Jul 18, 2013

Germans, the Handy People

written by Kelly Smithson

It’s astounding how much English vocabulary has been making its way into the German language, especially in the fields of marketing, business, and technology. Having emigrated from Germany in 1998, I quickly realized just how out-of-touch I was with this development when I recently visited the following website: http://german.about.com/library/blvoc_denglish.htm. I also found an interesting article on the Internet regarding the ever growing influence of English on German. My purpose here is to counter its argument that “Handy” (pronounced “hendy”), the term Germans use to refer to a cell phone, is entirely German.

The author of the article (http://www.goethe.de/ges/spa/siw/en4889778.htm) argues that “‘Handy’ is a thoroughly German word. The pronunciation, too, with a German ä or e, is at best distantly reminiscent of the much shorter English phoneme.” While there is the general consensus that German speakers are the only people who commonly refer to a cell phone using “handy,” there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on the origin of this term, only theories. In my opinion, the most logical theory is the one discussed at the following website: http://german.about.com/library/blvoc_dengl_Handy.htm. The indicated history of the word is a lot more detailed at http://www.u32.de/handy.html, albeit (unfortunately) only in German.

According to these sites, “Handy” can be traced to the Handie-Talkie (a handheld two-way radio) introduced by Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in 1940 and used by the US military during World War II. The “Handie” part of the name was correctly perceived by Germans as a noun (not as the English adjective “handy”), thanks to the device’s larger predecessor, the Walkie-Talkie backpack radio. Apparently, this thought process was also applied with the introduction of other “Handy” devices in the 1970’s and 80’s, such as the Kenwood 2m FM Handy Transceiver (for amateur radio stations) and the Sony Handycam (camera with built-in video recorder).

Why has German adopted “Handy,” rather than other options? While the German “Funktelefon” could be used to denote a cell phone, a lot of Germans associate this term with a bulky handheld device that includes a handle and long antenna, whereas they perceive “Handy” to accurately reflect the small size of a cell phone. Other options include the formal “Mobiltelefon” and the longer “Zellulartelefon.” The reasons why “Handy” is preferred over these words, perhaps, are that the first term could be confused with a car (“automobile”) phone, while an abbreviated version of the second term might be associated with a confined space such as a booth or prison cell. In the end, “Handy” seems to be the shortest, easiest, and clearest choice for German speakers. 

In terms of pronunciation, if “Handy” is a German word, why isn’t it based on German’s exact equivalent of the English “hand,” with the “a” pronounced “ah”? Around the turn of the last century, measures were taken in the German-speaking countries to simplify German spelling. These efforts included adapting foreign terms to German (phonetic) spelling. For words from both living and dead languages, there are two spelling options: a foreign term may either be spelled as it is in its source language, or it may be changed to conform to German spelling. For example, the word “Portemonnaie” now has the optional spelling “Portmonee,” and “Delphin” may alternatively be rendered “Delfin.” However, there are exceptions to the rule. The words “Foto,” “fotografieren,” and “Telefon” are spelled the same way as before, as they are considered to be fully integrated.

Apparently, the reason for having the above options is to see which spelling gains prominence among German speakers before the spelling is finalized. So why hasn’t the “a” in “Handy” been replaced with an “e” or “ä”? English words seem to have been treated differently by the German spelling reform in that they remain largely untouched in spite of their pronunciation (while still subject to German grammar in terms of affixes and endings). There are only isolated cases of spelling changes, which are optional and affect consonants and their combinations (not vowels). The only major issue with English terms, in fact, concerns capitalization of first letters, especially in compound words. In addition (contrary to correct English grammar and past optional spelling), the plural of English nouns outside of quotations that end in “y” (including “Baby” and “Party”) is formed simply by adding an “s.” The plural of “Handy” indeed is “Handys.” The way Germans pronounce and spell “Handy” (non-phonetically), combined with the influence from foreign companies on the names of related equipment, ought to raise suspicion that the word is foreign – at the very least, a term of German creation rooted in another language (in this case, English).

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