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.
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.
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…
Ignoring 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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