I am always interested to read this British publication's articles about its neighbor and in many ways, still its nemesis, Germany. -rsb
ECONOMIST - Charlemagne
Once the language of Schiller and Goethe, then of Hitler, German is hip again
-- It used to take an introduction to this old script to decipher German. Hitler did away with that.--rsb
SUCH was the status of German in the 19th century—for Europeans generally and for Jews in particular—that Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, once proposed making it the official language of a future state of Israel. In the event, devotees of Hebrew won out. After the Holocaust, German was particularly despised. But times change. Israeli 14- to 15-year-olds going back to school after the summer holidays now have the option of German as a foreign language for the first time at five public schools, to be followed by more.
German is also becoming popular among adult Israelis, and not only the more than 20,000 who have moved to Berlin in recent years. This reflects a broader shift in perceptions.
Fifty years after Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations, 70% of Israelis have a positive view of the country, according to a poll by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think-tank. Many find Germans honest and trustworthy. With the possible exception (at least lately) of Greece, people elsewhere agree, polls show.
This suggests a big gain for Germany in “soft power”. Joseph Nye of Harvard University, who coined the term in 1990, defines it as the ability of a country to hold international sway not by brandishing hard (military) power but by getting others to want what it wants. It is the value of being attractive culturally, commercially, gastronomically, ideologically, or indeed linguistically.
Germans, who are forever coping with their dark past, are thrilled by any suggestion that they are popular. They have come to distrust hard power since 1945 (to a fault, if you ask Germany’s partners in NATO). The country’s political dominance in Europe during the euro-zone crisis discomfits many Germans. Economic prowess and soft power is (almost) all they will allow themselves. And now they have it. Monocle, a British magazine, ranks countries by soft power and had Germany as the surprise winner in 2013 and runner-up in 2014, wedged between anglophone America in first place and Britain in third.
In a chicken-and-egg way, language both reflects and generates soft power, says Ulrich Ammon, author of “The Status of the German Language in the World”, published this year. German ranks tenth in the number of native speakers. But it is fourth in the economic output produced by them (including Austrians, Belgians, Liechtensteiners, Luxembourgers, Swiss and others). German is also fourth by number of learners, trailing English, Chinese and French and roughly tied with Spanish, according to Mr Ammon. Some 15.5m people now study German, 4% more than five years ago.
In the slow-moving world of language, that is a steep rise, says Mr Ammon.
The overall increase is especially impressive since teaching of German is collapsing in Russia, where privileges given to German over English during the cold war have been phased out. Interest is growing fastest in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe, with the Balkans a hotspot. Many learn it mostly to boost their careers. Some hope to get a job in Germany, where certain industries are short of labour because the population is shrinking. Others want to engage Germany’s prodigious exporters. An interest in German culture develops along the way.
Germany’s government tries to promote the trend. But compared with, say, China, which is aggressively pushing its Confucius Institutes, Germany seems shy about it. It does not share France’s prickly obsession with defending the national tongue. And when France talked of a school reform that would have the (unintended) consequence of reducing German teaching, officials in Berlin merely muttered. German is hardly ever taught as a first foreign language in schools anywhere. Officials simply hope to make German the second or third on offer in more places.
Moreover, ordinary Germans seem blasé about pushing their language on others. Linguistically ambitious expats in Germany complain that many locals prefer to reply in English. And even when Germans speak Deutsch, it is so littered with Anglicisms that purists fret about a spreading patois called Denglisch. (Beware false friends, foreigners: Handy is not an adjective but a mobile phone.)
An even older gripe is that German is too hard to bother with. In 1880 Mark Twain complained in “The Awful German Language” that the treatment of gender—so that “a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has”—borders on perverse. And nouns “are not words, they are alphabetical processions”. Twain sensibly suggested the language should be “trimmed down and repaired”.
The Germans have not heeded his advice, in fact, changes to spelling in the 1990s, many think, made matters worse. Fortunately, however, the task is not as futile as Twain suggested. With its predictable spelling and pronunciation, German can be mastered, whereas English, with its protean spelling and word order, may seem easy but prove treacherous.
Cunning linguists?It is obviously beneficial to a country if more people speak its language. At best, that language becomes a lingua franca, as English is. German never will be. But its growing use still helps. It equips more people around the world to work in Germany, which the country needs as it ages.
Proficiency lets more foreigners understand how Germans think. It may convey, for example, the moralistic approach Germans have towards debt (Schulden), which is etymologically close to guilt (Schuld). The word for nipple (Brustwarze, or “breast wart”) may point to export limitations in the romantic genre. But no other language matches German’s capacity to describe Fahrvergnügen (driving pleasure). And though many languages have polite forms of address, the awkwardness over when to switch from the formal Sie to the informal du says much about German social norms. Even as German power grows, more may see in each German the whole human, or rather the Mensch.