Germans’ English Estrangement

As of a couple months ago there has been a new German government in power – CDU/CSU in coalition with the liberal-economic FDP, rather than in a “grand coalition” with the SPD socialist party. Those circumstances happened to give rise to a new running concern (or running gag – take your choice) about the very tenuous relationship some of Germany’s top politicians have with the English language. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself by all accounts acquits herself quite well in English – and in Russian, too, they say, but then again she was an academic researcher before she got into politics (and she delivered a small part of her address before a joint session of the US Congress last year in English). On the other hand, her top partner in the new coalition, namely Guido Westerwelle who heads the FDP, tried in a half-hearted way to speak some English in his first appearances after the new government was formed, only to become widely mocked for how bad that was going and to finally decide “the hell with it!” (or rather, I would imagine, something like Schluß damit!) and just going with German, to include insisting that questions asked of him during press conferences be phrased only in German. (I’m sorry to have to remind you here, if you didn’t know it already, that Westerwelle’s formal position in the new German government is as Foreign Minister!)

Now it’s time for a new European Commission, which will be sworn in next week and in which the German representative naturally always gets an important portfolio. This time that is to be Günther Oettinger, President of the state of Baden-Württemberg and now Commissioner-designate of the EU’s Energy Directorate (not so important in the past, as it was held by a Lithuanian for the last five years; but clearly to be of major importance henceforth). And yes, Oettinger has a problem with English, a big problem. (But what can you really expect from someone with, in effect, two umlauts in his name, including the “Oe”?) Apparently he is only barely able to pronounce in public the English words on a paper before him that his staff have written for him to say.

But don’t take my word for this: Die Welt has an article on-line now with up at the top, just under title and lede, a video of him trying his best with English recently before an audience in Berlin that had something to do with Columbia University. As the article’s writer, Robin Alexander, points out, it’s not good – not good at all! – when the future EU Energy Commissioner is actually incapable of pronouncing the word “energy” correctly (and remember that the two EU working languages are English and French). Alexander also makes the quite reasonable point that, while the public long-ago stopped expecting that politicians would actually write the speeches that they deliver, we still do insist that they understand what they are saying, and just a look at this brief video could give you some marked uncertainty on that score. (However, rest assured that Oettinger has let it be known that he intends to start an English course soon.)

Then there is a third German politician uncomfortable with English that Die Welt tells us about in a separate article, and that is Peter Ramsauer of the Federal Traffic Ministry. For his part, Ramsauer seems determined to take up a rather more aggressive posture, in that he has forbidden the very use of English in his ministry. But what about those “international words” in English that now have broad general acceptance, like “task force” for example? Find a German phrase for that and use it! is Ramsauer’s reply. (It turns out to be Projektgruppe.)

Anyway, the usual set of on-line appurtenances have sprung into being around this new phenomenon of powerful Germans and their problems with English. That video of Oettinger that you can view on both of the Die Welt articles that I link to above ultimately comes from YouTube and has supposedly been viewed more than a million times already. Facebook pages have been established to chronicle both Guido Westerwelle’s and Günther Oettinger’s problems with English. Nothing similar yet for Traffic Minister Peter Ramsauer, at least that Die Welt reports, although there is on the webpage of the article about him an on-line poll: “Should more [public] authorities replace English terms with German ones?” If you’d like to do your bit to distort that poll’s results in favor of the language of Shakespeare, just go ahead and click on Nein, the bottom choice, and then on abstimmen. (I know that none of my ultra-cosmopolitan readers – even if German themselves – would be interested in the top choice: “Yes – after all, we live in Germany!”)

(And let me add this: If you view the video of Oettinger from the article about Peter Ramsauer at the Traffic Ministry, there at the bottom, you’ll probably first be subject to a 15-second German-language commercial, showing a young man and women first walking together through Nature and then walking together as bride and groom to the altar, securing their financial future together . . . through the good offices of the German financial firm “Union Investment” [sic]. If I may even switch to Latin here: Q.E.D.)

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