Wednesday, September 5, 2012


11:42 PM Posted by Patrick No comments
During this afternoon's edition of German Language Skills, the topic of loan words came up. Wolf Schneider, in Deutsch fuer Profis is against using transliterated words when simple--alltaeglich--German cognates exist. An example which Schneider used, and which Lee specifically highlighted, was the use of "asphyktisch" rather than atemlos. If one is trying to reach the widest audience, then one should use simpler language.

Six hours later, a realization puzzled me. I was unable to provide an etymology for the word "Asphyxia." I sat there--ok, so maybe I was playing Meerca Chase--and ran through all the possible Latin and Greek words for breath or anything remotely related that I could call to mind. Still nothing fit.

I had one of my research assistants look into it, and what he uncovered I found, if not ironic, at least amusing. If one means to say without breath, or atemlos, then asphyktisch, though it might often be used in such cases now, does not literally have anything to do with breath, the lungs, air, or wind.

Asphyxia is the α + σφύζ; the cessation of the pulse, or of throbbing. You asphyxiate, not when you stop breathing, but when your heart stops not too long thereafter.

I think Schneider's point is made twice over. When a universally understood word exists--in  German, in Germany--then why use a more complex loan word which is not literal, as the German synonym indeed is? This is not to say that one should just throw out all loan words. Heavens forefend! I argue, rather, that one should only use them when the meaning is clear, and when they add more flavour or nuance than a domestically cultivated word. There are also many cases where we simply have no cognate and must steal words--Gemuetlichkeit, anyone?

The real temptation, into which I often fall, springs from the desire to show off; to sound sophisticated, intelligent, well read, and savvy. The impulse to make things more complex than they need to be must be fought. One might imagine that ridiculous, extravagant language makes one sound like Proust,  but it does not. It reads more like Pompous, if the audience can even comprehend it.

Fall not into the dens of Jargon, nor tarry long in the courts of Technolegalbureaucraticpsychobabble. Plain English will do...oder Deutsch, wenn sie wollen.