When I tell an English speaker in the United States I am a German translator, there is a good chance I will get the question “Why does German sound angry?” I may even be bombarded by “funny” memes and short videos demonstrating the aggressiveness of the German language in comparison with other European languages. Usually, I just nod and play along, but the so-called “angriness” of the German language has never amused me as it does many others. I know the German language very well and I can say for sure that there is nothing aggressive about it. Let me tell you why.
Made to Communicate
No language is, at its heart, aggressive. All languages arose as a tool for humans to collaborate and understand each other. Intrinsic aggression would be counterproductive. There are many people who use German as their exclusive means of communication. They joke in German, they express love in German, they debate academic subjects in German, they write grocery lists in German, and, yes, they do fight in German. The German language permeates every aspect of human existence for those who speak it and encompasses the entire range of human emotion. Reducing it to a language of anger alone is unfair.
The Language of Hitler
First impressions are everything and that goes for first impressions of foreign languages as well. Are American children sitting at home in the United States watching German-language cartoons and television shows? German documentaries about flower shows? Probably not. Are they required to take history in school? Yes. So their first exposure to the German language is always going to be grainy video of Hitler screaming to throngs of eerily enthusiastic, torch-bearing, uniformed young adults or German soldiers screaming in the heat of battle from a World War II movie. This is all they will know of the German language unless they have reason to seek out contact with the German-speaking community. Even if they hear German outside of that context, they might not recognize it unless someone points it out.
Hitler’s speeches were terrifying by modern-day standards. That’s for sure. He was very good at dramatically shouting racist, murderous things in a convincing way. It wasn’t the German language that allowed him to do this though. He spent hours practicing in front of the mirror in private. He read carefully composed speeches. This was a meticulously crafted public persona. Not the German language. If he had been shouting in Spanish, Italian, French, or English, those languages would have taken up the mantle of the “angry language” just by virtue of being associated with such a lowlife.
Phonetics are frequently cited as a reason why German is harsh and aggressive. It is not the phonetics that make German “harsh” though. Many other languages have similar phonetics. The listener’s perception of these sounds makes all the difference.
Fricatives are used quite frequently in German. Think the “ch” from the word “ich” or the “sch” in “Schule”. English speakers seem to perceive the “ch” in particular as a very harsh sound, perhaps because producing it involves creating a lot of friction in the mouth and this sound is not found in English. Not only that, but it is indeed very easy to make the “ch” sound harsh if you are angry. Anyone familiar with the German language, however, will have ample experience with such fricatives spoken in a gentler way. This makes them seem a lot less aggressive and sometimes even gracefully beautiful – something that proponents of German as an aggressive language are completely missing out on.
Certain affricates are also constantly used to justify the theory of German as a harsh language. Think the “pf” from “Pferd” or the “tz” from “Schatz” (combined with a fricative to boot!). It is the explosive nature of their pronunciation and their rarity in English that give these affricates a bad rap among English speakers. They are not inherently aggressive sounds.
Now that you know what to look for, I hope you can discover the beauty of the German language. Try listening to The Wise Guys on YouTube. Read something written by Goethe (German equivalent of Shakespeare). There are plenty of German things to discover that aren’t angry at all.
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