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American Speech 75.2 (2000) 169-183

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The Status of "Foreign Words" in English:
The Case of eight German Words *

A. J. Meier


Several years ago while teaching at the University of Vienna, I received a letter from one of our students, an Austrian, who was spending a year at an American university. In the letter, she observed that she finally understood why the German word gemütlich (roughly translatable as 'cozy, relaxed') had no "real" equivalent in English: Americans are just never gemütlich. This throws the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis into reverse a bit, purveying an attitude of "thought determines language" (i.e., because Americans cannot conceive of being gemütlich, no apt corresponding English word exists). However, the fact that gemütlich has been imported into English, as evidenced by its appearance in 23 of a sampling of 30 American and British dictionaries, suggests that Americans are not, in fact, bereft of this concept (and neither are the British). Rather, a gap exists in the English lexicon for expressing it, which is precisely the state of affairs that sets the stage for the entry of gemütlich. As Pfeffer and Cannon (1994, 113) point out, "Few if any of our German items replaced existing English words; instead, they simply expanded the English lexicon."

In general, the adoption of foreign words is motivated by potential profit, be it need or prestige (see, e.g., Hock 1986; McMahon 1994): a host language may have a lexical gap, as asserted above in the case of gemütlich; a technological innovation may carry its source language labels with it; use of a foreign word may reflect knowledge of current work in a particular field (and, of course, there are cases of emergent bilingualism and physical or political domination). The line between need and prestige, however, can be somewhat obscure, given the tendency for foreign words to belong to a more "educated register." Indeed, I would submit that, by virtue of its foreignness, a word attains greater saliency and thus, to some extent, is imbued with greater expressive power, a power concordant with both need and prestige.

An additional consideration is that an adopted foreign word may well assume an identity of its own in terms of meaning and usage within the [End Page 169] lexical and social environment of the host language, an identity that is not a clone of the same lexical item in the source language (Haugen 1950). The "new" identity of a foreign word would likely be affected by the language contact situation and the motivation for borrowing. For example, a bilingual context might well entail the importation of more of the full range of source language meaning and usage than would a context of mere cultural contact. The latter context, on the other hand, would more likely favor the adoption of a partial, perhaps marginal, specialized meaning.

In an attempt to better understand the ways in which foreign words assume an identity and also to identify areas that require closer consideration in the future in better depicting the meaning and usage of foreign words in English, this article investigates the status of eight German words used without translation in English (including gemütlich). Attention is given to their degree of foreignness, their definitions, and to a certain extent their translatability as these factors relate to motivation for adoption, use, and accuracy of depiction. The investigation examines their treatment in 30 monolingual, 9 bilingual, and 8 foreign-term dictionaries (see appendix) and compares the lexicographical information with perceptions of the terms by a small number of native English-speaking respondents.

The eight words, selected on the basis of their frequency of occurrence in 30 English dictionaries, are Angst 'anxiety', Doppelgänger 'double', gemütlich 'cozy', Lebensraum 'living space', Schadenfreude 'gloating', Sprachgefühl 'feel for language', Weltanschauung 'philosophy of life', and Zeitgeist 'spirit of the times'.1 Sprachgefühl and Lebensraum were relative latecomers to the English language, first appearing in print in 1902 and 1905, compared to Zeitgeist and Angst in 1848 and 1849...


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pp. 169-183
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Archived 2005
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