Once upon a time, specifically back in 1962, I spoke German fluently enough to fool all native speakers some of the time and some native speakers all of the time into thinking I was a native speaker of German. That was then. This is now, and now I couldn't convince a two-year-old German toddler that I'm not just another weird, inarticulate, incompetent foreigner. I haven't been back to Germany often since the year I spent here in Freiburg way back when, and in all this time I've been busily losing the brain cells that contained my knowledge of the language. Now I'm at the end of a month spent at a research institute at the university, and because all my linguist acquaintances speak English so well, I haven't had much luck in reactivating any latent German skills — it'd be cruel to make people puzzle over my inept German when we could instead be chattering away productively in English.
Forty-seven years is a long time, and prominent in the long list of things I've forgotten are words and grammatical gender assignment. I could get away with some variation in noun gender, if only my problem were a bit more restricted. Take Schorle, for instance. I've been drinking a lot of Apfelschorle this month — it's very good, a mixture of apple juice and fizzy mineral water. (You can tell that I'm typing this on my own computer and not on the German computer in my office here, because I'm not putting z's where my y's belong and vice versa.) There's also Weinschorle, a mixture of wine and fizzy mineral water; that, I wouldn't particularly recommend. At lunch a couple of weeks ago, I asked a bunch of doctoral students and postdocs what the gender of Schorle is. Much inconclusive discussion resulted. For one postdoc they're both feminine (die Apfelschorle, die Weinschorle); for another, they're both neuter (das Apfelschorle, das Weinschorle); and still another has die Apfelschorle but das Weinschorle. The German Wikipedia, de.wikipedia.org, says that the term Schorle, in a different formation, dates back to the 18th century, and that the word is feminine, except in southern Germany — where Freiburg is — where occasionally, rarely, it is neuter. If only more words were like Apfelschorle, I could assign whatever gender I wanted to any given noun, and my German would sound a whole lot better than it does.
Meanwhile, Freiburg has changed a lot since 1962. Then, there was no McDonald's sign on the ancient city gate called the Martinstor. (Also I now have enough money to eat regularly; in 1962, after months of eating almost nothing but Eintopf in the university Mensa, I collapsed with a rather serious case of malnutrition.) And the presence of English is more striking now than it was back then, although even then I had to join the Russischer Chor der Universität Freiburg to find people whose English wasn't a great deal better than my then-incipient German. Take the wonderful research institute I'm visiting this month, for instance. It's called FRIAS, which stands for Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies. That's right: the name of the university's elegant new research institute is English. They tell me that it reflects the international outlook of the institute, and I appreciate that; but speaking as someone who finds English ultimately a bit boring, compared to other languages, I'm unenthusiastic about yet another instance of English encroachment.
And then there's the brewery and restaurant Martin's Bräu ("Martin's Brew"). It is spelled with that apostrophe, like an English possessive but unlike normal German (compare, for instance, the name of the Tor mentioned above: Martinstor). Don't take my word for it — look at the logo:
I don't know that the apostrophe in the possessive Martin's has anything to do with English influence — for one thing, like the brewery-restaurant itself, it's old, and as far as I can discover it has always had the apostrophe. I've asked German friends to explain this. They say they have no idea why that apostrophe is there. Bernd Kortmann did tell me that apostrophes are creeping into borrowed nouns that are pluralized with -s (native German nouns tend to have different plural formations, not a suffix -s); but this new practice (though interesting) seems quite different from Martin's Bräu.
In spite of all the English-language advertising signs, the desecration of the old city gate by an American fast-food chain, and the occasional wayward apostrophe, Freiburg remains a beautiful and congenial city. We can walk from our university guest-house apartment in several directions and get up into the Schwarzwald, on paths that lead to pleasant cafes with gorgeous views. We can conform to local custom by sitting at outdoor cafe tables in near-freezing temperatures eating ice-cream. We can stroll around the Altstadt on tiny-smooth-cobblestone sidewalks and examine the latest scaffolding on the always-scaffolded Cathedral. But after we leave tomorrow, I'll continue to regret my inability to magically resuscitate my former German fluency this past month.