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Review of  Gläserne Decke und Elefant im Raum

Reviewer: Cornelia I. Tschichold
Book Title: Gläserne Decke und Elefant im Raum
Book Author: Sabine Fiedler
Publisher: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.362

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry
Book's Publisher: Logos Verlag
Book’s North American Distributor: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books


This study aims to record the contemporary use of new phrases that have entered the German language from English over the last two decades. German has extensive contact with English and a large percentage of its neologisms are loanwords from English. Loan translations of English expressions are less conspicuous than loanwords and are less often recorded in dictionaries. The objects of study are phraseological in English, but they can be simple compounds in German, e.g. the English expression “rule of thumb” has a German loan translation “Daumenregel”, a compound written as a single orthographic word. (The best translation of “rule of thumb” into German is “Faustregel” – “rule of fist”, not the recent loan translation.) Most of the expressions discussed, however, are also phraseologisms in German, i.e. they consist of more than one orthographic word. Phraseologisms are lexicalized expressions of more than one word. They can be idiomatic and often have distinct connotations. Fiedler assumes that the latter can be one of the reasons for borrowing the expression, and that cultural aspects generally play a more important role for phraseological borrowings than for borrowings of single words.

Before looking in more detail at a series of borrowed expressions, the author gives an overview of the extent of borrowing from English found in German. Sports, the advertising industry, and computing are areas where borrowings from English are common today, but there is also a long history of borrowings from English, even including the period when East Germany was communist and speakers of that variety of German did not have extensive contact with English-speaking countries. Borrowings can be found at all levels of linguistics. Some pronunciations and orthographic conventions, such as the use of apostrophes and hyphens, have also found their way into some varieties of German, a language where compounds are traditionally written as single words without spaces or hyphens, and where the apostrophe has a much more restricted use than in English. Semantically, some German words have acquired further senses that have their origin in their English cognate. On the level of syntax, a few English constructions can now be found with increasing frequency in German, e.g. ‘in (year)’ rather than simply the year without any preposition. Pragmatic borrowing can be found in new genres in TV or the way academic texts are structured.

On the background of this extensive evidence of contact phenomena, Fiedler then describes a number of corpus studies of individual expressions in detail; a few samples of which are given here. The largest group among the phraseological anglicisms are loan translations. A successful example of these is the English “golden handshake” translated into German as “goldener Handschlag”. As there was no German expression denoting this type of payment, it seems to have been successfully lexicalized in German. A less successful example is “a smoking gun”, which can be translated either as “rauchende Waffe” or “rauchende Pistole”. While the German press used the loan translation a number of times around the time of the Iraq war, it seems to have fallen out of use since without ever reaching the stage of being fully lexicalized in German. Some expressions have their origin in the Bible, but have only recently become common in German via their English equivalents, e.g. “the writing on the wall” – “die Schrift an der Wand”, or “the fly in the ointment” – “die Fliege in der Salbe”. Other expressions become common in a specific genre and spread from there, e.g. “Es ist keine Raketenwissenschaft” (“It’s not rocket science”), which apparently is very popular on advice pages, or “der Elefant im Raum/Zimmer” (“the elephant in the room”), which is now being used without further explanation, but still occurs in the two variants with one of the two different translations of the word “room”. Fully lexicalized expressions typically have one canonical form only, and do not need any explanations as to their origin. Then there are the multi-word lexemes that have a perfectly grammatical literal equivalent in German and have recently acquired a more idiomatic loan translation from English, such as “einen Unterschied machen” (“to make a difference”) and “einen Punkt machen” (“to make a point”), which can mean ‘to stop’ in addition to the literal sense, but is now acquiring the English sense ‘to point out’ in addition to the original German ones. Another noteworthy example is “jemandem den Tag retten”, which can be found in the corpora as a translation of either “to make someone’s day” or also “to save the day”. This will be an interesting expression to watch over the coming years, to see whether it becomes lexicalized in German, and if so, in what sense exactly.

Fiedler concludes that English has a pervasive influence on the German language, not just through conventional (single) loanwords, but also for borrowings in the area of phraseology. The evidence points to bilingual speakers easing the passage of English multi-word expressions in the initial stages when variation is still common. At this stage, English and German versions may compete, e.g. “glass ceiling” – “gläserne Decke” (adjective-noun collocation) – “Glasdecke” (noun-noun compound). Some expressions then remain in English, but the majority are translated, some only partially, which again of course can cause variation. Only when the amount of variation decreases can we speak of the lexicalization of an expression. Once an expression has properly taken hold and is familiar enough in the community, speakers can start to introduce playful variation, a phenomenon which is frequent in advertising contexts and where many speakers are more tolerant of borrowings than in other areas of language use. Fiedler’s book provides a number of interesting examples from this area.


As a German-English bilingual living in an English-speaking country, I found this book a really interesting read. As a linguist, I had noticed the odd expression that sounded like a loan translation to me, but because I am not a Germanist and do not know very much about German corpora, I did not follow up on any of these. Fiedler’s book at once confirmed and vastly expanded on my impression that there is a strong and long-lasting influence of English on German, particularly in the area of phraseology. Since reading the book, I have noticed such expressions even more frequently, of course. Most of the German I am in contact with is from Switzerland, and – thanks to podcasting – often in the form of radio shows. Journalists, especially those working on technology and computer-related topics, use the phrases discussed in this book and a number of other loan translations as well.

Fiedler suggests that cultural reasons play a more important part in the borrowing of expressions compared to single words, and she illustrates this in many of her examples. While this is informative for each individual expression concerned, it would have been even more interesting to see whether this is a trend that can be generalized and possibly attributed to the fact that multi-word expressions rather than single words are the focus, or whether it is more of a coincidence. Perhaps parallel corpora of translated texts would make an interesting comparison to the corpora used for the present study.

Given my background, I am probably not part of the main intended readership of this book. Students and researchers of (German) phraseology will undoubtedly read this study with great interest, but apart from this group of people, the book can also be recommended for anyone with an interest in recent developments in the German language as it is written in a very accessible style that does not require much linguistic background to enjoy it. Students of corpus linguistics and of contact linguistics can draw inspiration from it to explore other expressions they suspect may be loan translations on the ascent in contemporary German.
Cornelia Tschichold wrote her PhD on the treatment of English phraseology in a computational lexicon. Originally from German-speaking Switzerland, she now works at Swansea University (Wales), where she teaches various courses in Applied Linguistics. Her research interests include the acquisition of English vocabulary and phraseology, and computer-assisted language learning

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9783832537227
Pages: 197
Prices: U.S. $ 30.00