Volkswagen is changing its official language from German to English

Sign of the times.
Sign of the times.
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
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Nearly 80 years ago, in May 1937, the German government, under the control of Adolf Hitler, started a car company in the city of Wolfsburg. The goal was to create an affordable vehicle for regular folks—for about $140—and the company was called Volkswagen.

Since then, VW has grown into a giant international corporation, with a controlling interest in numerous automakers around the world. And in December, VW announced that English, not German, would be the official language spoken at the company. VW has instructed bosses to begin exchanging in English, whatever their native language, although factory staff may speak in whatever tongue they choose among themselves.

The switch is part of a global recruitment effort and an effort to eliminate linguistic barriers within the business, the company said.

Dr. Karlheinz Blessing, the carmaker’s management guru, said in a statement, “English is to be the Group language…we need the best people in the world.”

The move away from German is fitting in that the company really isn’t just German anymore. It owns controlling shares of automakers in France, England, Italy, Czech Republic, Spain, and Sweden; its manufacturing reach is even broader. Realistically, any gathering of workers from these disparate nations would take place in English anyway, whatever the company’s official language, so the shift is sensible from a practical perspective.

Volkswagen is not the first major automaker to make the switch to English. For example, last year Honda announced that it would abandon Japanese as its official language by 2020, replacing it with English.

But the folk of Germany, for whom the car company was originally created, are not all convinced the change at VW is positive—some are resisting. “The words Volkswagen and the German language sadly no longer go together,” Walter Krämer of the German Language Foundation said in a statement. ”I am dismayed at how thoughtless our elites are giving up their own language and culture,” he added.

Naturally, linguists are especially attached to their native tongue, and the foundation’s dismay manifested in more than just issuance of a statement. The Handelsblatt Financial Daily, a German newspaper, reported that the linguists’ group bought 200 Volkswagen shares at €100 apiece last year, and sold them on Dec. 23, about a week after the announcement that English is the new official language of the company, to protest the move. The shares sold for €137 each, meaning the protest, if only symbolic culturally, was a profitable one financially, netting the linguists €7,400, or about $7,800.