Saturday, November 17, 2012

Loan words and false friends

German and English have been intertwined ever since English was created out of a mix of German and Latin/French a long time ago. English words derived from German include: good (from gut, pronounced "goot"), pretzel (from Bretzel), waltz (from walzen, meaning "to roll or dance"), angst (from Angst, pronounced with a short "a" sound), and bratwurst (from Bratwurst, a kind of sausage). And that's just the tip of the iceberg. If my high school Latin teacher is to be believed, something like 40% of English words have Germanic roots.

Today we see a reversal in the relationship between German and English, with German taking a number of English words and pronouncing them slightly different. These are called loan words, as they are taken whole-hog from another language. Thus,

email = das Email
to flirt = flirten
to babysit = babysitten
camera = die Kamera
alcohol = der Alkohol
computer = der Computer
laptop = der/das Laptop
camping = das Camping
bestseller = der Bestseller
club = der Klub
tip = der Tipp (as in advice)
sexy = sexy

Most of these words also have an official German word (camera is actually der Fotoapparat), but everyone uses the English term to the point that my seventh grade students could not translate der Fotoapparat when they saw it in their book. A similar example is traffic jam, which is technically "die Verkehrsstauung," but the native German who taught me the word noted that everyone just uses "der Traffic Jam" and many younger people wouldn't recognize the German word anymore. Many technology words are English loan words, as are words related to romance and relationships - the examples of flirting and sexy above.

By comparison, here is the entire list of German loan words I can think of:

kindergarten = literally a garden for children or a space for children. The German is der Kindergarten.
zeitgeist = literally the ghost of the time. The German is der Zeitgeist.
schadenfreude = literally pleasure at harm. The German is die Schadenfreude.

That's it. Of course with English's roots in German, it's not as if we didn't steal a major chunk of our language hundreds of years back, so that feels better. It is a little odd to note how few modern German loan words we use, however, when the Germans use so many English words.

There are also some German words that sound like English words but mean something totally different.

das Gift = poison
der Schmuck = jewelry
der Arzt = medical doctor
bekommen = to get or receive (one of my students wants to work with "women who become babies")
der Chef = boss, CEO
das Gymnasium = secondary school, high school
komisch = strange or odd - "funny strange" instead of "funny haha"
das Mobbing = bullying
die Pension = bed and breakfast-type hotel

And I can assure you, both my students and I make mistakes with both loan words and false friends on a regular basis. It has become something of a running joke that whenever I can't think of the German word for something, the word is the English term in a German pronunciation. Except when it's not, on occasion, so I can't let my guard down.

Words, they really do trip you up.

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