German Business English

As I argued with a German consultant over the word “bi-weekly” it became clear to me that German Business English is a dialect with its own conventions and standards, as different from British English as Australian say.

In this case, the consultant was not prepared to put the word “fortnightly” into his document as it was not a word with which he was familiar. I explained that “bi-weekly” is ambiguous – it can mean “twice a week” just as easily as it can mean “every two weeks”. However its usage in German Business English appears to be entrenched.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Living dialects are part of the beauty of the English languages. It just means I need to start mentally translating just as we do when talking to Americans.

More examples when I come across them. Have you noticed any?


9 Responses to “German Business English”

  1. 1 Ian December 20, 2006 at 13:10

    Bi-weekly quite clearly is defined by gender. To me it means twice a week. But to my wife … Anyhow, business English should never be regionalized or down graded as the vast majority of L2 speakers will be communicating with other L2 speakers. Chinese with Vietnamese, Spanish with Japanese etc. All idioms, colloquialisms, contractions and sloppy speech are confusing to people who only require English language skills to conduct business. Would British or Americam slang enhance business communications between Thai’s and Russians? ‘Street speak’ is not for the business English class as most L2’s have enough difficuly handling good quality business English as it is. Adding an extra layer of complexity may well be fun for teachers and students alike but it does not add true value into the educational experience.

  2. 2 petebowman July 21, 2006 at 08:20

    To add to the confusion, biannual means twice a year, whereas biennial means once every two years…

  3. 3 tim July 20, 2006 at 08:54

    Strictly speaking bi-weekly means every 2 weeks. In the same way that a bi-centenery is a 200year aniversary not a 50 year. Twice a week would be semi-weekly, as in semi-annual interest rate – which we are all familiar with :)

    But no good being correct and confusing so twice-a-week or evey-other-week are probably better…

    English can be very ambigous -have you noticed that some people are specialists at taking advantage of this!

  4. 4 Andy July 14, 2006 at 18:01

    It’s not just German speakers – I have the same issue in the US. The word ‘fortnight’ might as well be Chinese, whilst there are different interpretations of ‘bi-weekly’.

    Interestingly though, it’s not a cultural split as you’d expect, it just seems some people interpret it as twice a week, whilst others interpret it as fortnightly.

  5. 5 malcolm July 14, 2006 at 11:49

    I am not sure why – but even with German speakers who are fluent in the English language the last piece of German usage transliterated rather than translated into English is the use of “until” as in: this document is required until 21st July meaning we would like the document on 21st July whereas the transliteration implies that we need to keep on using the document constantly up to that date and then we can stop.

    Disclosure: I only speak English apart from remembering aus, bei, mit, nach, zeit(?), von zu brings the dative case to you from ‘O’ Level German.

  6. 6 Louis Joubert July 14, 2006 at 10:33

    There are a number of noteworthy South Africanisms along the same veign. When someone says “you must do x” it can mean a command or a gentle suggestion, which can clearly lead to exasperation. Now-now means anything between a few seconds and 24 hours so one best clarify when some official promises to help you now-now. And of course the iconic stiffy disk, which means a 3.5″ floppy.

    List of English dialects:

  7. 7 Dominic Sayers July 14, 2006 at 10:22

    I forgot to say, he also insisted on pronouncing it “beeweekly”

  8. 8 Kirsten July 14, 2006 at 10:16

    It is a usability issue if the term is used for communications that are to be used by both German and British users. For Germans there is less ambiguity as ‘business English’ has correctly or not, defined how they understand it. It is however a problem for the British who, as Dom mentioned, will read the meaning in one of two ways.

    Additionally, for those that have learnt English out of the sphere of business, this is just as likely to be ambiguous to them as for the Brits!

  9. 9 Bleiglass July 14, 2006 at 09:41

    Is this a problem or just a case of “over-consulting”? ”Every 14 days” will to the trick. Bi-weekly leaves room for interpretation, and forthnighly will be misspelled and taken for a serious illnes. The point is, the more language goup audiences you target, the simpler your choice of words needs to be. If you write in just one language to a audience of 5 languages, you may have to end up writing like talking to a 5 year old. Same for speech. Imagine a speech to a audience of Germans, French, Japanese, Spanish and Philippino. The key is not to make it obvious and your simple words insulting.
    Recommended: Plain words by Sir Ernest Gowers

    (Edited by Dominic to replace some of Axel’s text that went missing)

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