German Loanwords in English. An Assessment of Germanisms Such As "Sauerkraut, Pretzel and Strudel"

Term Paper, 2015

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Lexical Borrowing
2.1 Types and Terminology
2.2 Reasons for Borrowings

3. Germanisms
3.1 Influence on American English
3.2 Observations on Germanisms as Reflected in The New York Times

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Es gibt keine ungemischte Sprache. Das Neben-, Mit- und Gegeneinander der Völker und Menschen hat zu allen Zeiten zur Vermischung der Sprachen geführt. Dabei kann es, wie wir am Beispiel des Englischen sahen, zu einer so starken Durchmischung des Wortschatzes mit fremden Wörtern kommen, daß im lexikalischen Haushalt einer Sprache mehr Lehn- als Erbwortgut gespeichert ist […] (Scheler 1977: 85).

This quotation indicates the impact of borrowing on a language. English as an international language has had a remarkable impact on plenty of languages, including German. Vice versa, English is a language, which contains many words borrowed from languages all over the world ̶ and also from German respectively. When thinking of German borrowings in English, one might come up with a few obvious ones, as for example sauerkraut, wanderlust and rucksack or terminology from the Second World War, like blitzkrieg. This essay sets out to show, in which fields and to which time the German language particularly contributed to the diversity of the English lexis. Furthermore, it examines how German words became integrated into the English language and thus became Germanisms. Especially, I am looking at American English and show that many Germanisms had been adopted into American English due to cultural contact with German immigrants in the United States in the 19th century.

To achieve this, I have structured my paper into two main chapters, each with two sub-sections. In the chapter on ‘Lexical Borrowing’, I provide an overview of important terminology, serving as a framework for my further investigations. Additionally, I show why languages tend to borrow concepts from others. In the chapter on ‘Germanisms’, I have an explicit look at German words which were borrowed into English, particularly into American English, while analysing newspaper articles from The New York Times. The conclusion contains a summary and an evaluation of the inspected Germanisms.

2. Lexical Borrowing

There are many ways for a language to expand its vocabulary. In addition to the usual word-formation processes like compounding, derivation, clipping and blending, we find borrowing as a source of new words. The following definition of ‘borrowing’ is given by the principal etymologist of the Oxford English Dictionary, Philip Durkin (2009: 132):

Borrowing is the usual term for the process by which a language (or variety) takes new linguistic material from another language (or variety), usually called the donor. [It] occurs in situations of language contact, and is indeed an almost inevitable consequence of it, although the levels and the types of borrowing which are found differ greatly in different types of contact situation.

Seen literally, the term seems to be misleading because basically, the linguistic material from another language is not supposed to be returned one day.[1] However, the term is used linguistically, not metaphorically. Since borrowings appear due to contacts between language communities, they can also reveal tracks of cultural history (Crystal 2007: 60-63).

In this paper, I am examining lexical borrowing. Thus, I am referring to the lexis that has been borrowed from another language, or rather German, into English, resulting in new word forms and/or meanings. As also mentioned in the quotation, there are several types of lexical borrowing at which I am having a closer look.

2.1 Types and Terminology

When talking about the borrowing of both, the form of a word and the associated word meaning, linguists refer to the term ‘loanword’[2] (German ‘Lehnwort’) (Stanforth 1996: 16). Loanwords make up the most frequent type of lexical borrowing. Usually they become adapted to the borrowing language because of phonetical/phonological, morphological, graphical or semantical reasons. The German linguist Martin Haspelmath remarks, that “loanwords often undergo changes to make them fit better into the recipient language. These changes are generally called loanword adaptation (or loanword integration) […]” (2009: 42). Particularly in English, words need to be inflected and have a gender, which is why it is essential to adapt a loanword (ibid.). An example for a loanword would be the word pumpernickel which was borrowed into English from German in 1738 (OED s.v. pumpernickel, n.). The noun was adapted phonetically, because English did not borrow any sounds from German, as well as graphically because English nouns, except in the case of proper nouns, do not have an initial capital letter.

Another type of lexical borrowing includes ‘loan translations’. In contrast to loanwords, only the meaning of a word and not directly the word form are borrowed. According to Durkin (2009: 135), “[l]oan translations (or calques) show replication of the structure of a foreign-language word or expression by use of synonymous word forms in the borrowing language […]”. This means in other words, that the borrowed word receives a more or less literal translation. A really good example for a loan translation is the word loanword itself which comes from the German word Lehnwort (Lehn from leihen = lend + Wort = word) (Scheler 1977: 89).

The third and last type of lexical borrowing which I would like to mention, is the ‘loan blend’. Generally, it is a hybrid between loanwords and loan translations and consists of both native and foreign material. For instance the word apple-strudel would be an example at this point (Stanforth 1996: 30) with the native English word apple as a translation of the German word Apfel plus the foreign German word strudel as the loanword.

There are some more types of lexical borrowing which linguists distinguish, but for this paper those three types should be in the focus. I also have to note that it is not always easy to classify a word into one special type of lexical borrowing. For example the German word Leberwurst appears in all three types in the English language: as well as the loanword leberwurst, the loan translation liver-sausage and the loan blend liverwurst can be found (ibid.). For a better overview, see table 1 below.

Table 1. Types of Lexical Borrowing and Particular Examples

illustration not visible in this excerpt

2.2 Reasons for Borrowings

Generally, there are two main reasons for lexical borrowing. Some academics refer to the terms ‘cultural borrowings’ and ‘core borrowings’ (Haspelmath & Tadmor 2009: 46-50) and some simply call the reasons ‘need’ and ‘prestige’ (Durkin 2009: 142-45).

Borrowings because of ‘need’/‘cultural borrowing’ happen when a new concept appears which does not have a name in the borrowing language yet. It is meant to fill “a lexical gap” (ibid.). Then it is to decide whether the word for a new concept is borrowed as a loanword or whether it represents the foundation of a loan blend or a loan translation. The word schadenfreude for example was borrowed as a loanword into the English language because a name for such phenomenon was completely missing (Stanforth 1996: 18). Especially in the Late Modern English period,[3] cultural borrowings occurred because “society became increasingly complex and the growth of vocabulary correspondingly great, with many new words in the fields of finance, politics, the arts, fashion and much else” (Barber et al. 2009: 231). Additionally in this period, between 1850 and 1899, the OED shows the highest number of new words which were first recorded.[4]

Borrowings because of ‘prestige’/’core borrowing’ “occur in a context where the donor language has a particular status in any of various social or cultural situations […]” (Durkin 2009: 143). In this connection, an already existing word in a borrowing language is substituted by a word from a donor language to achieve its prestige, “to provide a ‘foreign’ flavor” (Howard 2002: 122) or also because of stylistic reasons. In the Early Modern English period[5] for instance, “[i]t was argued that English lacked the prestige of French and Latin as a language of learning and literature. English was ‘rude’ and ‘barbarous’, inexpressive and ineloquent, and it did not have the technical vocabulary required in specialised domains of language use, for example in medicine” (Lass 1999: 358). That is why so many words were borrowed from French and Latin at this time. It was also the time when borrowing was the most frequent source for new English words compared to other word-formation processes (ibid.: 357). Another point is that prestige can also result from a special terminology of a language. The German language is said to be significant for its technical terms and here we find the highest amount of loanwords, borrowed into English (Stanforth 1996: 19). To which fields these terms belong, I am going to figure out in the next chapter.

3. Germanisms

Basically, most terms ending in –ism are used to refer to “the lexis of a language which shows a distinctive trace of origin in a certain other language” (Durkin 2009: 140). In this chapter, I am looking at German borrowings or rather Germanisms, including loanwords, loan translations and loan blends, which are used in the English language.

When it comes to counting all the German words borrowed into English, Pfeffer and Cannon (1994) found about 6.000 words in their extensive dictionary on German loanwords. They include loanwords, loan translations and loan blends, as well as proper names and plenty of Greco-Latin technical terms which are accepted as part of the German lexis. According to the authors, the first Germanism ever recorded in English, was the word snorkle in 1346 (1994: xxi), which referred to a wrinkle/crease, but which died out (OED s.v. † snorkle, n.). As previously mentioned, most words came into the English lexicon between 1850 and 1899. It is also the time when the highest amount of German loanwords, about 1280 words, is first recorded by the OED,[6] almost catching up with French which had about 1806 borrowings into English during the same time (Durkin 2014: 363). Pfeffer and Cannon divide most German borrowings into diverse semantic fields which reflect what kinds of words tend to be borrowed from other languages. The fields are ranked according to the amount of borrowed words with the field of mineralogy on top, followed by chemistry, biology, geology, botany, politics, music and medicine (1994: 5). Almost all of these semantic fields belong to the overall field of natural sciences and “reflect the importance of German as a language of culture and knowledge, especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century” (Durkin 2014: 361). Nowadays at times, Germanisms can be found in advertisements, like the slogan ‘ Fahrvergnügen’ (= driving-pleasure) by Volkswagen (Romaine 1998: 80). Additionally, Germanisms are sometimes used not only because there may not be an English equivalent, but primarily because of stylistic reasons, as for instance zeitgeist is used instead of spirit of the time to supply a special style (Stanforth 1996: 132).

3.1 Influence on American English

As we have seen so far, borrowings appear due to the contact between language communities and thus can reveal tracks of cultural history. Indeed, the Germans and the U.S. Americans share a cultural history. At the end of the 17th century, the first German immigrants, most of them being from Southwestern Germany, came to the United States and settled in the state of Pennsylvania, with ‘ Dutch[7] as their so-called language (Mencken 1936: 616). Especially the 1850s were a peak period for German immigration due to the unsuccessful revolution in 1848 and the volition to leave the country (Kövecses 2000: 21). In the 19th and 20th century, many people from all over the world immigrated to the United States and thus had an impact on the American English language, whereas the highest amount of borrowed words indeed originated from the community of German immigrants (Barber et al. 2009: 258). Towards the end of the 19th century, almost six million people, whose mother tongue was German, had immigrated to the United States (Eichhoff 1996: 176). From the immigrants, new items, ideas and trends were brought to the USA, which needed to have a name in English. Here we can refer to borrowings because of ‘need’/‘cultural borrowing’ (see chapter 2.2) and add that immigrants play an important role in the transfer of words.

Many Germanisms that have been borrowed into American English, are words in daily use, as approved in H.L. Mencken’s quotation (1936: 154): “The Germans [= the immigrants] left indelible marks upon American, and particularly upon the spoken American of the common people. The everyday vocabulary shows many German words and turns of phrase”. Most of these words can be classified into a few semantic fields on which German immigrants had a mentionable impact and thus contributed to the diversity of the American culture. According to Eichhoff (1996: 179-182), the main fields contain terminology related to food and drinks, sociability, education, traditions and skiing, whereas the highest amount of words by far belongs to the field of food and drinks and “mirror the profound effect of German immigration upon American drinking habits and the American cuisine” (Mencken 1919: 88).

3.2 Observations on Germanisms as Reflected in The New York Times

To assess how Germanisms became integrated into the English language, I am examining newspaper articles from The New York Times, which are recorded since 1851. I am referring to the semantic fields, that I mentioned in the previous chapter, by picking out one Germanism from the first three fields and show how they are written and marked in the articles, also in comparison to the OED, as well as their frequency and their presence today.

From the semantic field of food and drinks, I chose the loanword pretzel.[8] Obviously, the word is a Germanism, since on the one hand, the combination of <tz> normally does not exist in English and on the other hand, because it refers to a traditional pastry in Austria and Southern Germany, where the immigrants indeed came from. Examination of the data indicated that in The New York Times, the word first appeared in an article from 1860 and is written exactly like in the OED, where the word already appeared in 1831. There, the word was also already adapted to the English countable noun class with – s /- es as plural marker (pretzels). In the space of time from 1851 to 1999, NYT provides about 1.302 articles that contain the word pretzel. Striking is, that the word was used independently of a German context right from the beginning, which means that most people were familiar with the loanword already. In addition it was peculiar, that Pretzel seemed to be a surname as well. That is why the spelling differs in the articles: sometimes the initial letter was capitalized, indicating the surname then, and sometimes the initial letter was not capitalized, which would refer to the actual loanword pretzel. Interestingly, I have also encountered 15 articles, dated from 1857 to 1977, which contain the word bretzel, written with an initial – b, but still deviating from the German standard spelling Brezel. Newspaper articles from the last month only contain the word non-capitalized and without a German context, which is evidence for the total assimilation into the English language. What was catching my eye was that the OED also contains the verb pretzel. This change of the word class also changed the meaning of the word and thus contributed to an own position of the verb in the English lexicon. The German influence on the actual loanword pretzel had nothing to do with the integration of the verb to the lexis, as we can see in the OED.[9]


[1] There are exceptions: as for instance the German loanword hamburger was borrowed back to German together with various kinds of burgers, e.g. Cheeseburger (Stanforth 1996: 189).

[2] The spelling differs in my investigated sources; the word appears as two words (loan word), hyphenated (loan-word) and as one word (loanword) and I will use the latter convention.

[3] Approx. 1700-1945.

[4] See OED Timelines.

[5] Approx. 1500-1700.

[6] See OED Timelines.

[7] ‘Dutch’ was deviated from the German word Deutsch and is not to be confused with the language spoken in the Netherlands these days.

[8] “The English form with initial p- probably represents a perception of the unaspirated pronunciation of b- in regional German (south.)” (OED s.v. pretzel, n.).

[9]N. Amer. (orig. and chiefly U.S.). trans. To twist or contort, esp. forcefully; to cause to bend or buckle” (OED s.v. pretzel, v.).

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German Loanwords in English. An Assessment of Germanisms Such As "Sauerkraut, Pretzel and Strudel"
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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Historical Linguistics, Germanisms, German Loanwords in English
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Julia Graßmann (Author), 2015, German Loanwords in English. An Assessment of Germanisms Such As "Sauerkraut, Pretzel and Strudel", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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