A Brit in Germany meets a local who suffers from an obsession with protecting his language from the encroachment of English, by Michael McCarthy.
It was clear from his posture and the look of deep concentration etched into his
face that he was hell bent on a task.
He turned into a café and, on a whim, I followed. We sat at adjacent tables.
He took a green plastic covered note book out of his inside pocket and immediately
began writing, with that same grim feverishness.
He was gaunt and pale, his face criss-crossed with a matrix of skull-deep lines. He
wasn't wearing glasses and his astonishingly bright blue eyes looked as though they
had been transplanted from somebody much, much younger.
Whatever he was writing, he was into it body and soul. Once or twice, he stopped to
ponder, gazed at an invisible point directly ahead and stroked the wattle of loose
flesh under his chin that flopped against the top of a white roll-neck sweater. Wispy,
white tendrils of hair floated out from under a yellow beret, like flimsy white clouds
around the sun.
In the breast pocket of his blue creased blazer a line of pens peeked out like a row
of military decorations.
I couldn't see what he was writing, but I couldn't help but be impressed by the depth
of his concentration and the frenetic pace of his hand as he furiously scribbled whatever
was exercising him.
His hands were as smooth as a baby's, in contrast to his near monolithic face, and he
kept his left hand anchored on the edge of the table. Maybe he thought, with his slight
build, and without a solid base, he would ricochet helplessly around the café, like an
'A'right?' I looked up to see the smiling face of an ancient waiter.
'Coffee please,' I ordered.
'Cappuccino for me please,' the old man said.
'A'right?' The waiter turned and soft-shoed his way to the counter.
My coffee was delivered with another, 'A'right?'
'A'right?' he said again as a cup was placed on the table beside me.
'Thanks Arturo,' the old man said, without looking up.
As a foreigner, in my case a Brit in Germany, I think you develop a sixth sense about
people, your antennae are more attuned to what's going on than they would be in your
I cleared my throat and opened contact. 'It's like the end of the world outside,'
my British accent conspicuous, even to my ears.
The old man did not respond until he had reached a hiatus in his thoughts. 'Aren't
the British used to weather like this?' he replied.
'As a matter of fact Italy has a higher annual rainfall,' I answered.
He nodded and turned back to his writing.
I felt a bit superfluous as a yawning silence stretched out between us.
Finally, he stopped writing to sip from his coffee and appraised me over the edge of
his cup. 'I don't come from here either. I'm originally from Hamburg. I like this town
though, it's not too big. I've just moved into a flat not far from here.'
Suddenly you couldn't shut him up.
'What are you writing, if I may ask?' I had the strangest feeling that he wanted me
'I'm keeping a record of what we're losing. For future generations.'
'What exactly are we losing?'
'You're not losing it. But we Germans.' He leant back in his chair and, looking like
an overbearing guest on a talk show, waited for the inevitable follow up question.
'Well. What are you losing?'
'Your language is like a steamroller, it flattens everything in its path. Its progress is
inexorable. We are losing the German tongue to it.'
'I think you're exaggerating a bit. You're not losing your language. The world's
getting smaller. English is the lingua franca of the world and has been for... who knows
He shook his head from side to side. 'I was listening to the news last night and
there was a report about a bomb alarm at Düsseldorf Airport.'
'It was a false alarm, fortunately. But do you know what the newsreader said, in
the report?' He spoke as though he was rehearsing an emotionally charged death bed
'No. I don't,' I answered.
His voice slowly increased in volume. 'The newsreader said that all flights had
been cancelled. But he used the English verb to cancel.'
'Well it is an international airport,' I said.
'The report was in German of course, except for the English word cancel,' he said,
with exaggerated patience.
I surmised he was just a lonely old man struggling to adapt to life in a new age. I knew
I couldn't offer any reassurance. 'I guess it's not easy to accept, but the world's changing,
fast, it's not going to stop now,' I offered, lamely.
He closed his book calmly, stuffed it into his inside pocket and stood up slowly.
'I wish you a nice day,' he said, shook hands and left.
I watched him walk stiffly away and then gently tap the waiter on the shoulder and
slip some money into his hand.
I took to visiting the café more frequently in the hope of meeting the intense old man.
Mad or otherwise, he was, without doubt, an interesting character.
I met him again a few days later and learnt his name, Helmut Kindsvater.
The following day I arrived clutching a large, thick wad of English Sunday newspaper.
As usual Kindsvater was furiously filling pages. Is there really so much to record?
'Mr. Kindsvater. How are you?' I offered my hand.
He smiled and with his smooth but cold hand energetically returned the greeting.
We ordered our coffees and began to discuss whatever was dominating the news
Kindsvater had the peculiar and irritating habit of suddenly withdrawing from a
conversation and intently scribbling something in his notebook, as though a further
example of earth shattering importance had suddenly occurred to him.
As though struck by lightning, right in the middle of discussing Germany's role in
the world at large, he abruptly turned away, flicked open his book and began inscribing.
Exasperated, I skimmed through my newspaper.
After a few moments I glanced over the page to see Kindsvater glaring at the headlines.
Fortunately the waiter picked that moment to appear at our table and enquire, 'A'right?'
'Yes please. Another Cappuccino, Arturo,' Kindsvater ordered.
'And a coffee for me please.'
'Do you actually read the German newspapers?' Kindsvater asked.
I mean, I don't have the time. You know the size of the English quality Sundays.
You need a wheelbarrow to get them home these days.
'I do, but I happen to like my language and especially this paper.' I slapped my hand on
the, not insignificant, pile of newsprint.
'You are an example of what I said to you when we first met.'
This was developing into an attack.
'A'right?' The waiter's timing was exemplary.
I greedily grabbed my cup, while Kindsvater lost himself in the pages of his notebook.
A heavy silence choked our conversation, as though we were two children nursing hurt
feelings of self righteousness after a tiff neither of us could remember.
'What is your job?' Kindsvater suddenly demanded.
'I'm an English teacher.'
His hypnotic blue eyes faded, as though a dimmer switch had been activated
somewhere inside him, and his Easter Island features seemed on the verge of caving in.
'I see.' He drained his Cappuccino in one.
'Thank you Arturo, keep the change,' he said crisply, dropping some coins into the
'Good day.' He shook hands briskly with me, his skin icier than ever, and swiftly
negotiated his way through the tables to the door.
Stupid old bugger.
Just to fill you in, I was gainfully employed as an English teacher, or trainer as we're
sometimes called, at a chemical company and at the German version of the Adult
I didn't give up on old Kindsvater, mainly out of curiosity about the content of his note
books. So I was sitting in the café again a few days later.
The cultured tone was unmistakeable.
'Mr. Kindsvater. How are you?'
'I am very well and rather busy.' He tapped his breast pocket. It sounded like he was
knocking on a piece of wood.
After a few moments of pleasantries we settled into our routine of discussing the news
of the day.
But then he was sidetracked and began complaining about the unnecessary use of
English in German advertising.
That evening, having already filled her in on my encounters with Kindsvater,
my girlfriend Gabi, a translator in English and German, showed me the results of
some research she had done. She had traced an organization in Dortmund called
'Verein zur Wahrung der Deutschen Sprache,' or 'The Society for the Protection of
the German Language.'
'They've actually had some success. They've complained about some adverts that
don't need to be in English, like all of them, and they've been withdrawn or re-worded.
Mind you, that was a few years ago. What do you think of that?' she reported.
'Maybe old Kindsvater is even a renegade member,' I joked.
'You know what this means don't you? He's not on his own, there is a bona fide
association committed to this.'
'Seriously, you're right, it's just surprising to hear it, that's all. There again, maybe
other languages are similarly protected.'
Gabi read from a typed page. 'In France there is a committee called the Academie
Française which was set up in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to protect the dignity of the
language, and a law was passed in 1994 which prohibits the use of foreign elements in
the public language; it's run by forty so-called immortals.'
'Typical French, they just don't want to accept that there are other languages,'
'There is also the Accademia della Crusca in Italy which has been protecting Italian
since 1582,' she added.
Armed with that and feeling more sympathetic to Kindsvater's crusade I kept up my
vigil at the café.
A few days later I saw him at his usual table, writing as frantically as ever.
As I approached, I could see Arturo gracefully stepping from table to table and
issuing the combination question, confirmation, greeting, farewell, thank you and
limitlessly utilitarian phrase, 'A'right?'
I approached Kindsvater. 'How are you?'
The old man looked up slowly and gazed at me blankly. A moment later he recognised
me. We shook hands.
'I'm fine and yourself?'
'Fine, fine.' I was glad to remove my hand. If such things were possible, it had been
like shaking hands with a slab of ice cold marble.
'I saw you yesterday, standing outside the cinema with a young lady,' he said in a
mildly accusatory tone.
'Yes, we went to see the new Clint Eastwood.'
'I've heard that when foreign films are dubbed into German, they try to find German
words to match the actors' lip movements. An immensely difficult task, I would think.'
An alarm bell clanged somewhere in my head.
'Well actually, we saw the film in the original version, in English.'
'Why did you and your young lady not see it in German?'
Before I could answer, Kindsvater fired off another question. 'I take it these films are
for foreigners like yourself?'
I didn't like the intonation on the word foreigners very much. 'Not only. As far as
I could determine most of the audience were German. It's like my girlfriend says, she
always prefers to read a book in the language in which it was originally written, if
possible, and the same applies to films.'
'I see.' He sounded like a businessman, gravely reacting to being told his bank was
cutting off his lines of credit. He carefully picked up his notebook and seemed to look
for solace in the yellowed pages.
'Mr. Kindsvater. I'm sorry to be blunt, but we are living in the age of the internet and
smart phones. Many Germans, young people especially, love to use English words, they
think it's cool, it's called Denglish, a mixture of Deutsch and English. Other languages
have their own variations, Chinese or Chinglish, Korean or Konglish, for example.'
Kindsvater nodded his head laboriously, as though it weighed a ton. 'You don't
understand. The problem is not the slang that the youth adopt, or business or computer
English, it's when English words are deliberately used, although there are perfectly
adequate German words. Our language is our cultural identity.'
'In a united Europe, you're going to lose your cultural identity anyway.' I argued.
'That's, hopefully, not completely true,' he answered. 'As for the internet, a world
of semi-illiterates is being created who are no longer able to communicate effectively or
sensibly. And as for obtaining information, I am informed that the internet is not the
most reliable source.' He sank back into his chair.
'You compared English to a steamroller at our first meeting. I remember I read an
article a few years ago in which English was compared to a vacuum cleaner, sucking
up words from languages everywhere, and if any language is in danger of changing,
it's English. Some experts say spoken English will be unrecognisable in 100 years,
less maybe, with all the different variations spoken everywhere.' I realised I had
been lecturing, and that my voice had been getting louder, and stopped abruptly.
Kindsvater descended into a heavy brooding silence, like the eerie calm before a storm.
He fidgeted with his book as if building up to something, like a light breeze swirling
through fallen leaves and debris before gradually picking up pace and reaching a
crescendo. I could actually imagine him boiling inside and wondered how he could
release the pent up pressure.
'I have to go Mr. Kindsvater. I'm sorry, genuinely sorry, that my language causes
you such unhappiness. I do really understand, not completely, but...' I didn't actually
say that. I thought I might like to, but then I decided, I wasn't sure I wanted Kindsvater
hanging around in my life; interesting or not, it could be stifling.
Instead he stood up, shook hands limply and, crestfallen and looking even older,
slowly trudged away.
The following day I returned, having been bothered all evening by old Kindsvater's
demoralised face. I hadn't ordered but as soon as Arturo registered my presence he
glided to the counter to collect a coffee.
'A'right?' He put the coffee on the table and then from the white apron wrapped around
his waist he withdrew a package. A white plastic bag wrapped several times around what
appeared to be a box, with a label bearing my name.
'Thanks Arturo.' I took the package, instinctively knowing what it was, placed it
on the table and looked at it, hoping to divine some meaning from it.
There were no rays or messages emanating from it. It lay there lifeless and non-
I picked it up, removed the two thick red elastic bands that secured it, and unwrapped
the bag. Inside were two identical, green plastic covered note books.
I was only dimly aware of the hustle and bustle around me, cups being put to rest
on saucers, spoons stirring beverages, people talking and slurping, chairs scratching
the tiled floor. I felt myself withdrawing from my surroundings, almost like an out of
The books lay in front of me, a testament. I prodded them and nervously opened one.
The handwriting was an old fashioned copper plate in green ink. On the
first page was a title: 'Das unerträgliche Gewicht,' The Unbearable Weight.
I browsed respectfully through the pages, which contained many examples of
English words now commonplace in everyday German, hoping to read cursorily
through the written passages, but that wasn't easy because of Kindsvater's old-fashioned, stilted prose.
That evening, I presented them to Gabi. She pored through them. 'It seems as if he has
finally realised the futility of it all,' she said.
I felt a bit guilty because of the way I had rejected old Kindsvater and genuinely sad
and sorry. 'What do you mean?' I asked.
'What he's written. Have you checked them, maybe there's an address?'
We each took a book and leafed through them looking for some clue to the old
'This is more like a lament,' Gabi said. 'Sometimes I despair, I really do,' she began,
translating into English. 'This mission is Sisyphean, horrendously daunting in its scope
I worry whether I am strong enough to carry it through. It is ongoing, never ending. The
sheer mechanics of this task are almost overpowering.' She stopped and flicked past more
pages containing neat columns of words. 'Yes, here's another interesting bit. I fear our
language will be reduced to a historic, ceremonial means of establishing legality, or it may
be driven underground, to become a language only spoken between a diminishing group of
refuseniks huddled around a campfire in an old derelict building, jumping in fear every time
a shadow leaps up the walls.'
'A bit unbalanced, I think,' I said.
'What's in your book?' Gabi asked.
'More or less the same, really.' I quoted, falteringly, 'It should be possible, although
I'm not sure how...' The thing is I could understand the gist of it, but the effort involved
in translating it was considerable.
Gabi took over. '...To join together with like minded souls, on the basis that the more
people involved, the easier the chore. I feel sure there are others fearing for their
language, not just Germans, who are attempting to record the changes. I mean the
changes as they happen. Forget dictionaries and school books, you have to identify
the intrusion as and when it occurs, to obtain a faithful and reliable record. The mass
embrace of the internet, peopled as it is by unqualified and ill-informed individuals, is
certainly not a medium to be relied on.'
'I've had enough of this. What do you think we should do? If anything.' I said.
'I don't think there is anything we can do. He's chosen you as a sort of guardian.'
She stared at me.
'What makes you say that?'
'This book is finished. Look.' She held it in the air and skimmed the pages, they
fluttered like the wings on a cartoon bird.
'On the last written page, it says, 'As with any form of guardianship, there comes
responsibility. This has become for the recorder an unbearable weight. A weight that
needs to be passed on to someone younger and stronger. I believe I have finally found
that person. From the moment I assumed this onerous role, I knew that my most
important labour was to find a representative to continue my work and to present it
to the world.'
'He doesn't mean me I hope.'
She nodded her head slowly.
'Let's chuck them in the bin, come on,' I said.
'Why don't you go back to the café with them? Maybe you'll see him there,' she
'You're right. Let's, or rather I'll, bring them back and just leave them at his usual
table, and if he doesn't come, which I'm sure he won't, then somebody else will throw
them out. And I won't have the responsibility.'
The following morning we continued our discussion.
'I'm still not sure what I should do. But I'm sure I'll never see him again,' I said.
'Cometh the hour, cometh the man,' Gabi quoted.
'What do you mean?'
'He's chosen you. He feels he's fulfilled his task. I think you should throw them away,
after all. I've been thinking about it again...'
'I haven't stopped…'
'Look. These books are representative of the fears of lots of German people, but
especially older people. You'll come across it again sooner or later in one of your
classes. Not all Germans are the hopelessly devoted Europhiles you Brits think they
That made me sit upright and take notice.
She carried on, 'I believe it's a feeling people have, when they see something that
they've worked hard to create suddenly taken from...'
'I think I'm beginning to understand.' When I got her drift, I just couldn't stop myself. 'Do you mean like the Deutschmark?'
'Exactly. This generation, today's pensioners, they remember when the Deutschmark
was introduced, in 1948 in case you're interested; and when it was replaced by the Euro,
some, maybe many, certainly not all the pensioners, who had a special affinity to it, felt
'And now they feel their language is under threat?'
'No. But they're worried about the future, not just their own future, but their children's
and grandchildren's. Nobody likes to feel they don't have a say in their own future. In the
EU they see something dedicated to its own importance; corruption, criminal waste of
resources and money, and they feel they're...'
She paused thinking of a word or phrase to describe what she meant.
So I leapt in. 'Being swallowed alive by the system or drowned in a fetid swamp of
She laughed. 'More or less. Kindsvater's obsession with English is just how this fear
has manifested itself in his mind.'
'Wow! You're in the wrong business.' I applauded her.
I turned up at the café, not in the hope of seeing Kindsvater, but with the intention of
dumping the notebooks. I sat there, exchanged 'A'rights' with Arturo, and when he
disappeared for a few minutes, wolfed down the still hot coffee, left the books on the
chair and a few coins on the table, and legged it.
'A'right,' Arturo yelled and came bounding up to me as I opened the door, with the
books in his hand. His face bore the expression of a long suffering but eternally faithful
dog, silently chiding an increasingly forgetful master.
I smiled weakly, mainly because the coffee was still burning its way through my
system, and took the books.
At home I placed them reverently on the bedside table, where I knew they would
leak some unknown but disturbing power, like green Kryptonite, until I could think of
a suitable way of disposing of them.
'Why pick me? Or should I say, pick on me?'
'He was looking for somebody he could trust. Perhaps he recognised something in
you, in your pride in your language. A kindred spirit almost,' Gabi answered.
I went back to the café with Kindsvater's books, took his usual seat and ordered a
I turned to the next clean page, in the second of Kindsvater's books, wrote my name
and the date at the top and waited for inspiration.
Two heavily made up and expensively dressed big haired ladies of a certain age
settled ostentatiously onto a sofa beside me.
'Wann gehen wir wellen wieder? When shall we go wellen again?' asked one of them.
At first I was puzzled, but as they compared diaries and made arrangements, its
meaning soon became clear: wellen has now become an example of Denglish and is
used in connection with Wellness centres.
I was actually tingling with excitement as I made my first entry. As somebody once said,
'There's none so zealous as a convert.'
Then I thought, 'Bugger it!'
I stood up, deposited a book in front of each lady and, in my best German, said, 'Here's
a little something to read, while you're wellen.'
Feeling suitably relieved, I patted the old waiter on the shoulder, gave him a generous tip
and left the café.
The café became my local; I even forgot about Kindsvater, well nearly. But, I suppose
it was too good to be true. It's always when you least expect something to happen or
something has faded from your mind that it comes roaring back.
It must have been a couple of months after I'd last seen Kindsvater, I went to the
café, claimed my usual table (Kindsvater's old table), and waited for the waiter to deliver
'A'right?' Arturo winked as he placed my coffee carefully on the table, together with
I shivered from head to toe. Reluctantly but powerlessly, I pulled the books over
and opened the top one; it was the unfinished book. I flicked to the last written page, to
my entry, wellen. I had a half suspicion what I would find; underneath was a paragraph
written in Kindsvater's concise script and in his trademark green ink:
'I write these words with an enormous sense of relief, my successor has accepted the
baton and begun his section of the marathon. I feel confident and at peace knowing he
will decide how best to continue our campaign. I wish him well.'
I put the open book on the table and rummaged through my pockets for a pen, but Arturo
beat me to it and placed a biro across the open pages.
I looked up at him.
'A'right?' he said, but for the first time he wasn't smiling.