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Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Germans campaign to safeguard language

Tina Fey hates it. Mark Twain railed against it. Now Germans are so worried about their language's future that campaigners want it safeguarded in the constitution. Tony Paterson reports from Berlin

Hollywood and Hitler made it the language of on-screen baddies. Before that Mark Twain had already famously dismissed it as "awful". Now American comedian Tina Fey has added her insult to decades of injury by saying the language of Goethe and Schiller is "so uncool". For decades, Germans have glumly accepted routine abuse of their language and taken insults about it lying down, but not any more, it seems.

Piqued to the point of carpet-biting indignation, the once-slumbering Teutonic giant has been roused into action and begun a counter-attack. The campaign to defend Die deutsche Sprache has not been launched by some obscure group of language professors, but from one of the main centres of German political power: the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her ruling conservative Christian Democrats are poised to copy France and enshrine the nation's language in the constitution.

At their last party conference, the conservatives voted to add the words, "The language of the Federal Republic of Germany is German" to the constitution's 22nd Article which proclaims that the capital is Berlin and the national flag is coloured black, red and gold.

Defending the move, which has been criticised by immigrant groups, left-wing Social Democrats and Greens, Annette Heubiger, one of the Christian Democrat MPs behind the proposal, insisted: "I think it is absolutely normal that the German language is written in to the constitution. After all, it forms our cultural identity and the basis of our mental existence." Interestingly, her leader, Ms Merkel, was among the few Christian Democrats to vote against the idea. German has been an unpopular language for more than a century: Tina Fey may have admitted recently to Vanity Fair that she has her characters speak a sort of pidgin German in her comedy shows because German is "so uncool" but back in 1880 Mark Twain returned from a visit to Imperial Germany and wrote an essay called, bluntly, The Awful German Language.

Yet German conservatives say their attempts to have the language enshrined in the constitution are part of a drive to improve the integration of the country's 10 million foreigners. Its 1.7 million Turkish population still has difficulties with German. "The learning and mastering of a national language is the key to successful and sustainable integration," Ms Heubinger says.

But the move is also an attempt to guard against what many see as an insidious and virtually unstoppable corruption of German by "Denglish", the increasingly widespread incorporation of English words and phrases. Denglish has infuriated the German academic world. The writer, Matthias Schreiber, recently described the phenomenon in Der Spiegel magazine as, "A poisonous porridge of magma which is burying a whole cultural landscape beneath it".

It is not difficult to understand what he is on about. Denglish has created Handy, the ubiquitous German word for cellphone. It has turned the word for television compère into Talkmaster and transmuted "spaced out" into abgespaced, "download" into downloaden, " baby-sitting" into babysitten and "brainstorming" into brainstormen". The present marketing phrase designed to attract tourists to the German capital is the bafflingly idiotic, "Be Berlin".

It gets worse: to clamp down on teenage drinking, the authorities in Bavaria invented the slogan, "Be Hard, Drink Soft!" During the 2006 World Cup football tournament hosted by Germany, the Federal Transport Ministry plastered the country's motorways with the slogan "FAIRPLAY on the Autobahn". To appreciate the slogans fully, they should be spoken in a heavy German accent.

Statistics appear to justify the conservatives' concern. Opinion polls show that 74 per cent of Germans think Denglish should be avoided in everyday speech, another study, by Hanover University, found that 23 of the 100 currently most-used words in German were in fact English. "In 1980, one word in 100 was English," the study concluded. But in German advertising, the increasing use of Denglish appears to have backfired, with some disturbing results. The slogan, "Come in and find out" adopted by a chain of German cosmetic stores, proved a failure. Studies revealed that most Germans' English was not up to the challenge and they understood the phrase to mean, "Come in and go back out again".

Perhaps most unsettling was the phrase, "Powered by Emotion" used to advertise the private television channel Sat 1. Consumer research showed that most Germans thought it was an up-to-date version of the Nazi slogan, Kraft durch Freude, or "Strength through Joy", the official title of the Third Reich's leisure and tourism organisation.

Critics of the plan to constitutionally enshrine German argue that the idea is old-fashioned and that it highlights Germany's already well-documented insecurity. But for Volker Kauder, the conservatives' parliamentary leader, the proposal is about "German self-confidence in Europe". Since 2006, Germany has been lobbying to have its language given official EU status alongside English and French. The move has been welcomed by guardians of the German language such as Professor Walter Krämer, whose German Language Association has been campaigning for nearly a decade against Denglish.

Professor Krämer does not simply blame globalisation for the linguistic invasion. He claims that Germans have been seeking refuge in the English language for decades in an attempt to escape their Nazi past. "When Germans think about themselves, they often feel insecure," he said. "English offers them security. To put it crudely, they would rather be thought of as half-Americans than complete Nazis."

German: Who needs three short words when one really long one will do?

*Stadtreinigungsverwaltungsbüro – refuse disposal office

*Empfängnisverhütungsmittel – contraceptive

*Verschleisserscheinung – signs of wear

*Müllverbrennungsanlage – waste incinerator

*Sättigungsbeilage – food that fills you up

*Volksgesundheitsbewegung – public health organisation

*Bundespsychotherapeutenkammer – psychotherapists' association

*Durchstehvermögen – stamina

This year's additions to the German vocabulary...

*Gammelfleischparty – the term used for a gathering of people over 30, literally meaning "rotten meat party"

*Bildschirmbräune – what someone who spends too long in front of a computer ends up with, literally meaning "screen tan"