The Muhlenberg Pro-English Legend

Are you familiar with the Muhlenberg legend? On January 9th, 1794, a group of German immigrants in Virginia asked the House of Representatives to start to publish legal texts in their own language. They claimed that this would help them settle more easily in their new home. The group allegedly had strong support, as roughly ten percent of all residents in that state shared their tongue. In Pennsylvania, it was even more, roughly thirty percent who spoke German. This approach has enriched the history of German-American relations with a powerful episode. It is often claimed that the German language almost succeeded in replacing English as the official language in the young USA – with people speculating what might have been if not Great Britain but Germany had become the cultural reference point to the USA. Well, to cut an interesting turning point in history short, the petition from the immigrants landed on the desk of the speaker of the House of Representatives, Frederick Muhlenberg. He was of German descent as well, but he refused to support his compatriots because he was convinced that the sooner they became truly American, the better, starting with learning the local language. In the end, it resulted in 41 to 42 votes against the proposal. The advance of the immigrants had failed.

Well, today the English language has long since blossomed into a universal language, while German resides in a niche. Apart, of course, for some very apt words like rucksack, kindergarten, gesundheit or zeitgeist, but a commentary on that will soon follow here. But even in Germany itself, it is by no means certain one will hear only German. The anglicization is particularly noticeable in the everyday work of a journalist. Take, for example, the recent press conference of a company deeply rooted in the alpine region of Bavaria. Because it operates internationally, the management was no longer using German job titles. There was a CEO (Chief Executive Officer), a COO (Chief Operating Officer), a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) and so on. In other companies, you also get more abbreviated English titles: CHRO, CIO, CKO or CMO. Well-known titles to the English-speaking community but with no meaning to a German who is not fluent in English.

But you see, most of us sit in gray offices behind gray computers for eight hours a day. No wonder that some dream of a little bit of color – even if it’s just a colorful sounding title. Anglicisms seem to be hip and trendy, especially when it comes to job titles, or, as the English would say: zeitgeisty. The intention to take on catchy idioms can, however, sometimes go badly wrong in Germany. Over here the phrase “public viewing” has been used rather freely – when happily watching sports events together. And don´t be shocked when someone tells you in all seriousness that he or she is a “street worker”. They are by no means doing a shady business for a living, but a very respected one, as they are social workers for young people.

Nevertheless, if you sit across from such COOs, at some point you start pondering: Which titles is the world still lacking? Maybe there shall be a “CROWN”: a “Chief Reader of Worldly News”. And now that we have brought it into the world, that very title shall hereby be granted to you, our dear subscribers.

Claudia Koestler is Senior Editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's largest quality newspaper, and is co-host of the 'Over Here, Over There' podcast.