When one language borrows from another, words often adapt to the linguistic conditions of the recipient language. This is also the case with the German loanwords that have entered the English language. In German, nouns are always capitalised, but in English, they might end up following the lowercase rule. Some might even change their definition slightly to fill an existing gap in the language of the borrower. Generally, the degree of adjustment a loanword displays can often reveal something about how widely it is used in the other language.
Here is a selection of some notable German loanwords in English – some well-known, others perhaps less so – and their pronunciation.
A Bildungsroman is ‘a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education’. The term is composed of the nouns Bildung ‘education’ and Roman ‘novel’.
Meaning ‘an apparition or double of a living person’, this mid 19th century term literally translates to ‘double-goer’. In English, the word is sometimes spelt as doppelganger, replacing the umlaut ä in gänger with the letter a.
You’re probably familiar with Schadenfreude, the pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. It is a combination of the nouns Schaden ‘harm’ and Freude ‘joy.
Gestalt is a widely used word in German, but in English it is a psychological term meaning ‘an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts’. It literally means ‘form, shape’.
A poltergeist is ‘a ghost or other supernatural being supposedly responsible for physical disturbances such as making loud noises and throwing objects about’. The German Polter is a derivative of the verb poltern ‘create a disturbance’. The second noun Geist translates to ‘ghost, spirit’ here.
If you’re a wunderkind you’re someone who achieves great success when relatively young. Its literal translation is ‘wonder child’.
Similar to gestalt, ersatz is a common noun in German, generally meaning ‘replacement’. The English definition, however, is a bit more specific. It refers to a product made or used as a substitute, typically an inferior one, for something else.
Zeitgeist describes the ‘defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time’. It consists of the German Zeit ‘time’ and Geist ‘spirit’. The noun also spawned the adjective zeitgeisty in English.