This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.
Can I get… (a coffee)?
Ich bekomme… (einen Kaffee)
When I returned to London for a year in 2001 to do my master’s degree, having been out of the UK for about five years, I was surprised to hear students ordering drinks and snacks from the canteen with the words can I get…? The phrase was instantly familiar from American TV and movies, but I’m pretty sure I’d never heard it used in British English by the time I left the UK in mid-1996. Prior to that, the usual way for British customers to ask for food and drink had been can/could I have…? I’ll have… or I’d like… . I’m clearly not the only one to have registered the change as ‘can I get a…’ topped a list of 50 ‘most noted’ Americanisms in a 2011 survey by the BBC.* The perceived Americanness of this phrase among Brits has also been written about by linguists (e.g. Lynne Murphy back in 2006).
Unlike its American English (AmE) counterpart, the German example above is phrased not as a question but as a statement: ich bekomme… . This literally means I’m getting (rather than can I get…?) and can be compared to the English request form I’ll have… . Although I might occasionally hear the question ‘kann ich einen Kaffee bekommen?’ (literally ‘can I get a coffee?’) the statement form is the one I usually hear in cafés, restaurants, etc. When I do hear bekommen in a question form in these contexts, it’s usually ‘was bekommen Sie?’ – a question directed at customers by serving staff. This literally means ‘what are you getting?’ but has the sense of ‘what would you like?’
Since this use of bekommen is – as far as I am able to judge – not at all new in German but rather a conventional, standard form, I wonder whether it is this which gave rise to the AmE use of can I get? It could have happened as a result of German mass migration to the US in the 19th and early 20th century. So far I have found little evidence to support this theory. Ben Yagoda claims to have found that can I get a…? was ‘relatively uncommon for much of the 20th century’. He reports having first come across what he calls the ‘culinary application’ of the phrase (i.e. using it to ask for food or drink) in 1974 or 75. And Lynne Murphy, in the post referenced earlier, also suggests that can I get a…? might be ‘a relatively new locution’ even in the US. For my part, I have checked the Corpus of Historical American English (the search terms ‘can I get a’ rather than ‘can I get’ limit the number of results to 67) and although the earliest result goes back to 1817, I could not find any clear examples of the ‘culinary application’ prior to 1990. So far, then, a German connection seems unlikely, although perhaps I will have cause to revisit this question at a later date.
* Please note that I do not share the disapproving attitude to perceived Americanisms shown by the British respondents to that survey!