Wednesday, March 24, 2010

the train ends here

Linguists in Germany are very excited these days: they have the unique opportunity to witness the birth and evolution of a new language, known as Bahn-Englisch or Railway English (RE):

This language is consistently used by people making public announcements on DB trains and stations. While it uses English words, RE has no similarity to real English, typically using word-by-word translation of German idiomatic expressions.

For instance, the UK announcement "This service terminates here." translates to RE: "The train ends here."

Now I could spend hours reminiscing and making fun of this (I think there are even books dedicated to this pass time), but what really puzzles me is that RE still continues to thrive even though the announcements must be entirely useless to their target audience, i.e. to those rail passengers who don't understand German.

The only way of decoding RE announcements is to translate them back into German (word by word), which, of course, anybody who actually needs announcements in English wouldn't be able to do. Also, all place names (and a few English words) are pronounced the German way, so many foreign passengers may not even recognise the name of their destination when it is announced.

Thus, somebody in rail management should have realised that by now and either have the announcements scrapped or arranged for the relevant people to be trained in announcements in proper English.

I'm wondering whether anybody who has travelled on German railways without knowing much German has ever managed to make sense of these announcements. Do let me know.

PS oh, and talking about all things German and badly translated, happy 50th birthday to Gabriele Susanne Kerner, widely known as Nena. Her breakthrough song "99 Luftballons" actually has very nicely crafted lyrics in German, but you wouldn't be able to tell from the English version "99 red balloons".

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