English derailed by Deutsche Bahn

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As a regular commuter, Deutsche Bahn has caused me quite some headaches in the past. However, they also provide valuable input for this blog. Today, I want to share some of my recent observations regarding their special version of the English language. While it is quite common for passengers to make fun of the staff, you may want to double-check that you are not making some of these mistakes yourself!

Welcome an board

Very often, things get off to a bad start when new passengers are welcome with the phrase “Welcome an board”.

Improper pronunciation of places

Quite a few towns in Germany have an English translation of their name. Examples include Munich, Nuremberg, Cologne, and Berlin. However, the staff of DB tries very hard to avoid using these internationally known names in their English broadcasts, and instead uses the German names that are typically very hard to understand for foreigners. Hence, you often hear sentences such as “The next stop will be Köln.” or even worse “We will now arrive Nüremberg” (yes, they do pronounce the English word Nuremberg with an umlaut!).

Improper use of arrive

There is a widespread misunderstanding at DB that arrive is the direct translation of the German word erreichen. Therefore, the staff construct very strange sentences such as “We will now arrive München” (Wir erreichen jetzt München) instead of “We will now arrive in Munich”. I have even heard the expression “We will arrive the next stop”…

Track vs. platform

DB staff typically translate “Gleis 5” as “Track 5” instead of the more common “Platform 5” used, for example, in the UK. This may cause confusion at the train station.

Opposite and opposide

A very interesting mistake that could also affect others is the incorrect pronunciation of the word opposite, which is often pronounced as if it were spelled opposide (on the other side); the correct pronunciation is given here.

Good bye

Finally, especially in Bavaria, it is very common to hear a friendly good bye with bye pronounced in Bavarian at the end of your journey.

At best is not so good

German (and very likely other)  speakers sometimes use the phrase “at best” incorrectly, and have no idea how big a blunder that is. The problem is that “at best” has the meaning of the best thing in a bad situation, and therefore has to be used with care. For example,

I’m at best qualified for the job.

suggests that you are not sure you are suitable for the job, that you think that you may be suitable, and that there are certainly people who are better qualified than you are. If you want to express that you are the best person for the job, you should say, e.g.,

I’m the best candidate for job.

or

I’m the best qualified candidate for the job.

The origin of the incorrect use of “at best” by German speakers is very likely the German expression “am besten”, which expresses that somebody or something is the best in a certain situation or context.

Kreislaufstörung

While reading an article about BMW’s Harald Krũger, who apparently fainted on stage at the Frankfurt Auto show but is OK, I noticed that BMW cited “circulation problems” as the cause. The term is a translation of the German expression Kreislaufprobleme. However, circulation problems in English refer to a serious and often lethal condition caused by blood clots. In contrast, Kreislaufprobleme is a German expression for various forms of not feeling well. According to the discussion here, it may be thought of as the German version of the British “back problems”, often invoked in order to have a reason not to attend an unpleasant activity (work, family affairs). The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Germans has this to say (the quote is also mentioned in the hilarious discussion here):

[…] the Germans devote enormous resources to the treatment of an illness that doesn’t exist, the notorious Kreislaufstörung. While the rest of us go to meet our maker once our circulation stops, the Germans routinely recover from it and go on to lead useful and productive lives. […]

Have you any questions?

Let me share some of the most interesting English blunders I encountered during a recent physics conference in Germany.

Mistake 1: Several German native speakers made the mistake of pronouncing the th in thermal and thermodynamic as a t rather than a θ. Since most of them pronounced other occurrences of th correctly, I suspect that they were confusing the English and German pronunciations of these words. You can hear the correct pronunciation of thermal here. For a general discussion of how to pronounce th, see here.

Mistake 2: I noticed that it is quite common for nonnative speakers to mispronounce the word engineering (as well as engineer). While the noun engine is stressed on the first syllable [‘endʒɪn], the stress in both engineer and engineering is on the last syllable (for example, [ˌendʒɪˈnɪə(r)]). Click to compare engine and engineer.

Mistake 3: In an effort to adopt an American accent, people sometimes make interesting mistakes, see here. A recent example is the pronunciation of because as [kɔːrs] (corresponding to becourse) rather than as [bɪˈkɔːz]. While the letter r is pronounced very strongly in American English, there is no r in because. An even though a so-called intrusive r is sometimes added at the end of words, this is not common in the middle of words.

PS: The title of this post was the exact last sentence of a speaker at the conference. Certainly better than a go-home message, but still not perfect.

Mail vs. Email

Here is an interesting grammatical fact about the nouns mail and email. In English, mail is an uncountable noun (see here), which means that

Send me a mail

is not grammatical. However, even though email (or E-mail) is a short form of electronic mail, it can be both countable and uncountable (see here). Hence,

Send me an email

and

I did not receive email today

are both correct. Similarly, we have

He sent me two mails. (Incorrect)
He sent me two emails. (Correct)

To make things worse, in German, both Mail and E-Mail can be countable or uncountable, see here. Hence, is is grammatical to say

Schick mir eine Mail.

 

 

 

 

Deadly false friends

Today, I want to present three expressions that can lead to serious life-and-death-type misunderstandings. Two of them are false friends (English expressions that are used in German with a very different meaning), and one is a very dangerous literal translation.

Body bag

Whereas a body bag in German is a bag to transport your personal belongings on your body (see here and buy here), in English it is a bag used by the police to transport bodies (see here). Therefore, I suggest that you do not ask for a body bag in your favourite London department store on your next visit, because you may raise some eyebrows.

Public viewing

Public viewings were extremely popular during this year’s FIFA World Cup, but only in German speaking countries. There, a public viewing is a gathering in a public place (town squares, pubs, …) to watch football on television with other people, see here. However, a public viewing in (American) English refers to a dead person’s body being available for public viewing, see here, and English speakers may therefore not understand your enthusiasm for public viewings. The correct English expression for watching football with other people in public (something that is not very common in most other countries) is public screening.

No longer with us

At a conference I attended in England this year, a German native speaker made the following mistake in his talk. While he intended to say

Unfortunately, Mr. X is no longer here.

he instead said

Unfortunately, Mr. X is no longer with us.

The second variant implies that Mr. X had died (see here), which was what most of the English-speaking audience understood judging by their reaction. While the colleague in question had left the conference a day before the talk, he was alive and well, and hence still very much with us.

self-made vs. home-made

The English expression self-made is quite often incorrectly used as a translation of the German word selbstgemacht. A classic example is

I brought self-made cake to work today. (Wrong)

However, the situation is more complicated than I expected. In particular, whether or not self-made is a false friend (and should be replaced with home-made) depends on the context.

According to the online version of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, we have the following meanings:

self-madehaving become rich and successful through your own hard work rather than having had money given to you

home-made: made at home, rather than produced in a factory and bought in a shop/store

However, according to several online discussions I found, there are exceptions. Moreover, self-made is not included in any of the lists of German-English false friends I consulted. Turning to my trusty old Collins German-English Dictionary, I found the following explanation: the German word selbstgemacht translates to self-made when talking about furniture or other equipment, and to home-made when talking about food, drinks, etc. Therefore, a cake is never self-made, but it might be home-made. A good way out is to refer to whatever you made by saying “I made it myself”.