Category Archives: False Friends

Denglish in the Information Age

English is ubiquitous in Berlin. Young people here seem to be in agreement that English words are ‘cool’. Using certain English words is the proof that you are current, hip, trendy, etc. In fact, the ‘Denglish‘ phenomenon, or the Anglicization of the German language, has some people in this country quite worried.

Information technology and the Internet have introduced a whole new slew of ‘Denglish’ words to the German language. The Internet cafes advertise their ‘scannen’ and ‘faxen’ and ‘mail’ services. Of course, ‘mail’ in this case refers to e-mail. Although it comes directly from the English, the German word ‘mail’ should not be confused with the English ‘mail’.

When used in German, the word ‘mail’ refers only to e-mail. For some reason it has adopted the feminine article to become ‘die Mail’. It is not used as a verb the way ‘e-mail’ is in English. If ‘e-mail’ were to slip out while speaking German, I find that most people will not understand you. The same would hold true if a German person speaking English said ‘mail’ – it would be understood to refer to a letter arriving in the mailbox or what is known as ‘Post’ in German, which is quite different from e-mail.

Another example are the short text messages so often sent via cell phone. In English these are referred to as text messages or even just text. The word ‘text’ is already a perfectly valid word in German and could seemingly play the same role as it does in English. Instead those short text messages are called ‘SMS’ in German, which stands for Short Message Service. Most Americans I know have never heard SMS, but of course when Germans say it they think they are speaking English (and are therefore cool). Just as text can be used as a verb in English, SMS is often used in the same way in German, as in ‘I’ll SMS you’.

Though English is ubiquitous in the German-speaking world, many Denglish words still require translation. In fact, those Denglish words can present some of the biggest challenges in a translation. While translating a software licensing contract I encountered a new Denglish word I hadn’t seen before: ‘Softwarestand.’ The meaning in this case was ‘version of software’.

The False Friendship of Kindergarten

English is full of borrowed words, whether cognates or words taken directly from Latin, French, Arabic, Greek, and of course German (among many others). English and German share a myriad of cognates, the innocent variety of which are usually covered on the first day of German class. That way everyone can start off the learning process confidently believing German to be an easy lanugauge to learn especially if House is Haus, begin-beginnen, brown-braun, shoe-Schuhe, summer-sommer, kindergarten-Kindergarten. Stop right there! – kindergarten?

Most people know that kindergarten is a German word that has been adopted into the English language. Most people mistakenly believe it to have the same exact meaning in English as in German. But the word kindergarten is actually what I would call a little known false friend.

Only later do learners of German encounter the famous false friends. These are words that appear to be cognates or borrowed words but actually have very different meanings in each language; included on the list are brave and brav, billion-billion, actually-aktuell, etc. False friends can be dangerous and lead to embarrassing situations since people often assume the words share the same meaning. Amateur or lazy translators will often find themselves falling into the trap of false friends.

Literally translated ‘kindergarten’ becomes ‘children’s garden’ in English. More importantly, in Germany Kindergarten is for very young children ages 3-5. It is separate from the school system, which is regulated by the State. It is a place for young children to learn and play and develop social skills. It is what Americans call ‘preschool.’ In the US, kindergarten is the year directly before starting first grade. It is an optional year spent within the school system. Children must be at least 5 years old to attend kindergarten. They learn and play and develop social skills, and from there they start their long school careers. It is what Germans call ‘Vorschule,’ which, just to add to the confusion, literally translates into English as ‘preschool.’

While both German and American (I specify American because I am not familiar with the school system in the UK) kindergartens are like ‘children’s gardens’ for learning and playing and developing, the German word Kindergarten would have to be translated into AE as preschool; the English word kindergarten would then translate as Vorschule in German. Continue reading