Monday, February 13, 2012

The Traveling Word – Denglish, Yenglish, and Linguistic Globetrotters

Public Viewing in Berlin
Photo by Thalan
I love it when words go a-travelin’. I picture them walking down the syntactical breezeway on their spindly, alphabetical legs, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, a Stetson on their vowelly heads. And like some global travelers, the first thing that happens to these linguistic tourists is they immerse themselves in the local culture and gain an experience that changes them forever.

When the globetrotting word or phrase is English (or American or Australian, for that matter) and the language receiving it German, the cultural merger is known as Denglish – a melding of “Deutsch” (German) and “English.” These words have been absorbed from English into German, sometimes undergoing a semantic shift along the way so that they no longer mean exactly the same thing they did in the original language.

Here are a few of my favorites:

A Handy (pronounced “hendy”) is what German speakers call a cell phone. This word has been around so long, it isn’t really Denglish anymore but a regular German expression. And while cell phones are certainly “handy” (some would say “indispensable”), the term is based on the human appendage and not on the device’s convenience. “Handy,” in its German usage, may have been derived from Motorola’s Handie-Talkie AM SCR536, a handheld radio transceiver American troops used in World War II.

A public viewing, in American English at least, has me picturing funerals and corpses, especially when the deceased is famous. Michael Jackson had a public viewing when he died, as did Teddy Kennedy. But in Germany, you’re likely to find a Public Viewing at a soccer game. There, it refers to the live broadcasting of sports matches, concerts, or other major events on oversized video screens set up in public areas such as city squares, shopping malls, or bars.

The German term was coined in 2006 during preparations for the World Cup Soccer Championships. FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, introduced Fan Fest events, where they broadcast the matches on video screens in major cities around Germany. The reason, ostensibly, was because they’d miscalculated the number of fans attending the World Cup and didn’t have enough tickets to sell.

Interestingly, the Denglish version of “public viewing” has migrated back into English usage, at least in the media, where it is now applied to sports broadcasts. But for me, the expression will always have to do with a state funeral.

Here’s another of my favorite Denglish words: If a German speaker were to ask me to turn on the Beamer, she wouldn’t be suggesting I get into the luxury car sitting in my garage (I wish!) and warm up the engine. In German, a Beamer is not a BMW but a video projector. The term is derived from the English verb “to beam” or shine a light, which is precisely what a projector does.

Denglish also works in the opposite direction. Take the über-use of über. In American English these days, the expression is a prefix meaning “the most,” “the best,” or “the ultimate.” We have über-achievers (especially here in Silicon Valley), who are a step up from overachievers. The chocolate fudge cake you ate for dessert was probably über-yummy, and if you have a teenage girl in your family, chances are you’ve heard her refer to her brother as an “über-dork.”

The German original has the connotation of exaggeration as well – as in übertreiben (to exaggerate). But über in German can mean “across,” as in übersetzen (to translate – literally to transport words across linguistic boundaries). And it can stand on its own; über means “over” or “via” or “above.” Note that Germans always write über with an umlaut (the two dots over the u), while the term is becoming so well integrated into English that it’s often written without the dots.

Then we have the English word, “mensch” – a decent person. Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life is a mensch – a regular, stand-up guy. Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind is not. Except in German he is, because Mensch in that language means, simply, a human being, male or female, neither good, bad, nor devious. In English, though, mensch isn’t really Denglish. It’s Yenglish, because English borrowed the word from Yiddish (which, in turn, got it from German). This globetrotter has a lot of stamps in its passport.

What are some of your favorite traveling words? Any Denglish, Yenglish, Spanglish, or Franglais in your vocabulary?


  1. Heidi, I love your opening image. It really makes me laugh. I'll never be able to look as these words again without smiling.

  2. Thanks, Patricia! I thought it would be good to start the week with a bit of humor. :)

  3. Heidi, The humor worked!!Thank you! A Trinenglish word that may make you smile is "lime" for the rest of the world a lime is a fruit, for Trinis a "lime" is when a group of people gather and hang out or chill out: it is a national tradition to lime.

  4. How interesting, Sangeeta! Is "lime" uses as both a noun and a verb? And do you know the origin of the word?

    1. Heidi it is used as both noun and verb, apparently it is a play on "limey" which referred to British sailors in who sucked the more prevalent limes instead of lemons for vitamin C to prevent scurvy, according to the story sailors hung out a lot, lazed around and chatted, so much so, that their nickname stuck to the activity.

    2. How interesting! I've heard of "limeys" but didn't know where the term came from. I'm always fascinated by word origins and how meanings change over time and across cultures.

  5. There are a great many "Russlish" words in the business world, mostly because the language lacked a vocabulary when the Wall fell. So, many times I would be trying to tease out what someone meant when they borrowed a term - to me, "I am working on marketing" means advertising, at the time, it meant to them market research.

  6. Oh fun! Thanks Heidi! I'll give you one I can't stand -- vamoos (derived from the Spanish vamos "let's go"). I can't explain why, but it makes my skin crawl when I hear it!

    There are many international words I love, however. And I'll admit über is one of my current favorites (perhaps it's the inner-teenager in me!).

  7. Kelly, there must have been a lot of miscommunication with those marketing terms meaning different things. Thanks for sharing.

    Alli, I never associated vamoose with vamos, though I'm familiar with both words. Funny how you take things for granted when they're familiar.

  8. Love this conversation, and I agree, Heidi--I love the image of the words strutting their stuff wearing a Stetson and Hawaiian shirt! And so cool about the Russlish and Tringlish Kelly and Geets shared too. There are so many "Hinglish" expressions, it's hard to think of one I can share here. But suffice it to say that even the masses in India, maids and cab drivers, for example, can speak this kind of English, even if they've never formally learned English.

    And speaking of traveling languages, an American told me just yesterday that she learned Italian from her Sardinian step-daughters when they were young. She could never quite find the correct translations for things, so when she would tell the youngsters to "flush the toilet," she would translate it to "change the toilet water" because the traditional expression (at least at that time) was "pull the toilet chain" for those old-style toilets. That didn't seem appropriate so she made up her own. Little did she know, a lot of people back home in Sardinia affectionately adopted that expression as an "Americanism."

  9. And one more thing (ahem), I love that word vamoose though it never really occurred to me it was a takeoff of "vamos." Hilarious. Another "Americanism"?

  10. Supriya, I am very curious about Hinglish. Maybe I can twist your arm to share some of them privately? :)

    And I can relate to your friend with the Sardinian step kids. I I have an Iranian character in one of my books who loves proverbs and she renders them literally into English. My husband used to do that, though his English is now so perfect, he knows the real English equivalents.