ZEW President Franz on the Topic “German”


In the latest edition of the ZEWnews, ZEW President Professor Wolfgang Franz gives his thoughts on German as a science language.

As is well known, internalising thoroughness is a characteristic especially ascribed to Germans, which is also, apparently, the case with the ongoing anglicisation of the scientific community. So thorough in fact that it is difficult now to avoid the impression that, not bad writing, but sheer use of the German language itself is occasionally detrimental to the otherwise reputable status of scientific writing in this country.

In order to avoid misunderstandings right from the start, it should be emphasised that it naturally behoves researchers to have their results published in international English-language journals and presented in English at international conferences if they want to reach the widest audience possible and develop a career out of their presentations. This, however, is not the point. Disconcerting is rather when English must be spoken at German events without international participation. According to numerous reports, at some faculties, German-speaking guest presenters are forced to hold their talks in English even though the audience is entirely German-speaking. German-language seminars and symposia, too—in Germany, mind you—are regarded by some colleagues as disreputable, and invitations to them are indignantly rejected. What’s more, the scientific level of an event is readily dismissed as inferior if researchers from the Anglo-American area aren’t presenting. But when Germans give lectures in English, one must admit, their language skills sometimes border on the embarrassing. The same applies for the submission of scientific articles in English by German-speaking authors to scientific journals—the editors are often quite less than pleased. Contrary to popular belief, beyond knowing how to order a beer, English is not a simple language. One can’t therefore be too hard on those at least trying to give its complexity a go.

In any case, it seems to be conducive to scientific urbanity to use as many anglicisms as possible, even though one’s main language is German. Some lecture series give the impression that the speaker is not sure in which language he wants to speak—instead freely uttering phrases from two or more. This has nothing to do with the fact that some terms can be shorter and more concise in English, for in many cases there is an equally apt if not even more refined expression in the German language.

No, the corruption of German with Anglicisms, it seems, conceals a deficient knowledge of German grammar. The fact that comma placement is subject to a certain arbitrariness, if not pure stochastics, is something one has become accustomed to in the meantime. Furthermore, the use of the genitive case has almost completely gone out of fashion, in favour of the dative case. "The dative is the genitive's death" (B. Sick)—a phrase not foreign to the scientific community. With a cheerful nonchalance, using "company profit" or "consumer benefit” is maximised—dative phrases which, although not entirely nonsensical, are actually supposed to read, in the genitive, as “the company’s profit” or “the consumer’s benefit.” If the genitive is used at all, then often mistakenly, for example in connection with "as per" (which should indeed read as “as per company profit,” not “as per company’s profit”). The word "respectively" is also regularly used incorrectly, because in most cases the term being employed “respective,” that is, in relation to another doesn’t actually form a logical unity; in other words, the writer doesn’t actually mean “respectively,” but rather “and” or “or.” I’m not fully aware of what goes on in German lessons at school, but various diploma theses and dissertations already give the impression that German, not English, is the first foreign language of Germans. Such linguistically lacking researchers hoping for leadership positions can only wish to reach their goals with a competent secretary or an efficient spelling program at their side. Again: English is the international language of science. Fine. But do we have to be ashamed of, indeed even inept at writing statements in German?