Sprechen u Nederlands oder Deutsch?  Dutch and German Borrowings into the English Language


            More recently than Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and Franco-German and on a much smaller scale, the English language has also happily imbibed vocabulary from the modern languages of Dutch (from the late Middle Ages onward) and German (predominantly from the 17th century onward).  Borrowing from Dutch (and its close cousin in the North Sea/Baltic Sea regions of Germany, the Low German language) has been relatively limited, probably because the two languages are already so similar that equivalents are generally in place at the outset.  Indeed, as you might recall, English itself is a Low German tongue in origin.  Until fairly recently, furthermore, the speakers of English had relatively limited contacts with those of High German on the Continent, and it is only in the past four centuries that German has acquired the status of a “prestige language”; prior to this, Germans for official and international functions used French, Italian, and Latin, much like the speakers of English.  Thus at this point both languages had become “mature,” and—as is the case with Dutch—German language and culture are so similar to English language and culture that little borrowing has been necessary on either side.

            That being said, trade contacts with Dutch and Hanseatic League traders (the latter from northern—and therefore Low German-speaking—German states) led to an influx of some important words in English, while unique German technical, military, and philosophical concepts have enabled a similar stream of High German words into English.  Dutch words in English tend to conjure up a technical aspect, reminiscent of tools and craftsmanship.  Plug, snap, clamp, trigger, and switch are some examples.  Contact between English and Dutch traders often occurred at ports, and thus sailing terms— boom (akin to English beam and German baum, “tree”) as well as yacht, dock, cruise (of Latin origin and related to cross), sloop, and skipper (related to English shipper and German Schiffer)—filtered into English.  Snoop and spook (perhaps things one might do surreptitiously on a ship) as well as furlough (a sailor on shore leave) derive from Dutch, and some terms pertaining to the mercantile trade itself—freebooter, freight, trade, and smuggle—also streamed in from Dutch and Low German.  The association with transportation can also be seen in trek and sled.  Foods like cookie and cole slaw both have a Dutch pedigree, as do artistic terms like landscape (Dutch landschaap), easel, and etch.  (Despite their small land area, the Netherlands and Belgian Flanders can boast a remarkable cast of artistic geniuses—Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Gogh, to name a few.)  Some other words in this category:  swamp, squirt, slim, huddle, and mate. 

            Borrowings from German tend to be more recent and more specialized.  As noted above, this is in part because both German and English had attained relative “maturity” as modern tongues by the time they encountered each other to a significant degree, and also because they are so similar to begin with.  To the extent that they borrow, both tend to introduce new vocabulary from Latin, Greek, and French.  (The designation “German” here is used to designate High German, the official language of Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein—and widely used elsewhere—which coalesced in the Alps shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire.)  German loanwords have streamed into English chiefly as a result of German innovations in the sciences, technology, philosophy, education, and business, as well as in food and architecture. 

            Some German loanwords are so basic to English that you’d hardly guess they were borrowed in.  One of our language’s most crucial words—dollar—stemmed from a German source.  The term for the modern currency of the US, Canada, Australia, and other nations derived originally from the Joachimstaler, a popular coin used throughout Europe and European colonies prior to the American Revolution.  The Joachimstaler owed its own name, in turn, to the Joachimstal—the valley (German Tal, akin to English dale, a lesser-used, folksy term for the French-derived valley) of Saint Joachim.  (Currently in the Czech Republic, it was then part of the German-speaking Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the coins minted there carried German names and etchings.)  The coin was known as a Taler for short, and this abridged version of the name was corrupted into Daler and thence dollar.  Thus, the word “dollar” literally means “from the valley (of St. Joachim)” if we trace its etymology back far enough to the original German.  The ubiquitous command “Halt!” derives from the German verb “halten” (akin to English “hold”) and entered English probably in a military context.  Bum is an abridgement of the German bummeln which means “to loaf around like a drifter or vagabond.”  Plunder and swindle both stem from German roots, and the beloved, stately Austrian dance known as the waltz developed from the German walzen (akin to English walk), meaning “to turn.”

            Kindergarten was an innovation of an educator, Friedrich Froebel, who developed the first kindergarten (which literally means “garden for children”) in the 1800s.  The concept crossed over to the US, and the descriptive word with it.  Policy, psychological, and philosophical terms—kulturkampf, weltschmerz, schadenfreude, zeitgeist, gestalt, leitmotiv, weltanschauung, angst, and realpolitik— are all verbal nuggets popular in the salons and journalistic circles of modern American society, and all streamed into the English language from German sources.  (It should be noted that both kulturkampf and realpolitik are compounds of originally Latin-based loanwords which entered German.)  German scientists and engineers were at the heart of the technologies fueling the great industrial and scientific transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries, and names of elements like cobalt and zinc stem from German, while minerals like quartz, originally from Latin roots, were coined in.  (In general German, like other European scientific languages, preferred to coin in scientific terms from Greek and Latin.)  Many terms with originally military applications crossed over into colloquial vocabulary:  flak originally designated anti-aircraft fire (an acronym for the German FliegerAbwehrKanone), while strafe derives from the German word for “punishment,” which German soldiers pledged to mete out during World War I. 

            Some Yiddish words (such as schlep, schmutz, and schmalz), rooted in German, have streamed into English.  (Conversely, bulwark—another borrowing from German—was first imported from Dutch.)  German-based eponyms—words originated as proper nouns (usually names of people)—are also popular in English owing to the innovation and impact of German inventors.  Both diesel and Fahrenheit are examples, named after their respective inventors.  Germans were master dog-breeders, and many popular canines carry names of German towns or are derived from German words describing the breed:  (Doberman) pinscher, rottweiler, dachshund (which literally means “badger dog”), and schnauzer are some examples.  The commonly used exasperation-related word kaput derives from a German word (originally from Latin) with a slightly different spelling.  Terms such as jäger (hunter) and kegler (bowler) are sometimes used in place of their Old English equivalents.  The term verboten imparts a stylish spin to the notion of something forbidden (with which the German word is a cognate), while meerschaum pipes grace the windows of many a sailor’s deck or fisher’s home.  Germans were prolific innovators in 20th-century architecture, and several German terms pertaining to this field, such as Bauhaus (named for the school founded by the German architect Walter Gropius).  Some less flattering terms for stylistic endeavors—kitsch and ersatz (from the German word ersetzen, “to replace”)—have also been imported and readily used.  Germans are reliably outdoorsy folks, trekking out to hikes in the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) and the Alps, and so some related terms—rucksack and wanderlust—have drifted in to describe items and concepts important for any aspiring outdoorsman. 

            The richest contribution of German vocabulary to English can be found in the festive activity of food and drink, which—as any visitor to an Oktoberfest can attest—is a German passion full of Gemütlichkeit and communality.  One of the most popular foods the world over is the hamburger and its various other burgerly variations—the cheeseburger, veggie burger, and so forth.  (One of the most ubiquitous items on a Japanese menu is the “ハンバーガーwhich is pronounced “hanbaaga” in the Japanese katakana syllabary.)  The hamburger, of course, derives its name from the northern German port city of Hamburg, where such patties of ground beef were popular.  The name of the frankfurter or hot dog, similarly, reveals its ties to the city of Frankfurt.  Doughy creations like the noodle and pumpernickel bread stem from German roots.  Americans enjoy schnitzels and strudels, wurst and wiener (from Wien, i.e. Vienna, in Austria) sausages, sauerkraut and sauerbraten.  Pretzels were another gift of German culinary endeavors, originating from a religious association with the pastry’s resemblance to arms in prayer (Latin bracchium, “branch” or “arm”).  And of course, pretzels taste much better with a lager beer to wash them down.

            English and its Germanic cousins are still evolving, and they will probably continue to exchange vocabulary into the foreseeable future.  The English-speaking and German-speaking areas of the world are technologically advanced, industrialized societies with a substantial output of products that enjoy global consumption, and as in other eras, it is ultimately this economic strength that drives the dissemination of vocabulary across linguistic borders.


n      Wes Ulm


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