American English

Question

“We Germans refer to peoples from North America, Central America and South America as Americans. We refer to those who live in the United States as US-Americans, in German US-Amerikaner.

And we refer to the English they speak as American English or amerikanisches Englisch. How do (US)-Americans react when they hear us Germans refer to them as US-Americans and their English as American English?”

UC

Why relevant

This is an excellent question. Why is it relevant? How a people refers to themselves, what they literally call themselves, goes to the heart of their identity, to their self-understanding. This is equally true for their language.

If (US)-Americans refer to themselves as Americans, it might be a surprise to them to hear the Germans, or any other people, add a qualifier to that term. They might hear: “No, you are not an American. You are a US-American. Canadians, Mexicans, El Salvadorans, and Argentinians are also Americans.”

If (US)-Americans refer to their language as English, it might be a surprise to them to hear the Germans, or any other people, add a qualifier to that term, too. They might hear: “No, you don’t speak English, you speak American English. The British speak English. The Canadians speak Canadian English, the Australians speak Australian English, etc.”

That surprise – “No, you aren’t Americans” and “No, you don’t speak English” – might include feelings of hurt, insult, perhaps even provocation.

It depends on who makes the statements – “No, you aren’t Americans” and “No, you don’t speak English” – in what tone, in which situation. And it depends on the (US)-American who receives the message: their level of sensitivity, of self-reflection, of knowledge of how Germans think and communicate.

Depending on those factors, a conversation about “US-American” and “American English” can range from very positive to very negative.

Reasons why Germans

Why do Germans refer to citizens of the United States as US-Americans? Why do they refer to the language spoken in the United States as American English?

One reason is that Germans place high value on clarity and precision. Factually speaking America was the term given to the lands of the Western Hemisphere. See Amerigo Vespucci. In (American) English we also refer to North, Central and South America.

Do the Central and South Americans refer to themselves as Americans? This is not a rhetorical question. I do not know.

A second reason, I suspect, is that Germans are taught in school to refer to (US)-Americans as just that, as US-Amerikaner. In Germany, however, you hear both: US-Amerikaner, Amerikaner, as well as the (often negative) slang-term Amis.

Perhaps there is a third reason. Some Germans, I fear, want to purposely challenge Americans, to irritate them, to provoke them. No need to go into detail here. This is a topic for another day. It is always dangerous to attribute motives to other people.

But briefly and simply: Germans have a complex, difficult relationship with their national identity: whether that is good or bad, justified or unjustified. Americans have a far less complex identity with theirs: whether that is good or bad, justified or unjustified.

Again, a topic for another day.

My Earliest Reactions

When I first heard these distinctions from Germans I feld insulted. “Who are these Germans to tell me that I’m not an American? I’ve been an American my whole life. My parents, my siblings, all of my relatives and friends are Americans!”

And: “Who are these Germans to tell me that I don’t speak English? I’ve been speaking English my whole life. So have my parents, my siblings, all of my relatives and friends!”

I was not amused. My reactions ranged from insult, to hurt, to anger. How often have I heard from Germans that we Americans don’t speak proper English? How often have I heard that we Americans speak as if we had potatos in our mouths?

I’ve lived in Germany since September of 1988. Twenty-seven years. I have become accustomed to hearing these statements. Accustomed, because it is a custom of sorts in Germany to refer to U.S. citizens as US-Amerikaner, who speak American English, who speak with potatos in their mouths.

So, depending on my mood on a given day, I either feel insulted once again or I simply smile, nod and don’t comment.

Rarely have I spoken with other Americans in Germany about their reactions to US-Amerikaner, who speak amerikanisches Englisch. Typically we have more interesting things to discuss. Nor do I know whether I am overly sensitive or I have a rather thick skin.

The danger for Germans – and I refer to this on the topic Feedback in the lefthand navigation – is that insulted Americans typically do not signal their feelings of hurt to the folks who have hurt them.

In other words, if Germans are not aware that what they have said may have been taken as insulting to a (US)-American, they are not in a position to redress it, to correct it, to clarify what they meant.

And because most Americans do not know or understand the Germans, they are unlikely to interpret the statements – US-American, American English – as neither well- nor ill-intended, but as neutral, as impersonal. I am excluding those Germans who purposely intend to provoke Americans.

Americans and Germans don’t know each other. Therein lies the danger.

Advice to Germans

When communicating with Americans, and you insist on using the terms US-American and American English beware that those terms could be taken in a negative way. It could have a negative impact on your relationship with that American, with those Americans. Either do not use those terms, or clarify what you mean with them.

Advice to Americans

When you hear the terms US-American and American English don’t be insulted. There are reasons why Germans use those terms.

Yes, there are Germans who look for opportunities to provoke, especially to provoke Americans, but they are a very small minority. Don’t waste any time, thoughts or emotions on them.

If you feel insulted, express it to the Germans. Give them a chance to explain what they meant. Give them, and yourselves, a chance to resolve the misunderstanding. Do not assume that Germans are like Americans. They are not. They are like Germans.

And most certainly do not remain insulted, and then go and tell your work colleagues and or your friends how insulting the Germans are. That would be very unfair to the Germans.

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