This billboard, with its tantalising wisp of chest hair on a svelte torso, didn't raise too many issues of language. At least not at first.
It's an ad for World Compact, a tabloid version of the prestigous German national daily The World. Few know this, but the paper was founded in Hamburg by the British occupying forces, who modelled it on The Times. Early this year, the new Welt Kompakt was hyped as a hipper, snappier version of Die Welt, with the blunt slogan Short. Different. Printed.
The headline reads: We chat on the phone with Mama and check emails at the same time. Are we ripe for a new newspaper?
I pondered this piece as I waited for a train, and it began to fascinate, on a number of levels.
First, look at all that hybrid-English! In spite of all the Englishy words, the ad contains one of the few sentences which is longer in its English form, than in the original German.
As a language, German pursues precision. Its grammar riddles normal conversation with redundancies and extra info—must I really specify the gender of my math teacher? German doesn't just borrow a short Latinate word to describe an abstract concept, it must explain the idea in detail—no science, for example, but rather wissenschaft, which clarifies that science is a knowledge accomplishment. This example turns a seven-letter word in English into a twelve character word in German, a typical margin. Words and sentences seem to last an eternity.
Copywriters must put the maximum meaning into the shortest possible space. The Texter(in) who wrote the billboard shows a mastery of the craft.
Second, do my homosexual readers (you know who you are) detect some code?
I mean, who else but a gay guy would clutch his mother's photo to his nice-but-not-too-worked-out pectoral while (at least) half-naked?
These clues had me looking at the model's fingers, for that foolproof sign of homosexuality—a ring finger shorter than the index finger. Bingo! He's family.
Let's leave aside the clear message that he's having naked phone-sex with Jocasta, and look at the word used to describe it.
He telefoniert with Mama. He doesn't rufen her an, or as we would say in English, call her up. (in German, he technically calls her on.) Telefonieren refers to a discussion, an exchange that lasts a while. In English, we're far less precise. We neeed to use the phrase to be on the phone with someone. Or to add a clarification, like I phoned her for a long chat.
The word telefonieren may sound familiar to an English ear, but it's a little more precise than we expect.
You native English speakers: what do you reckon about the word Mails?
Before the turn of the century, the word mails sounded dumb. Grammatically, mail was a mass noun, as opposed to a count noun. Such a noun never appears in the plural, like traffic, Jello or pseudoephedrine. The well-known 1998 movie is called You've Got Mail, not You've Got Mails.
If you wanted to talk about pieces of mail, you might use a word like letters or postcards. But how do you refer to a single unit of email? No such descripive term exists, so English speakers have turned email into a count noun; e.g I need to answer a couple of emails before I leave the office.
Germans cleverly side-stepped this minor confusion when they wrestled with what to call these new electronic messages. No need for e-posten or e-briefe when you can just shorten the English word email to Mail and apply it—to mailen something always means to send it electronically. The noun form started life in German as a count-noun.
The German language could have cooked the word from scratch, but it was easier to buy one ready-made.
The grammatical distinction between a mass-noun and a count-noun proved so riveting that I nearly missed the choicest morsel of English in the whole headline. The verb checken.
The Honourable Husband believes that no language borrows a foreign word just to sound cool. The language has to need it. Especially in this case, since checken is an odd word that flaunts its English origin through spelling. The guy on the billboard really should tschecken his mail.
So, why does German need the word check? I answer with another question: Have you ever been checked in Germany?
Germans don't check things. We examine things, certify things, analyse things, understand things, ensure things, rate things, measure things, record things, judge and evaluate things. The closest literal translation for check, in German, is überprüfen; literally, to over-prove. It can be excruciating.
Nothing over-proves this better than reality cop shows.
Such shows reflect their cultures in distinctive ways. Sam Richards wrote in The Guardian that American shows like COPS and Rookies "glorify police work as a flashy, heroic fight against the forces of evil". Their British equivalents, such as Cops with Cameras or Street Wars "present a grim, ceaseless and unwinnable struggle against petty crime motivated by booze, drugs, poverty and boredom." In Germany, the forces of evil....create disorder!
Mein Revier—My Beat—promises that Ordnungshüter räumen auf! Guardians of Order Straighten Up!
Viewers quiver with excitement as two officers help a young Kölner find his car when he's forgotten where he parked it. Two others take care of an angry drunk until his wife can come and get him. Viewers find polite parking inspectors worthy of note. Next week promises that an attractive Russian woman will be caught with too many duty-free cigarettes.
Achtung Kontrolle! (no translation necessary) focuses on first-world problems, too.
This link shows a teenager left alone while her parents are away; her parties have caught the attention of the apartment-building super and he phones the police to check that everything's in order. The young woman outsmarts the cops with her superior cunning; she doesn't answer the door.
In Die Chaos Rastätte—The Chaos Rest Area—we follow an Autobahn catering inspector as he ruthlessly puts a motorway caf through its paces. Top notch toilets, but poor time-and-motion management. In order to get a Bockwurst and a latte—your standard trucker coffee break—one needs to visit every corner of the shop. It gets worse if the trucker decides he wants a packet of tissues. Unacceptable!
Achtung Kontrolle! recently did a feature about when to switch on, and switch off, your rear fog light. I was on the edge of my seat.
Lucky these guys don't have any neo-Nazi thugs left to catch.
Borrowing from necessity.
Back to the point. The point is that German didn't have a world to describe the casual, take-it-or-leave-it attitude with which a modern cyber-citizen must view his bulging e-mailbox. So it looked to the messiest, most haphazard tongue it could find—our very own English. And they found what they sought—the word check.
So, it was with smug pride in my native language that I glanced away from the billboard. My train had left. Damn. Must overproof the schedule, next time.