Germans’ English Estrangement

Monday, February 1st, 2010

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. (more…)

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