Linguistic diversity in Europe: the threat from within?

Posted on 03/04/13 in CULTURE, INDUSTRY NEWS, LANGUAGE, No Comments

“My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.”

This quote is from Mark Twain’s amusing essay “The Awful German Language”, written in 1880.  It is perhaps a typical viewpoint for a native speaker of English: a language with more exceptions to rules than rules themselves, and which, increasingly, is becoming an à la carte heterogeneous mess, due in no small part to the sloppy grammar and punctuation perpetuated by the various media, and the tendency to adopt any and all words in common parlance based solely on the frequency with which they are used, giving little thought to their origin, meaning, usefulness or merit. 

By contrast, an official reform of the German language, including punctuation, was undertaken and implemented in 2006, and it is much more unusual to find grammatical errors in the written German media than in the English language press.  However, a noticeable trend, particularly on television and radio, is the use of Anglophone words and phrases: English is regarded as “cool” and modern, particularly when it emanates from the field of new technologies.  It is not uncommon to hear words such as “bloggen”, “Skypen”, uploading”, “Marketing” and “Hobby” in everyday speech, although the most well-known and respected German language dictionary, Duden, has strict criteria for the acceptance of new words.  A recent phenomenon also seems to be the rendering of German words to represent their  English equivalents whilst changing their function: for example “Absolut!”, formerly an adjective or adverb in German requiring a noun or verb to modify, is now used as a stand-alone interjection – as we use “Absolutely!” in English to demonstrate our agreement with a statement.

Two apparently conflicting messages appeared to emanate from official German sources in recent weeks: the first was part of a speech by the German President, Joachim Gauck, partially in response to the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that a referendum would be held in the UK on EU membership, viewed in some quarters as a threat to withdraw from the Union.  President Gauck, whose intention was to demonstrate his pro-EU stance by stressing that his country supported a more “European Germany” as opposed to a more “German Europe”, also suggested that English should be the lingua franca across the 27 Member States.  Curiously, this contrasted with a highly visible series of advertisements in the Irish press and on the radio to publicise a campaign instigated by the Goethe Institut, the official cultural and linguistic agency of the German government, promoting the German language.  The website highlights the benefits of learning German including the opportunities for living and working in Germany and the other German-speaking countries in Europe. 

While the march of English is, perhaps, unstoppable as it continues to infiltrate all areas of modern life, accelerated by the growth of Web-Culture, its acceptance as a European lingua franca, as suggested by President Gauck, would surely lead to a slow and irreversible decline into oblivion for not only the 23 official EU languages but, inevitably, the other less widely spoken languages, dialects and related cultures and traditions which constitute the rich diversity within Europe.

Written By Caroline Handschuh, a Professional Linguist & Translator working for DCU Language Services