Reading time: 2:30min | His-story vs history vs Geschichte begs the question: could Germans have an understanding of English that can be more than just an unwitting self-mocking?
Here is the thing: we Germans adore the Brits and their cousins the Americans, their culture and their language. We love English so much that we, in preemptive obedience, create constantly anglicisms and desperately hope in anxiety that our friends in the West will slap our back with fraternal recognition: well done, mate! That is the reasons why we call a mobile phone Handy, presuming that English is the language for creative abbreviations and Handy, thus, must be as English as it gets (of course it’s not). We even pronounce Handy in English and say Händi (seriously).
This kind of speech is called Denglish – Deutsch with English pronunciation and attempted wording. We even turn whole phrases into Denglisch. German suits, for instance, tend to say to their German co-workers ‘think out of the box’ when demanding creative thinking leaving their English-speaking colleagues clueless what to do.
It’s true; Germans love English in their inimitable way. But when English became lingua franca it started to belong to everyone on this planet, so does Handy now to the Germans (and many believe it’s English origin). As time moves on and the world globalises other languages leave more and more footprints in the English language. So does German. Famous words are Zeitgeist (spirit of the times), Kindergarten (easy thing, even in English spelt with the t) or Realpolitik (with a Teutonic k, of course). These words have one thing in common: They are compounds. Realpolitik means real politics in the sense of politics that are grounded on pragmatism (and are boring).
Oachkoatzelschwoaf is Bavarian and means Eichhörnchenschwanz in Hochdeutsch, which refers in English to squirrel tail. In German squirrel tail is one word combined of three terms. Eiche means oak, Hörnchen is a word for little rodents living on trees, the -chen of Hörnchen is a diminutive and references their cuteness, and Schwanz means tail.
The English word squirrel doesn’t teach you much. You have to learn what it is. In German, however, the word Eichhörnchen teaches you something about this particular little animal without the need to ask your biology teacher or to see one in nature. With the name Eichhörnchen, you learn that squirrels live on trees, prefer oaks, belong to small rodents that are called Hörnchen and are cute.
All this is possible because we Germans love to combine words and thus create a new word that means something more than the obvious. There are thousands of examples. Geistreich means witty. It consists of Geist and reich, meaning spirit and rich and gives the term a distinct intellectual spin.
If someone is on summer holidays we’d say in German she’s in der Sommerfrische, which consists of Sommer (summer) and Frische (freshness), meaning she’s making herself fresh in the summer, the quintessence of what summer holidays should achieve. Amtsschimmel is another example. Amt means agency or department and Schimmel is a grey horse but also mould. If you put these three meanings together, you’ll get an idea of what Amtschimmel means.
From this perspective, it’s interesting to reverse engineer English words. In German, the English word story means Geschichte but also the term history. Thus, for a German, history is, by definition, a story on a timeline. If you unpack the English word history (being a German I gotta do), you end up with the two words his and story.
Ok. Whatever that means.
All this is, of course, in no way scientific but at least some food for thought – and perhaps an impetus for creative word creations in English.