Gruff? Scary? Why Does German Sound So Angry?

rage
 

When it comes to language stereotypes, no language takes the cake the way German does. We love to hate German with all of its harsh, angular words and prolific use of the letters ‘g’ or ‘z’. This poor language is called ugly, violent, or scary.

Run a search on silly language memes on Google and most of them will be Differenze Linguistiche panels portraying German as the language of fiery eyed, toothy MS Paint sketched heads with highly suspicious little mustaches.

Do we really hate German? No, not at all. Most people recognize the language’s value, that it has a huge population of native and second language speakers and is one of the most influential languages in Europe and around the world, both historically and recently.

We know that it is the second most common language within the scientific community and that Germany, and its language, have helped shape the world into what it is today. German is the 7th most commonly spoken language in the United States with over 1.1 million speakers. It is one of the few lucky languages other than Spanish that high schools still manage to find occasional funding for.

  

So if German is so useful, so prevalent, and we know it, why then do we spend so much time taking it out back behind the proverbial wood shed and beating it with bratwurst?

English is a Germanic language and despite having absorbed an immense amount of French, Latin, Greek, Celtic or more recently, Spanish; English is still closely related to its Central European cousin.

A Series of Unfortunate Events.

 

Having studied anthropology – not linguistics – I am naturally inclined to seek out cultural factors that might dictate others’ opinions of how German sounds. Undoubtedly any language can be made to sound ugly, including the ever romanticized French and Italian.

If you shouted incomprehensibly in a deep voice in any language you’d probably sound ugly. This leads me to think that our inability to give German a break is a remnant of early 20th century angst.

And it’s not really a surprise to anyone, especially in the US where we’re bombarded in school and by the “History” channel with scenes of a particular angry Austrian with silly hair and a funny little mustache, waving his arms around in the air, shouting at the top of his lungs, pointing furiously at the sky and calling for the systematic execution of millions of innocent people. You know who I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, 70 years later Germany is still paying the price for these transgressions – at least in the eyes of some in the United States and elsewhere. The even more unfortunate bit is that we don’t necessarily know why we’re stereotyping, we aren’t trying to offend anyone.

Interestingly, you don’t hear Americans rallying against the Japanese language, despite a similarly intertwined history of bloodshed and persecution – on both sides. We may not have forgotten Pearl Harbor, but we don’t seem as interested in blaming the grandchildren for the transgressions of their forefathers, as we do in Germany.

Or maybe we just really like anime.

I have managed the LATG Facebook page for four years now and  I can’t count the number of times someone has posted a Differenze Linguistiche meme, either on our page, or on another, with German as the butt of the joke, and some German individual has become offended as a result of being constantly singled out as the ugly duckling.


differenze linguistiche meme computer, ordinateur
What’s a “Differenze Linguistiche” meme anyway?

These memes feature lists of fairly common words, like helicopter. ambulance or island, and then show the word translated (probably by Google) into a number of other languages. The languages are all selected because they are fairly simple cognates of one another, or because they all sound short, pleasant or simple to pronounce. Take the example here on the left:

We have five languages’ versions of the word “computer”, all of which are pretty much the same, followed by the odd man out – in this case not German but French. Sometimes these memes can be entertaining, and even spark some really interesting conversations on the etymology of certain words.

If you were to look into the French word “ordinateur” a few minutes of searching would tell you that they say it this way because of its Latin roots. “Ordinator” means “producer”, “ordinare” equals to order or arrange and going one step further we can deduce that “ordo” means row or rank.

Voila, we have a machine that puts things, information in this case, in a particular order. It’s not a huge leap, so Jackie Chan can put his hands down and chill.

But French is rarely at the butt of a differenze linguistiche meme, and while the beret may be another silly, unnecessary stereotype, at least nobody is being likened to a roid-raged megalomaniac with sharp, pointy teeth.  As you may have guessed, German is frequently the victim  of these linguistically ridiculous comparisons, as evidenced by the meme below.

Ten points if you can spot the issue with this immediately.

Here we see three Romance languages, plus English, which frequently seems to visit its Romance companions on such memes, and then we have German. We’re comparing different sub-families and expecting similar results, indicating a massive lack of understanding when it comes to language and its history.

In addition, this meme is awkward because Italian is also different from the rest of the pack, yet it isn’t singled out. In this case I have to assume that the creator of this picture simply wanted to frame German as the language of angst.

differenze linguistiche meme, pollution

Caps lock and a few exclamation points go a long way towards making it look like German truly is the todifferenze linguistiche meme, football, soccerngue of Hell.

Are all Differenze Linguistiche memes bad? No, not at all. Just the ones that try to compare languages with no relation to one another in a relatively condescending tone.

Some of them, as I’ve stated, bring up some fascinating etymological information that leaves you with a new understanding of how a language may have formed or evolved. This one is one of my favorites because it shows a very large number of languages from many different language families from all corners of the world:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But wait! We’re not done…

 

differenze linguistiche meme, soccer, footballIgnoring the stupid comment at the bottom, lets keep in mind, that these are the kind of people we’re talking about when we indicate that Differenze Linguistiche memes are usually rather simple and can be blamed on the similarly simple linguistic understanding of their creators.

Anyway – back to German.

Memes like these, and others, continually reinforce the idea that German, or any other language, but typically German, is the language of demons, devils, Rammstein, angry, gun-slinging Austrian-American governors of California, and long words with lots of “zug zug” in them.

You can make anything sound ugly or angry by setting it up with ten exclamation points, increasing the font size and making it bold.

Nobody likes being shouted at, least of all in a language they don’t understand, even through text.

Before you go…

To those who claim that German is ugly, violent or angry; I challenge you to learn some of the language. It’s actually not that bad.

You don’t have to learn a lot, just gain a basic, survival understanding. Enough to get by as a tourist maybe. Listen to some music, loan a few library books, watch a German movie or three, and try speaking the language in the same tones you’d speak your native language.

Try not to feel shocked when twisted horns don’t pop out of your skull, or when the sky does not in fact rain brimstone.

How do you feel about the German language and its portrayal in Internet culture?

 

 

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  • It’s funny you should say that because the soccer one is inaccurate on both accounts. Soccer is an English term coined in England and has only gone out of use because it’s counterpart, “rugger” has too. It still makes us smile, it’s still a good joke. Jokes are simple beasts, you set a situation up and you knock it down with a punchline. They don’t need to be accurate and they most definitely don’t need to paint a full, objective picture, all the setup needs to be is reasonably plausible.

    Anyway, a lot of these panels simply poke fun at the relative length and perceived complexity of words, and German rarely disappoints in those areas, that’s pretty much all there is to it as far as I can see.

    I also think you read too much into the faces, not everything is an allusion to Hitler. But that’s just a hunch, I’ve got nothing to back it up with.

    • You bring up a great point, and it’s not really my place to be offended for Germany’s sake. Most of the time these memes don’t bother me, but very frequently I’ve seen people get all up in arms in response to these. Perhaps they are the ones who should relax and take it in stride – I’m just trying to find an underlying cause.

      And I think you’re right again about the length and ‘complexity’ of the words.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Anonymous

    I live Berlin and I can assure you that a lot of foreigners simply find the German language awful, it can really hurt our ears. 🙂

    Learning the language can get you used to it, but the thing is, it still sounds harsh when we don’t pay attention.

    And no, it has nothing to do with Hitler, German people or any other non-related stereotype that you’ve mentioned. The language itself is full of terrible sounds and really long words. And this really good description I actually heard from an Austrian guy: the language is just commanding.

  • I’ve noticed a lot of people find these to be silly and don’t take it too seriously – of course, I haven’t ran into the ones “with the stupid mustache” that you mentioned. I would certainly see the problem there. I adore the German language, have enjoyed learning it and look forward to continueing to expand my vocab. I love the advice you give at the end – yes, go out and listen to it, music, maybe a poem, something that’s far from the expectation, even the news – which is a great learning practice. Naturally, not all people will love the language as I do – my sister for one, speaks French and doesn’t have the same knack or enjoyment for German I do (and I sure don’t have a knack for French! It’s nothing short of hilarious when I try) Point is: All languages can be beautiful when we listen with fresh and open ears.

    • Fantastic response! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      You’re right when you say that most people don’t take them too seriously – and that’s good, I don’t think they were intended to be taken seriously. I’m not offended by them personally, but then I’m also not German.

      I think most Germans take it all in stride, but I received comments almost every time we posted one of these on Facebook drawing attention to the fact that there are still people who are bothered by it.

  • Anonymous

    In Finnish, football = jalkapallo and computer = tietokone.

  • Date an attractive German-speaking girl or guy and your preconceptions will vanish like the morning dew.

    • Indeed! Great comment. People see only what their environment shows them. Those of us who have never been to Germany or spent significant time around German speakers would do well to hear the language first hand.

      Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  • On the last one- the Scottish created football and so surely it should be all about what the original calling is to determine standards!

  • Lieke

    Before I started using tumblr, I’d never even heard of these memes. The reason for that is that my first language is Dutch, and in Dutch, a lot of the words that are singled out because they are so different in German are different as well. That is, of course, logical, but these memes completely ignore that. I’m pretty sure it’d be the same for a speaker of one of the Nordic languages as well. These memes are only funny when you don’t really understand how these differences came about, and why the comparison is just wrong, as you said. Whenever someone I know posts one however, I never pass on the chance to learn them something about linguistics…(:

    • Indeed! I’m always a little bit torn about sharing these on the LATG Facebook page. They’re always immensely popular and bring about a wave of positive and no small amount of negative feedback. As a blogger and page admin I like this activity but I also don’t want to encourage fights or spread misinformation.

      On one hand, yeah, they often (but not always) demonstrate a general lack of understanding of language families and linguistics on the part of their creators.

      On the other hand even if they do showcase someone’s lack of understanding, it’s still a good way to list vocabulary and then launch into a discussion as to why that language is different, so long as tempers don’t get too hot – as they are prone to doing on the Internet.

      Usually, someone learns something, but I get a headache. Worth it 😀

      Lastly, and obviously the reason I wrote this post, I wonder how the singling out of the “misfit” language and the subsequent caricature that portrays it in a very stereotypical, unfair or otherwise disparaging light could affect a greater global population’s perception of said language.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Christopher Poblete

    Those who name it soccer are the ones who can’t play it hahaha

    • Hey now, our women’s team just won the cup :-p

  • Elena Ekkert

    I don’t know why Rammstein is included in the negative usages of German – they have some rather lyrical songs and texts and some songs have been even paralleled to Goethe and other German writers and literary works.

  • Lucuma

    That German is “ugly”, as mentioned in the text, has historic reasons: over and over again Germany is portrayed as a Nazi state even though, if you look at today’s Germany, its an amazingly social state and has very positively corrected its past. It might even be too soft now in fear of being accused of racism. Which other state has looked at own crimes in the past in the same critical way as Germany? US with Vietnam? Japan with the 2nd world war? France with Napoleon? Russia with Stalin? China with Mao? Furthermore, German culture is only seen as negative by its Western/European neighbours (maybe even out of a certain complex…?). Go to Asia and Germany has a very good reputation: efficiency, technology, research, consistency.

  • Maria

    Serbian for football : futbal, Croatian: nogomet – computer in Serbian: rcunar in Croatian: racunalo… and many other words don’t sound the samen although half of Europe uses one similar word for the same thing…

  • Maria

    Serbian for football : futbal, Croatian: nogomet – computer in Serbian:
    racunar in Croatian: racunalo… and many other words don’t sound the
    samen although half of Europe uses one similar word for the same
    thing…

  • Maria

    Serbian for football : futbal, Croatian: nogomet. Computer in Serbian:
    racunar in Croatian: racunalo… and many other words don’t sound the
    same although half of Europe uses one similar word for the same
    thing…