On a grey October afternoon, five retirees gathered in the stately Rudolf Steiner Haus in Hanover to discuss the survival of the German language. They are members of Aktion Deutsche Sprache, one of several linguistic advocacy groups across the country. The men believe that English, accelerated by the might of U.S. global capitalism and their compatriots’ lack of “linguistic consciousness,” is destroying German.
Wolfgang Hildebrandt, a vigorous former engineer and teacher with a white mustache, is the organization’s acting director. He gave me an example of pernicious anglicization, and the German willingness to capitulate to it, based on two words. In the 1920s, German firms produced the world’s most popular Projektoren for silent film. Today, Germans use the word Beamer for digital projectors, an anglicism unfamiliar to native English speakers. “What people gives up his own language, adopts another one, and then uses it wrong?” he asked.
Spoken by 130 million people, German is undoubtedly beautiful; for proof, see the poems of Paul Celan, the novels of W.G. Sebald, and the contralto security announcements at Berlin’s Tegel airport. Dietmar Kinder, a 78-year-old language activist who lives outside Cologne, told me he fears an Americanized “monoculture” or “McDonaldsization.” (In 1997, he dressed up as Uncle Sam to warn pedestrians about the dangers of English in a small town called Bergheim.) Others said they are looking out for Germans who have been left behind by globalization.
“Outside the anglophone world, living with English is like drifting into the proximity of a supermassive black hole, whose gravity warps everything in its reach,” wrote Jacob Mikanowski in The Guardian.
In Berlin, where I live, you can feel the pull. The Factory is an invitation-only coworking space whose website says it’s “a community of innovators and changemakers who empower each other to create, share, and disrupt.” Two Planets is a café in a still-working class Turkish neighborhood which offers “dope ass toast.”
In 2017, Jens Spahn, then the State Secretary for Finance from Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, begged waiters at hip “eateries” in Berlin to learn a few phrases in the local language. Near my coworking space, a store sells a tote bag with the slogan “Life is too short to learn German.”
For Hildebrandt, the spread of English is about money. Language “gets manipulated by people…and behind that, clear interests are hiding,” he said. “In terms of Denglish,” the term for an English-German mishmash, “it’s obviously industry. They produce T-shirts for 50 pfennig, put an English expression on them, and ship them all over the world. That’s the cheapest possible thing for industry: one language.”
“And he just said T-shirt,” said Rolf Zick, a 98-year-old former Wehrmacht soldier, Soviet prison survivor, political journalist, and member of Aktion Deutsche Sprache.
Germany doesn’t have a clear analog to the French General Commission of Terminology and Neologisms, a government agency which proposes Francophone alternatives to anglicisms like le sexting, among other activities. Non-profit groups like Aktion Deutsche Sprache and the larger Verein Deutsche Sprache e.V., an organization founded in 1997 by Walter Krämer, a professor of statistics at the Technische Universität Dortmund, pick up the slack. Verein Deutsche Sprache boasts 15,000 members in Germany, from all the major political parties. Another 20,000 supporters live abroad. (Many of these people are German teachers, Krämer told me, who worry that if German stops being a language of global relevance they will lose their jobs.) The group offers an index of anglicisms with suggestions for alternative German words, awards for particularly good and particularly bad uses of German by public figures, and an email filter which rejects messages that include the Genderstern, an asterisk that represents the multiplicity of gender identities within German’s grammatical binary.
Verein Deutsche Sprache is also a cultural organization, where members can discuss opinions they feel are increasingly rare in Germany’s mainstream media. “We live in a media dictatorship,” said Krämer. He referenced the magazines and newspapers Spiegel, Stern, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Die Zeit, which are center-to-center-left, as the ones that “decide what we’re allowed to say in Germany without needing to be embarrassed.” (The most read newspaper in Germany is actually the “populist,” right-leaning tabloid Bild, which draws nearly 10 million readers daily.) Falco Pfalzgraf, a senior lecturer in German linguistics at the Queen Mary University of London, who specializes in “neopurist” movements, told me that groups such as Aktion Deutsche Sprache and Verein Deutsche Sprache are “fighting the culture wars on the field of language.”
One evening, I attended a meeting of a local branch of Verein Deutsche Sprache in Herdecke, a town of 20,000 people in western Germany. The main draw was a presentation by Bruno Klauk, a professor of business administration at the Hochschule Harz, on the “powers of comprehension of migrants.” “For some reason, the computer doesn’t want to connect with the Beamer,” Klauk said.
Accusations of nationalism and Deutschtümelei, a typically precise German word which means the “penetrating, exaggerated emphasis of Germanness,” have dogged neopurist movements.
Klauk described his method for administering a “culturally fair test” of logical reasoning to some 500 refugees. “We can’t be imagining that it’s only super smart people who have come here,” he told the group. (The largest subset of recent migrants to Germany are Syrians, fleeing one of the most brutal wars in recent memory. Others, especially from Africa, are often looking to escape sexual slavery or grueling poverty.)
Klauk said that his research had been attracting attention from conferences around the world, but also leading to emotionally charged discussions. “There are people who doubt whether such investigations are ethical,” he said.
“In our society we value equality above everything else,” Klauk continued. “And if you disturb that at all, you’re the devil.” Everyone knocked on the table, the German academic version of applause.
German linguistic purism has always existed in uneasy symbiosis with nationalist sentiment. In 1617, Prince Ludwig of Köthen-Anhalt founded the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, an organization whose members coined words, standardized spellings, and possibly invented an early form of Scrabble. In a 1641 poem, composed during the Thirty Years’ Year, member Johann Rist wrote, “Courtly France, stay silent / Germany will yet defeat you / The foreign yoke of your language / Will be bested by our guild.”
In June 1875, after Bismarck’s victory in the Franco-Prussian war and the founding of the German Empire, Generalpostmeister Heinrich von Stephan ordered the replacement of French terms related to the post and railroads with German ones. In the foreword to his 1882 Wörterbuch von Verdeutschungen entbehrlicher Fremdwörter: Engländerei in der deutschen Sprache, a dictionary of suggested Germanic replacements for words such as Journalist and Kultur, Hermann Dunger wrote, “Since the rebirth of Germany and the formation of the German Empire, a refreshing breeze of patriotic fervor is flowing through German hearts. The cleansing of our mother tongue from foreign invaders has made pleasing strides.” An 1895 book by H.K. Lenz warned of “Jewish invaders” in the “vocabulary of the German language.”
Between the World Wars, membership in the Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein rose to some 50,000 people. In the 1930s, the ADSV called its members “the stormtroopers of our mother tongue.” (Despite its zeal, the Nazi regime was uninterested in what it saw as ADSV pedantry. In 1940, Hitler banned the group, citing its “artificial substitutions of words long since worked into the German language.”) Meanwhile, the Nazis pursued vicious policies of linguistic control. As the historian Gerd Simon has written, between December 1940 and June 1941, multilingual Alsatians were forced to burn all French-language books as well as their translations. In April 1944, Gauleiter Robert Wagner banned the Alsatian dialect in favor of “high German.”
Accusations of nationalism and Deutschtümelei, a typically precise German word which means the “penetrating, exaggerated emphasis of Germanness,” have dogged neopurist movements. Neo-Nazis have also attempted to co-opt the goals of such groups. The 2000s-era website of the now-defunct Deutscher Sprachkampf depicted a knight holding the German flag, facing a wave, labeled with the English words “out,” “wellness,” “service,” “lover,” and “girl.” “Anglicisms are flooding our country. Let’s resist them!” the caption read. According to a report by the German internal intelligence service Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, one far-right party included a quixotic promise to make advertising slogans in foreign languages illegal in its 2012 campaign platform.
Falco Pfalzgraf said that Verein Deutsche Sprache has been successful at keeping neo-Nazis out of its ranks. (Walter Krämer is a longtime member of the Freie Demokratische Partei, which is centrist and technocratic.) Still, other commentators see Verein Deutsche Sprache as dangerously populist: in 2016, the journalist Stefan Niggemeier described the organization as “a kind of linguistic Pegida,” the anti-immigrant movement launched in Dresden. The members of Aktion Deutsche Sprache used to set up an informational booth for passersby in Hannover; some pedestrians accused them of being on the far right. “As soon as you use the word ‘German,’ people will write you off as a Nazi,” Wolfgang Hildebrandt said. (He once gave a presentation on language to an anti-immigration political party in Bremen called Bürger in Wut — literally, The Angry Citizens.)
One day after a German neo-Nazi attempted to massacre a group of Jewish worshipers in Halle, and, after failing to enter the synagogue, murdered two bystanders, I took the bus to Köthen, a smaller town a less than 20 miles away. Uta Seewald-Heeg, a professor of computer linguistics, took me on a tour of the Erlebniswelt Deutsche Sprache, a museum dedicated to the history of German. Seewald-Heeg is the director of the Neue Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, a group she founded with right-wing journalist Thomas Paulwitz in January 2007, modeled on the historical organization. She showed me an ingenious 17th-century word generator, examples of old-fashioned German script, and an exhibit on the German of Luther’s Bible. In a room dedicated to German dialects, I asked her if there was any mention of Yiddish, which is closely related to German and was spoken widely in central Europe before the Holocaust. “No, not in this room,” she said. And in the rest of the museum? “No, not in the rest of the museum, either. Unfortunately, there are many peculiarities that are not exhibited yet.” Some baroque music began to play.
We sat down near a Luther poster. I mentioned Kiezdeutsch, a variety of German mixed with Turkish and Arabic, which is often spoken by the children of Muslim immigrants. Seewald-Heeg told me, “It’s not a dialect in the sense that it didn’t grow out of the roots of the language...It’s more like a pidgin language.” Meanwhile, the organization’s newspaper lamented the existence of gay parents.
Though Seewald-Heeg told me the museum is “non-partisan,” it seemed more political even than the other groups I encountered, because it defined “German” by a set of rather narrow properties. Ich bin ein white, straight Christian.
As immigration to Germany continues, its language is becoming untethered from ethnicity. There are now 10.9 million people in Germany who don’t have the country’s passport, out of 83.1 million total population. But, according to a 2018 study by the Statistisches Bundesamt, 56 percent of immigrant families in Germany speak German at home. Fritz Wiemann, who has taught German as a foreign language at various Berlin schools since 2014, recounted how refugees in his courses, having survived profound traumas to be here, are now settling down to the business of learning German. They are making embarrassing mistakes in front of their in-laws and putting Post-Its on their furniture to learn the articles and nouns. Die Tür. Der Tisch. “I’ve never had a single student who thought it wasn’t necessary to learn the language,” Wiemann said.