Looking into lists of Germanisms in the English language, I recently came across one that astonishes me and that I have never heard anybody use before. “Mannschaft (pronounce: ‘munn-shufft, meaning team) apparently refers to Germany’s national male soccer team whereas “Nationalelf” (pronounce: ‘nut-sea-o-naahl-elf, meaning national eleven) is the nickname for Germany’s national female soccer team. Well, if ever you visit Germany, you will find that things are a bit different over there.
In medieval times, the term “manschaft” (same pronunciation) simply meant acolyte, follower, vassal, liege. Well, the times of feudalism are over, but the term has kept for specific descriptions. For one, a vassal owed his lord military service – so, the entity of a military platoon as well as a team of police officers are called a Mannschaft. A Mannschaft can also be the term for a ship’s crew. And, of course, it is a sport’s team – no matter whether it is male or female! “Die Mannschaft” has only been coined for the male national soccer team as of 2015 by the German Soccer Association DFB. It was apparently hard enough turn it into a brand – when they finally succeeded, it was rejected by the soccer fans and … disappeared again. What do fans call the team? Nationalelf! And the female national team? Simply add “Frauen” (pronounce: ‘frow-an, meaning women) in front of the term. Simple as that.
Of course, there are Mannschaften (that’s the plural, pronounce: munn-shaf-ten) in any other team sport. By the way, Germans also use the word team! And they call any group that is on the same task colloquially a Mannschaft.
Why Mannschaft and not Frauschaft? I bet that some people have been questioning this for a long time. Well, you have seen how feudalism only called vassals a manschaft. Females weren’t vassals; they didn’t have to serve in the military. Female sports teams haven’t been that old in Germany, either. So, a female team would simply go by the seeming oxymoron Frauen-Mannschaft – if you take it literally, a female male team.
Let’s go back a little further in time, to around the 8th century, when Old German “man” and Old English “mann” signified a thinking being or a being walking upright, no matter which gender or age (Thank you, Wikipedia for proving me right!). Basically, a person. The Old English term for a male person was “wer”, by the way. Indeed, now you know where “werwulf” derives from! But we also got to the source where women and children were referred to as “man”. Therefore, the German pronoun “man” (pronounce: munn, meaning you, one, they, somebody) is simply gender-neutral and generalist. Which, of course, has been fought by feminist linguists; they insist, there ought to be the term “frau”.
Oh my, did I really wander off this far from the term Mannschaft?! I used to be a soccer fan from the very first games I watched in the mid-1970s till I left Germany in 2010. I knew the rules, I knew all the national players and their positions on the team. I remember the times when kids in our class – was it 8th grade? – had the choice between gymnastics and playing soccer, and the boys let me play soccer with them. I was the only girl in one of their Mannschaften. There wasn’t even a teacher around who would have checked on us. But the rules and the team spirit made it a peaceful time – all about the game. Later, during my times as a freelancer at a daily newspaper, I was asked whether I’d like to help cover the sports section – a unique offer by an all-male sports-reporting team!
Today, I have lost the connection to German soccer. Or to being a true-blue sports fan, at that. I watch American football and ice hockey, every once in a while. Sometimes I recognize a player’s name. It’s not the same as back then. But the memories are golden.