that’s how Switzerland — the only country with German as a language, but not Nazi — ended up as the only one still using the Gothic script. With Germany and Austria (> 10 times as many people speaking German) going Latin script, the Swiss had to give in after World War II and abolish it, too. It is extremely funny that especially American Neonazis have not gotten the message by now and are still so fond of the Gothic script: Beware, you are going against Nazi regulations here!

Roughly the same thing also happened with the ADSV that could continue its work after 1933. Hitler himself had already disparaged such efforts in “Mein Kampf” as silly. When the ADSV criticized him for using too many foreign words, he had enough and ordered in 1940:

The Führer does not want such violent Germanisms and does not favor the artificial replacement of foreign words that have long been naturalized in German by words not from the spirit of the German language and mostly not reflecting the sense of the foreign words.

The ADSV was not prohibited outright, but only made it to 1943 when it dissolved. It was reestablished in 1947 as the “Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache” (Society for German language, which sounds as strange in German as in English without the “the,” but then they are the experts). It has shed its ideological ballast and stays away from the purification agenda. They now sometimes advise the government on how to make laws easier to understand. And its main achievement is the “Word of the Year” that makes headlines for a few days annually. They also started the “Un-Word of the Year,” but that was taken away from them in the 1990s.


There is nothing wrong with coining new words in a language. Maybe sometimes they fit in better than imported words, but often not. Languages can work that out all by themselves. No need for whining about foreign words and drawing up plans how to combat them. The problem is only if you think it is a valuable, or even achievable goal to “purify” a language.

Realistically, it would just collapse under the weight of so many Frankenstein words that have to be stitched up from the supposedly pure material. It makes far more sense to wear foreign words as a badge of honor because they show you can take the good from whereever it comes. They demonstrate that a language and the respective culture is open and a part of a much larger human culture and that it is not parochial. Ludwig Bamberger was right:

No people has a “pure culture,” and the most cultured peoples have it in the least.

If you wonder what the handle “Freisinnige Zeitung” means. This was the name of a newspaper that was founded by the great German journalist and politician Eugen Richter in 1885. A literal translation would be “Liberal Newspaper.” The word “freisinnig” is made up of “frei” (free) and “Sinn” (sense, mind). The “-ig” is for an adjective, parallel with English “-y.” It is often translated as “free-minded,” which is one interpretation, but in the 19th century this was just the German equivalent for “liberal.” The term has fallen out of use in Germany proper and survives only in Switzerland where it has a similar, though more particular, meaning as the designation of a party that I am not associated with.