Attitudes to the use of English in Swiss German advertising language.


Felicity Rash

Lecturer in German, Queen Mary & Westfield College, University of London
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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1996 Felicity Rash.

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This article examines attitudes to and comprehension of Anglo-American vocabulary used in German-language advertisements published in Switzerland. Evidence is presented that English is making significant inroads: native speakers do not realise how much English vocabulary is in daily use in German-speaking Switzerland, or how much of it they both understand and use themselves. The relative prestige of English, its association with a desirable life-style and peer pressure are among the reasons given for this erosion of Swiss linguistic insularity.


1. Introduction
2. Surveys Conducted in Germany and Austria
3. The Swiss Survey
4. Survey of Anglicisms Used in Dialect
5. Conclusion
6. Appendix 1
7. Appendix 2
8. Bibliography
9. Footnotes


This article will present the results of an investigation into attitudes to and comprehension of Anglo-American vocabulary used in German-language advertisements published in Switzerland. Very little empirical research has been conducted to assess the influence of the English language on Swiss German, with the notable exception of Fischer (1980) on culinary vocabulary and Dalcher (1986), based on data collected in 1964/65; and to my knowledge no field studies have investigated attitudes of Swiss German speakers to this influence [footnote 1]. The greater part of the research into lexical influences on the German language since the 1960s has centred on a variety of aspects of lexical borrowing from (American) English in West German city populations or West German newspapers and periodicals (Fink 1970 and 1970; Pfitzner 1978; Bus 1980; Oeldorf 1990; Yang 1990); and some work has been published on lexical borrowing from English into German in the former German Democratic Republic (Kristensson 1977; Lehnert 1986 [footnote 2]; Langner 1986), and in Austria (W. Viereck 1980b; K. Viereck 1986). Of particular interest for the present study is a number of surveys of German-speakers' attitudes towards English loanwords (Clyne 1973; Stickel 1984; Lehnert 1986; Donalies 1992), and on the level of comprehension of anglicisms [footnote 3] by people from different age-groups (Fink 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1981; Dobaj 1980), and from different social and educational backgrounds (W. Viereck 1980b, a survey conducted in Austria). The significance of these works for the present study will be explored in Section 2 below.

The study of a Swiss German language community adds an interesting sociolinguistic aspect to an otherwise one-dimensional field-study, in that the German-speaking Swiss are all necessarily diglossic, using a Swiss German dialect as their first and preferred language variety, and standard German for writing and occasionally for speech (in formal contexts). I was interested to ascertain whether this situation affected attitudes towards some of the different types of English vocabulary used in standard German advertising texts (advertising in dialect still quite rare, even in Swiss publications). My results will be discussed in Section 4 below.

Lexical influence from English is probably as widespread in German-speaking Switzerland as it is in the remainder of the German-speaking region [footnote 4]. This might seem surprising, as English is not the first foreign language taught in schools but the second (after French) or third (after French and Italian). Historically, Swiss German dialects have adopted more vocabulary from French and Italian than from other languages, although lexical influence from English has become more frequent during the last three decades (Sonderegger 1984:1920; Bebermeyer 1991:98ff.) [footnote 5]. There is much talk in Germany today of American `Kulturimperialsmus', and of the negative effects on German society of the influx of American `Massenkultur', the degree of which is often held to be measurable in terms of the numbers of Americanisms which enter the German language (Fink 1975; K. Viereck 1986). In my survey I addressed the following related questions: Do the Swiss feel that their culture, so different from that of Germany, is influenced by the American way of life? If so, who deplores and who welcomes this influence? Would people not prefer to see more French words used in advertising? The answers to these questions will be discussed in Section 5.


It is generally acknowledged that there is a useful comparison to be made between Switzerland, Austria and Germany in terms of attitudes to and comprehension of English lexical influences (W. Viereck, 1986:122). The existing German-language literature on the subject lies within a strong German tradition of research into English influences upon the German language which generally takes little notice of research into lexical borrowing between languages other than German and English. As the published literature on this subject deals largely with the situation in Germany and Austria, the present survey was envisaged as a pilot study for a future fuller investigation into the equivalent situation in Switzerland. The studies summarised below each provided ideas, but no single work could offer a model for the Swiss survey described in Section 3 below.

Clyne (1973) questioned 40 men and women on their comprehension and pronunciation of 51 words excerpted from newspaper texts (not including advertisements). He divided his informants into two groups, Group A consisting of students under the age of 35 who had learnt English, and Group B of people over 35 who knew no English. While this method is not fully comparable with that used for the Swiss survey, for which the informants divide differently according to age and education, it can be noted that Clyne's results are similar to those of the Swiss study in that the students of Group A showed markedly higher comprehension levels than the older less educated informants. Clyne noted one exception, a housewife and former secretary who understood 41 of the 51 anglicisms. It was felt that for the purposes of the Swiss pilot study an attempt would have to be made to question a wider range of social groups. Clyne also interviewed advertising agents and text-writers, and came to the conclusion that advertisers feel they reflect usage, rather than influence it. An attempt was made to interview Swiss advertising agents for the present study, but no interviews were granted. It is felt, however, that since Clyne's view has been called into question (Stickel 1984:283), such an interview would not necessarily have settled the matter.

Hermann Fink (1977) questioned 160 people on their comprehension of and attitudes to 20 anglicisms. He attempted to assess attitudes by means of pairs of antithetical adjectives (for example: friedlich/feindlich, modern/altmodisch) which he called Reizwörter, and which were suggested to the participants with the aim of triggering spontaneous associations. Fink questioned equal numbers of men and women from a variety of educational backgrounds. He found that his informants on average retained around 42% of his anglicisms in their active vocabulary, and that they fully understood 74.8%. Fink records negative associations for only 3% of the answers in response to his Reizwörter, a result which bears no resemblance to the Swiss results documented below for even the most positively received English words (although it must be noted that Fink provided no precise details of his findings, thus making a full comparison of results impossible). Although the idea of using specific adjectives to help trigger responses was borrowed for the Swiss study, it did not form the sole basis of the questionnaire.

Fink's later examination (1979) of the active use and comprehension of anglicisms by 147 pre-school age children shows that words which enter a child's vocabulary during the stage of language acquisition become an integral part of his or her `Muttersprache', whether or not these words belong to the native stock of vocabulary. The children were tested on their comprehension and use of 14 English words which they were expected to have heard on television (e.g. Coca-Cola, Jeans, Milky Way, Cowboy). Fink believes he has demonstrated that English vocabulary exerts a strong influence on even the youngest members of the German-speaking population. In his comparison of the four age-groups between three and six years of age, Fink shows that comprehension rises with age, as does the likelihood that a child will retain an anglicism in his or her active vocabulary. This is illustrated by means of a set of clear graphs. Young children were not questioned in the Swiss survey, as this pilot study aimed to test responses of a mainstream population to a complex body of material.

Fink (1981) investigated the attitudes towards 18 common anglicisms held by 76 teachers at different types of secondary school. 97.4% of the teachers understood all 18 words, 60% judged them to be in widespread use among students, and 27% felt the words were commonly used in class. It emerged that teachers over the age of 45 considered themselves more likely to use the English loanwords than the younger teachers considered themselves to use them; according to their own estimates, teachers of the German language used fewest anglicisms, and teachers of English used most. 68% of the teachers had a positive attitude to the 18 anglicisms; the responses ranged from 80% positive opinions for Jeans to 16% for soft. 50% of the Paderborn teachers felt that their students regularly used 15 of the words and 90% believed that 6 of the words (Jeans, Poster, T-Shirt, Hit, Quiz, Party) were in regular use. Teachers were interviewed for the Swiss survey, but it was not considered useful to ask them which words they thought their students would use.

Fink has been criticised for not publishing the texts of his questionnaires (Stickel 1984:284), a criticism which has led me to provide full details of the Swiss questionnaire in Section 3.2 below and in Section 6, Appendix I.

W. Viereck (1980b) presents the results of a survey conducted in the Austrian province of Styria during the winter of 1977/78. 297 informants from 32 distinct social groups were questioned about their comprehension of 42 anglicisms. Viereck based his informant groups on the results of the 1971 population census for Styria, a method which could be employed for an equivalent study in Switzerland only if it were decided to limit the geographical range of the survey. Viereck admits that, even with a total of 297 informants, certain compromises had to be made with regard to the representativeness of the social cross-section. The results of the Austrian survey are presented in a series of graphs which are difficulty to interpret due to the large amount of information that they attempt to convey. Viereck's questionnaire, which was printed in full, was highly influential for the design of the Swiss questionnaire.

Stickel (1984) summarizes some of the opinions expressed in 92 newspaper articles and 22 readers' letters published in a variety of German newspapers and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He concludes that 70% of the texts examined express predominantly negative opinions. Many of the precise opinions quoted by Stickel are identical with those expressed by informants who participated in the Swiss survey: Tugend der Kürze, Bezeichnungsnot, Bequemlichkeit, Ausdruck von sprachlichem Imponiergehabe (Stickel 1984:289-291, compare Section 5 below). Further comparable responses were recorded for so-called `hybrid-formations' (of the nature of jeansig, discussed below): these were frequently condemned as Bastarde. Mention is also made of the problems experienced by older people, for whom anglicisms cause particular problems. Stickel makes the important point that it is not usually linguists who complain about lexical borrowing from English, but ordinary German people who write to the newspapers about them [footnote 6].


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