Language Purism - Perception of loanwords and foreign words, 17th to 20th century

Intermediate Diploma Thesis 2002 28 Pages

German Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Loanword Functions

3. Language purism between the 17th century and the end of the Second World War
3.1. Baroque
3.2. Enlightenment
3.3. Romanticism and pre-March era
3.4. German Empire and Weimar Republic
3.5. Third Reich

4. Outlook

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Ich mache backup, du hast gedownloaded, wir sind outgesourct worden: Anglicisms, even after they have been assimilated into the German grammar and syntax, often appear out of place and seem a nuisance to many Germans, just because they break up word flow through their seemingly awkward position within the sentence, and because they often cause problems understanding them. More than two thirds of all Germans consider the advancement of foreign words annoying or even alarming, and it comes as no surprise that this number just about corresponds to the number of people who regard unchecked immigration as a threat.

German foreign word-phobia may not be an expression of notorious racism or xenophobia, but there are remarkable parallels and correlations between those two ressentiments, both concerning the time concurrency in which they peaked, and concerning reasoning and wording. In his seinem Traktat über Fremdwörter, Lutz Mackensen noted that

The loanword is a pariah to many. One eyes the other, whose color is different, one gets suspicious. His skin is not like one’s own, so he must be in an area he does not belong to. He is a troublemaker, he is a delinquent. Who accuses him protects himself.[1]

Since the German language prevailed as a language of the vernacular as well as of science, the loanword has always been perceived as a foreign object in the body of the language: a treacherous virus infecting the pure blood of the language, a weed that threatens to poison or strangle the useful plants in a garden otherwise carefully kept. Those Metaphors are organic and therefore quite telling. More worrying, however, are the political analogies in our discussions about loanwords, for example when innocent words are close to terms from not-so-innocent times, such as in descriptions of loanwords as dirty bastards and barbarian hordes that threaten the nation.

Where language purists fight for an original, loanword-free mother tongue – especially in Germany, where language has always been considered the centre of national identity – the battle gets dirty, contaminated by emotion and ideology.

Whereas friends of the loanwords greet them as an advancement in multiculturalism and an enrichment of narrow-minded German concept of language, enemies turn them into bull’s-eyes for nationlistic resentment and a latently racist concept of ‘purity’.

Obviously, this is a proxy war: The dislike of the so-called “McDeutsch” is just a mirror for economical, ploitical and cultural globalization-angst. “Locusts”[2] undermine and change German economy, international organizations disrupt national sovereignty, Hollywood and Disneyland monopolize western culture – so let’s at least retain the language as a last bastion of the German “Leitkultur.”[3] Germany is a country favoured by immigrants – so let’s at least demand a thorough assimilation of words “migrating” into the German language.

Language hat always been more than just a means of communication. It was, and is, also national emblem, protective shield and sword of national identity; as this identity decays, the fight about ‘self-ness’ as perceived in the national language intensifies. Even a moderate linguist like Dieter Zimmer, who concedes that loanwords are “useful, indispensable citizens”[4] warns in his book Sprache in Zeiten ihrer Unver­besser­lichkeit:

What causes trouble in the German language and might some day damage its foundations is not the quantity of Anglicisms, but the quantity of non-integrated Anglicisms. The readiness to translate loanwords has ceased, and at the same time the number of foreign words that are Germanized phonetically, orthographically or grammatically to facilitate their use has declined. The underlying principle seems to be: Don’t touch them! Maybe it is an inherent absolute respect of all things foreign that does not cease even when […] one ties one’s own hands because of too much tolerance. Maybe this can be attributed to an very German sentiment of inferiority that makes every insistence on anything even approaching a German identity very suspicious. Whatever it is, the power of the German language to assimilate foreign components is fading.[5]

This essay will first outline the general functions of a loanword, then give an account of the history of German language purism between the Baroque in the 17th century and the end of the Second World War. The outlook will take a closer look at the ongoing debate about “Sprachpanscherei.”[6]

2. Loanword Functions

Every language lives and grows through interation with foreign element, through the dialogue of neighbouring cultures. Language use is therefore almost impossible to control or to standardize. One has not got to go as far as modern linguistics sometimes does, taking everything that is spoken for admissible and sensible. There are numerous wrong, superfluous or stupid loanwords that could easily be replaced or done away with completely: vogue expressions, rhetorical empty-words or social terminology that serves the purpose of dissociation rather than communication.

However, we should be aware of the fact that the number od loanwords has declined over the last 200 years. This is even true for the time after 1945: For every new Anglicism that the Duden takes from advertising, computer science or pop culture there are other loanwords, especially otdated words stemming from French or Latin, that just disappear.

But these facts do not tell us anything about the frequency of loanword usage, or their importance within the vocabulary. Dieter Zimmer fears that ‘hidden’ Anglicisms such as “Sinn machen” or “etwas erinnern”[7] might strongly change the grammatical and syntactical “Tiefencode”[8] of the German language. However, blind alarmism is ill-advised here. It might be true that the German language has undergone dramatic changes during the last centuries, but its inner logic and ability to function are not threatened at all. The century-old fight for a ‘pure’ and ‘more German’ German language might once have had good and honorable motives. Today, however, language purism is nothing less than a tilt at windmills – highly questionable, especially when taking the language history into account, a contradiction in itself, and occasionally even dangerous.

The German term “Fremdwort” (loanword) was introduced into the German language by Jean Paul in 1819.[9] Since then this term has been ideologically hypercharged until it reached a level of notoriety that makes today’s linguists try to avoid it whenever possible. The reasons are obvious ones. About a quarter of the 400000 words in the German vocabulary have foreign roots. In most cases, especially when the loan word is old or is indeed a loan translation, the origin has become incognizable. Words that seem to have a Germanic origin, such as “Fenster”, “Tafel” oder “Wein”[10] are actually Latin loanwords. Foreign words are always expressions of cultural synergy; which is why ever since the Middle Ages there has always been a strong influx of foreign words into real or perceived semantic spaces of the German language.

Church and science were speaking Latin, the merchants spoke Italian, higher social circles, diplomats, military, philosophers, artists and chefs spoke French. And when science, technology and industry gained weight during the 18th century, gradually also English words began to seep into the German dictionary. American English is undisputedly the lingua franca of our times. The fact that a DJ was called a “Plattenaufleger”[11] in the GDR and that Russian words such as “Sputnik” or “Datscha”[12] were way more common than “Teenager” or “Petticoat” only proves: The king of the castle dictates which loanwords are used.

But foreign words do not only mirror power structures or colonialization processes. In addition, they enhance perceptual images, ways of thinking, means of expression. They create social distinction, cultural and econnomical prestige. As rhetoric devices they are indispensable because they replace missing or outdated German terms; they breathe life into associative and connotative processes; sometimes they even determine style. The foreign word retains national stereotypes: English terms represent the power of the Empire, worldliness or sportsmanship; French words sometimes have a distinguished, sometimes an erotic and frivolous flair. A “Latte Macchiato” is something entirely different from a simple coffee with milk, “Kids” are not just children, “koitieren” sounds cleaner and more scientific than having sex.

The foreign words helps to circumvent taboos, makes it easy to circumscribe ugly, sick or immoral things. In addition to that they are often shorter, more precise, more colourful and soberer than German words, which can be historically overcharged with meaning. All these are reasons enough to not just unsophistically reject them in general.

3. Language purism between the 17th century and the end of the Second World War

3.1 Baroque

When the first German grammars and dictionaries appeared in the 16th and 17th century, German was considered a raw, unpolished vernacular full of holes, odd patches and teething problems. It had yet to find its place among the European ‘cultural languages.’ Luther’s bible translation had founded the national pride in the German language. His spadework inspired humanists to attribute an almost etheral, if not theological superiority to what was considered raw vernacular before. Balthasar Schupp’s theory that a doctor can cure a sick man in German just as successfully as in Greek or Arabic[13] was just a logical conclusion, way more moderate than Justus Georg Schottelius’s claim that God spoke German when he created the universe.[14] Humanists tried farcical arguments to prove that German had been „Gottes ursprüng­liches Wort:“[15] after all, the Babylonian confusion of tongues could be traced down to the German word “Gebrabbel.”[16] In any case, German was considered a “Ur- und Hauptsprache”[17] that greatly surpassed other languages in age, value and correctness. This is where the concept of an ontologically motivated “Sprachgeist”[18] that made it possible to reach a higher level of cognition just through language – a concept that even reverberated into the works of Herder, Heidegger or Humboldt – made its first appearance.

During the Thirty Year War a number of language associations with flowery long names came into existence, such as the “Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft” and the “Aufrichtige Tannengesellschaft.”[19] The goal they all shared was the restoration of a “verwässerte und versalzene” German language[20] until it reattained its “uralte, angeborne deutsche Reinigkeit,”[21] in order to advance the obscure notion of “Deutsche Tugenden.”[22] The most important way to attain these high goals is the cleansing of the German language of all “fremde ausländische Flickwörter.”[23] The “Deutschgesinnte Gesellschaft”[24] for example wanted to disinter the “der Edlen Hochdeutschen Sprache angeborne Grundzierden”[25] by rescuing them from all foreign “Unwesen und Gemische.”[26] In 1663, August Buchner emotes that the German language is not

so destitute and powerless that it has to borrow from other languages; nor so coarse and cloddish that one cannot say anything polite and nice to another person.[27]

It is second to none in reputation and gradeur, and way superior to French because it is not burdened by a feminine, playful tone.

The members of the Language Societies – poets such as Andreas Gryphius and Martin Opitz, grammarians such as Schottelius, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer and Philipp von Zesen – combined moral and pedagogic goals in their language criticism. Only he who has mastered the German “Hochsprache”[28] can call himself a cosmopolitan and gentleman. All aping of foreign languages is the mark of Cain denoting the fools and the weak of mind. In a satirical poem on à la mode-literature Johann Michael Mosche­rosch writes that

Almost every tailor

Wants to be now, sadly

Well-versed in languages,

And talks some Latin

Italian and French

Half Japanese,

When he is foolish and drunk

The stupid oaf.


You bad Germans,

One should flog you

For heeding our mother tongue

So so little.[29]


[1] Mackensen, Lutz: Traktat über Fremdwörter. Muenchen, 1972. P. 16: “Vielen ist das Fremdwort ein Paria. Man mustert den Andersfarbigen; man wird misstrauisch. Seine Haut gleicht nicht der eigenen: also befindet er sich in Bezirken, in die er nicht gehört; also ist er ein Störenfried; also ist er straffällig. Wer ihn beschuldigt, schützt sich selbst.”

[2] For more about the locust debate in Germany, see: Melanie Stor: Fluch oder Segen für das Weltfinanzsystem und die Forderung nach mehr Transparenz. Amazon-ISBN-13: 978-3640505043.

[3] Mainstream culture.

[4] Zimmer, Dieter: Sprache in Zeiten ihrer Unverbesserlichkeit. Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg, 2005. p. 27: „ein nützlicher, unentbehrlicher Staatsbürger”

[5] Zimmer, 2005. P. 25: „Was die deutsche Sprache in Schwierigkeiten bringt und sie irgendwann in ihren Grundstrukturen beschädigen könnte, ist nicht die Menge der Anglizismen an sich, sondern die Menge der unintegrierten Anglizismen…Die Bereitschaft zur Lehnübersetzung hat nachgelassen. Gleichzeitig sank die Bereitschaft, fremde Wörter in irgendeiner Hinsicht einzudeutschen, um ihre Verwendung zu erleichtern: lautlich, orthographisch, wortgrammatisch. Der herrschende Grundsatz scheint zu sein: Rühr sie bloß nicht an! Vielleicht ist es ein verabsolutierter Respekt vor dem Fremden, der ihm auch dann nicht zu nahe tritt, wenn der Fremdling sichtlich Not leidet und man sich mit der eigenen Toleranz selber die Hände bindet. Vielleicht hängt es mit dem sehr deutschen Minderwertigkeitsgefühl zusammen, …das vielen von uns jedes Pochen auf so etwas wie eine deutsche Identität von vornherein verdächtig macht. Warum auch immer, die Kraft der deutschen Sprache, sich Fremdes einzuverleiben, ist erschlafft.”

[6] watering-down of language

[7] make sense, remember something

[8] Zimmer, 2005. p. 38: system underlying the language

[9] Jean Paul: Hesperus. Preface to the third edition. Tübingen, 2009. p. 7.

[10] window, table, wine

[11] lp changer

[12] garden or weekend house

[13] Stötzner, Paul : Beiträge zur Würdigung von Balthasar Schupps lehrreichen Schriften (1890). San Francisco, 2007. p. 54: „wie ich einem Krancken helffen könne, auff Teutsch, als auf Griechisch oder Arabisch“

[14] Justus Georg Schottelius: Teutsche Sprachkunst. Braunschweig, 1641. p. 9.

[15] Schottelius, 1641. p. 10: the original word of God

[16] gribble grabble

[17] Schottelius, 1641. p. 11: original and main language

[18] spirit of the language

[19] Fruitbearing Society, Genuine Fir Tree Society

[20] watered down and briny

[21] ancient, inherent German purity

[22] German virtues

[23] alien, foreign patchwork words

[24] German-minded society

[25] basic beauties of the noble High German language

[26] uncharacteristic and mixed

[27] Buchner, August: Aleitung zur deutschen Poeterey (1663). Vol. 5 Deutsche Nachdruckreihe. Tübingen, 1966. p. 67: „so arm und unvermögend, dass sie von andern borgen müsste, oder so grob und ungeschlacht, dass man nicht etwas so höflich und nett als in den andern vorbringen könnte.“

[28] high language

[29] Moscherosch, Johann Michael: „Ein schön new lied genannt der Teutsche Michel/ etc...“ In: Paas (Hrsg.): The German political broadsheet (1600-1700). Bd. 7. p. 240f: „Fast jeder Schneider/Will jetzt und leider/Der Sprach erfahren sein/Und redt Latein,/Wälsch und Frantzösisch/Halb Japonesisch,/Wann er ist doll und voll/Der grobe Knoll/ […] Ihr bösen Teutschen/Man sollt euch peitschen,/dass ihr die Muttersprach/so wenig acht.”


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University of Heidelberg – German Dpt.
language purism perception




Title: Language Purism - Perception of loanwords and foreign words, 17th to 20th century