German Word of the Week: Fremdaussprechen

Behold the German (or "German") menu for McDonald's:

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Holy superfluous nipple, you might be thinking: it's almost all in English! This must make ordering a breeze even if you don't know German.

Not so fast. If you just waltz up to the counter and announce you want a "McWrap Chicken Caesar" the way you'd ordinarily pronounce it in English, there's about a 50/50 chance the clerk will look at you with befuddlement. And nobody likes to be befuddled. Or just plain fuddled, for that matter. Wait, where the hell did that word come from?

Where was I? Oh, right. If you want to be understood the first time, you're well-advised to butcher the pronunciation of "McWrap Chicken Caesar" so it sounds the way Germans would pronounce it. Germans consider it hip as hell to read English and write English, but not many can actually pronounce it.

Take the Big Mac. The "a" sound in Mac does not exist in German. German vowels tend sound more pinched and nasal and front-of-mouth than English vowels. Also, the standalone letter "c" is rarely used in modern German, having been replaced with the much more straightforward "k". The word for Caesar in German is Kaiser. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

So a German would pronounced Mac much more like "meck" (which a German, in turn, would spell Mäc). And a hapless Teuton with a high-school education would look at the meaningless letter-salad "Caesar", which breaks about 8 rules of German orthography, and pronounce it "TSAY-zarr"). "Big Tasty Bacon" becomes "Beg Testy Beckon".

Germans are aware of how ridiculous it is to use English words you can't pronounce. There's even a series of books (g) mocking the Deutsche Bahn (a favorite German pastime) based on the English phrase German train conductors always say at the end of announcements: "Thank you for traveling with Deutsche Bahn". The books are called "Senk ju vor träwelling", which mangles German spelling to re-create, for Germans, the butchery of words in English. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

So whenever I go to a store or a fast food place or cafe here in Germany and encounter English words, I gotta say 'em all wrong. Of course I could insist on the proper English pronunciation, and attach a short homily on how you shouldn't butcher words in languages you don't understand, but I prefer to be served spitless beer and dine unslapped.

I do as the Romans do, and pronounce my own beloved mother tongue as if my mouth were full or marbles. It always leaves me feeling soiled, as if I were begging for change in a red-light district by by reciting the Second Inaugural Address while wearing a crotchless Abe Lincoln costume.

Oddly enough, German doesn't actually seem to have a word for the phenomenon of having to pronounce your own language incorrectly to be understood in a foreign country. So I'm going to make one: Fremdaussprechen. Fremd for foreign or alien, and aussprechen for pronounce.


A Surgeon Who Leaves the Wound Half-Open

I noticed in the comments to my post about Denglish a few instances of what I call the "close is good enough" school of communication. Commenters took me to task for pointing out the error in the sentence, stating that it wasn't really important because, in context, the meaning of the sentence was clear. I supposed some of this is derived from descriptivism, the idea that however people are using language right now basically defines what's correct.

I have never understood this line of reasoning. A sentence which you have to think about and read over again to understand is a bad sentence, period. Forcing your reader to resolve extra complications caused by your mistake wastes their time. There is no gray area. There are no excuses. 

It's as if a surgeon left a wound half-open: "Meh, it'll heal up on its own anyway, no need to waste expensive surgical silk". Or a train conductor braking too hard, causing drinks to spill: "Meh, who cares, we got where we were supposed to, didn't we?" Even if the wound does heal on its own and the train does reach the station, the surgeon and the conductor both acted like lazy gits. It would have cost just a little extra effort to do the job right.

Why not just do it right?

 


German YouTube Produces The Most Widely-Seen Denglish Fail in Human History

As many of you know, Germany's music royalties organization, GEMA, has been locked in conflict with YouTube for years now:

According to a German court in Hamburg, Google's subsidiary YouTube could be held liable for damages when it hosts copyrighted videos without the copyright holder's permission. As a result, music videos for major label artists on YouTube, as well as many videos containing background music, are censored in Germany since the end of March 2009 after the previous agreement had expired and negotiations for a new license agreement were stopped. On 30 June 2015, Google won a partial victory against GEMA in a state court in Munich, which ruled that they could not be held liable for such damages.

This is the English-language version of the message you get when you try to watch a blocked video:

Dengilsh

Along with hopeless confusion about until/by ("I'll have that report on your desk until 5, boss!"), mismarked relative clauses are quintessential Denglish errors. Oxford, refresh our memories:

A relative clause is one that’s connected to the main clause of the sentence by a word such as who, whom, which, that, or whose. For example:

It reminded him of the house that he used to live in.

The items, which are believed to be family heirlooms, included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

There are two types of relative clause: restrictive (or defining) relative clauses and non-restrictive (or non-defining) relative clauses. The difference between them is as follows:

  • A restrictive relative clause provides essential information about the noun to which it refers. It cannot be left out of the sentence without affecting the meaning. The highlighted section of the first sentence above is a restrictive relative clause. If it was left out, the sentence would not make sense:

It reminded him of the house. [which house?]

  • A non-restrictive relative clause provides information that can be left out without affecting the meaning or structure of the sentence. The highlighted section of the second sentence above is a non-restrictive relative clause. If it was left out, the sentence would still make perfect sense:

The items included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

You do not need to put a comma before restrictive relative clauses. On the other hand, non-restrictive relative clauses should be separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma or commas. For example:

A list of contents would have made it easier to steer through the book, which also lacks a map.

Bill, who had fallen asleep on the sofa, suddenly roused himself.

Now we see what's wrong with the GEMA message. The phrase "for which we could not agree on on conditions of use with GEMA" (which itself caused a fight between GEMA and YouTube, since GEMA thought it unfairly made them out to be the villain) is a restrictive relative clause, like "that he used to live in" in the Oxford example. Therefore, it should not be marked off with a comma.

But virtually all relative clauses in German are marked off with commas. So Germans frequently insert too many commas when they write or edit English. Any translator will tell you of epic, 79-email battles with German clients who think they know English and who insist on re-inserting commas. This usually culminates in an email from the translator which says "I'm really going to have to put my foot down about this. The comma must go, and it's not a style issue, it changes the meaning of the sentence. Trust me." but which really means: I AM A FUCKING PROFESSIONAL TRANSLATOR WHOM YOU HIRED TO TRANSLATE THIS FUCKING DOCUMENT BECAUSE I AM A NATIVE FUCKING SPEAKER OF ENGLISH. YOU ARE NOT. I AM RIGHT AND YOU ARE WRONG. IF YOU REINSERT ONE MORE FUCKING COMMA, I WILL FUCKING STRANGLE YOU.

The meaning of the GEMA warning is obviously incomplete without the clause about the GEMA conditions. Without that clause, the warning simply says you can't see the video "because it could contain music". The marking of the clause with commas tells an English speaker that the phrase "for which we could not agree on conditions of use with GEMA" is a non-restrictive clause, which would mean that it applies to all music in general: i.e., that GEMA and YouTube sat down to negotiate an agreement about all music ever created and failed to do so. With the comma removed, the sentence now correctly states that you're seeing the warning because GEMA and YouTube could not agree on terms for the music in this specific video.

It seems incredible, but YouTube obviously did not have this warning, which has probably been seen literally billions of times, checked by a native English speaker. I can just imagine some pompous, gel-haired German YouTube executive insisting it was correct, and zis konversation iss over!


The German Race Wars Have Just Begun!

William Faulkner (remember him?) once said: "The past is never dead. It isn't even the past."

Just when you thought it was safe to go into Central Europe again, comes this shocking news:

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The German Race Wars (g) are back! "Session One" has already begun in Thuringia.

This time, instead of all those grim information placards threatening retribution massacres, the German Race Warriors are going for a decidedly lighter tone, promising "Action, Spaß und mehr..." There's even going to be a "Party Area".

If that's not enough to get you searching the attic for great-grandpa's old uniform, I don't know what is.

The German Race Wars: Come for the genocide, stay for the bratwurst!


Krazy Karlheinz's Place of the Woodening of the English

This is the official logo of the convention center in Essen a city of 567,000 people in Germany:

Messe essen logo

If you're a native English speaker, or even a mildly competent ESL speaker, you may have noticed that 'place of events' is something no proper English speaker has ever or would ever think, say, or write. It has every hallmark of Denglish obtuseness -- the awkward adjectival phrase, the faintly ludicrous non-specificity (is there any location in space-time that is not a 'place of events'?), the cack-handed attempt to convey a sense of excitement by stitching together a few random words in the lingua franca of hipness. It looks like something you would read on a Thai T-shirt, or what you'd get if you asked a group of retired East German coal miners twenty seconds to think of a really cool English slogan for their local senior center.

And yet this is the official slogan of a multimillion dollar convention center in Germany's most populous state. This humiliating testament to the dreary stuffiness of German corporate culture has appeared on millions of signs, billboards, stickers, notebooks, cocktail napkins, sanitary pads, shell casings, flags, and streetcar-side advertisements.

What caused this train wreck? One part of me says the answer is obvious. The convention center's marketing director, Alexander Remigius Maximilian Cornelius Ignaz Baron von Shicklgruber started the slogan meeting by saying: 'It came to me over the weekend: Place of Events!' and his fawning underlings immediately congratulated him on the staggering awesomeness of his idea.

But maybe the inspiration was Crazy Vaclav, the swarthy, heavily-accented auto dealer from an unspecified Eastern European country featured in the 1992 Simpsons episode Mr. Plow. (unembeddable video link here). He tries to sell Homer a car from a country that 'no longer exists'. As the Simpsons Wiki puts it, the car is deficient in legroom, 'even for the driver'.

The name of Vaclav's car dealership?