German–English translation: historical connection and Anglicisms

The English language is virtually ubiquitous: bits and pieces of it can be found around the world in music, movies, international brands, global politics and even as a borrowed component in many languages (Anglicisms) – especially in Europe. Because of its special status as a lingua franca in many sectors of life, English is one of the most common languages for texts to be translated into.

But does this frequency automatically ensure success and the quality of results? Unfortunately not. Whether you are a German business looking to make your website more friendly to your international customers, a government agency attempting to help non-German speakers better understand your procedures or a manufacturer trying to make your internal processes clearer for a foreign subsidiary, a quality English text can be key to your success.

So how do you make sure that your message is communicated clearly and naturally in English? There are a few things to consider when it comes specifically to the language pair of German and English and, over the course of this blog series, we will take a look at some of the most important aspects. The topics in this edition are the historical linguistic connection between German and English as well as some Anglicisms to be wary of.


Historical relationship of the two languages

Both German and English are members of the West Germanic family of languages, which also includes other languages such as Dutch and Frisian. But what does that really mean in today’s world of languages and how does it impact translation?

Similarities in terminology

Because the two languages are historically related, there are plenty of shared factors between them. Some of the most basic and essential vocabulary is so similar that even someone with no skills in the other language can make a pretty good guess at the meaning of words:

  • Buch and book
  • Milch and milk
  • Haus and house

Similarities in syntax

Additionally, the two languages share certain aspects of grammar, syntax and sentence structure. In their most basic forms, German and English sentences will often follow the so-called subject–verb–object structure: ‘I read a book’, with your subject (‘I’) performing the action (‘read’) on the object (‘book’); German: ‘Ich lese ein Buch’ with your subject (‘Ich’) performing the action (‘lese’) on the object (‘Buch’).

Of course, the grammar rules change as soon as you begin introducing aspects such as dependent clauses, prepositional phrases and different verb tenses – the basic structures of the two languages are nevertheless related at their core. Ultimately, this means that – unless the customer has explicitly asked for a translation that deviates from the source text stylistically – the German and the English texts could appear, at first glance, to be very similar in word choice, flow and structure.

Anglicisms: not everything is as it seems

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Anglicisms are words that have been borrowed from English and incorporated into other languages – and German is no exception. Regardless of how they came to be commonplace in their new home, these English words or phrases are often used in the same way in German as they are in English. But not always – and that’s where the confusion can begin.

Let’s first take a look at a word which – during these unprecedented times – anyone living in Germany has heard countless times since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic: home office. Those are two English words, ‘home’ and ‘office’, perfectly normal, understandable to your average, run-of-the-mill English speaker. However, if a native English speaker were to say ‘I have home office’ to another native speaker with no knowledge of German, the latter might give the former a strange look.

Why? Because the most natural way for native English speakers to get that message across is to say ‘I work from home’. Additionally, the ‘Home Office’ is a department of the British government that deals with domestic affairs among other things – so the term takes on a whole new connotation for British English speakers in particular.

There are several examples of words or phrases of English origin which have become commonplace in everyday German, but that are not used at all – or not in that particular context – by native English speakers. Here are a few more you can add to the list:

  • public viewing’: Though this phenomenon is really not very common in the English-speaking world, an event of this kind would more likely be referred to as a ‘public screening’. What English speakers tend to think of when they hear ‘public viewing’ is a large gathering to view the corpse of a deceased person – also referred to as a ‘wake’ (‘Aufbahrung’).
  • shooting’: Or, more completely, ‘Fotoshooting’ – in English, a ‘shooting’ is when someone gets shot with a gun; a session when many photographs are taken is simply called a ‘shoot’ or ‘photo shoot’. It may seem like an unimportant detail, but that little ‘-ing’ makes a huge difference for English speakers.
  • claim’: In the German marketing world, this word is used to refer to what native English speakers would commonly call a ‘slogan’. In English usage, a claim has more of a legal meaning (often in the context of insurance claims) or is an assertion of what a product has been proven capable of.

If you are a German speaker who has, on occasion, used those words in English in the past, there is no need to despair – odds are pretty good that you were still able to get your message across. And now you know better!

That being said, there is no need to alter your use of those words in German, because one of the beautiful things about language is the way words are borrowed between languages and how that helps them evolve over time and how foreign words are adopted as words in their own right in the new language.

Andrew Wakeman

Eigentlich versteht Mr. Wakeman keinen Spaß, wenn es um gute englische Sprache geht. Für Sprachwitze hingegen hat er ein großes Faible. Da spielt es auch keine Rolle, ob auf British oder American English, obwohl er aus den U. S. of A. stammt. Dort hat Herr Wakeman Volkswirtschaft und Germanistik studiert und dann auch noch ein Diplom in Pädagogik draufgesetzt. Um bei so vielen Abschlüssen nicht überzuakademisieren, ist unser Andrew übrigens passionierter American Football-, Musik- und Bier-Fan. Manchmal trifft man ihn darum auch mit the past, the present, and the future in einer Bar.