The Economist reported last week on what it called “the vain battle to promote German”. It quotes the founders of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (Fruitbearing Society), a literary group almost 400 years old, who centuries ago described the German language as “watered-down and oversalted” with foreign words. This old and common complaint has been taken up again by the New Fruitbearing Society, founded in 2007.
The degree to which foreign words “water down” or “salt” a language is subjective, and even the foreignness of a word can be debatable. Simeon Potter has written about the English language’s “highly technical efficiency in word-formation which enabled it . . . to absorb new elements and from these elements to shape new compounds”. This very efficiency troubled some traditionalists, who by default preferred words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Robert Burchfield called the quest for Saxonisms* “an unrealizable nationalistic dream”.
English is an unusual case, not least for the cultural power it has wielded through historical circumstance. But for all its force as the international lingua franca, it is far from monolithic. Its singular name is convenient but misleading: despite the popularity of simplified international forms such as “Basic English” and “Globish” (or the popularity of the idea of them), there are countless varieties of English, all taking their own unpredictable paths and becoming, in many cases, mutually unintelligible to varying degrees.
The boundaries between languages can be as much administrative and political as linguistic. In the so-called battle between languages, ground is always being gained here and lost there; their statuses and relationships never stabilise. Words seep from one language into another, sometimes remaining as they are (e.g. Gestalt, Zeitgeist), being translated as a calque (e.g. homesickness is calqued on Heimweh), or suffering what Burchfield described as “the indignity of being absorbed into the syllabic and other patterns of the receiving language”.
If languages survive through a process analogous to natural selection, it’s probably as complicated as it is in biology — and perhaps even less predictable, being human-centred. We can see related and ancestral forms in the morphology of words we use just as in the morphology of plants and animals we see. Anthony Burgess, in Language Made Plain, wrote that there is “fascination in looking for the family face under the whiskers”; that invasion and academia had given English “the surface appearance of a Romance language”, but that it remained “very much a Germanic dialect”.
This is unlikely to console the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, whose grievance is understandable but who would do well to prepare for disappointment. I’m all for languages retaining native words and expressions, but there are limits to how much influence — not to mention control — any person, lobby group or statutory body has over anyone else’s usage. L’Académie française is a telling example. Moreover, causes like this tend to attract purism and scapegoating, neither of which squares with the practical promotion of a language.
* Saxonism: “a name for the attempt to raise the proportion borne by the originally & etymologically English words in our speech to those that come from alien sources” (H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage).