When the East German army erected the Berlin Wall in 1961 and sealed West Berlin off so that it became an enclave within the East, the division of Germany was complete. Yet it wasn’t only the nation that was separated, but also the language.
|East Berliners line up to buy broilers, a type of cooked chicken in 1990. Most West Germans didn’t know the term. Source: DPA|
Not long after the wall went up, linguistics expert Hugo Moser convened a seminar on “Language in Divided Germany” at the University of Bonn.West Germans had long complained about the Communist regime in the East “twisting terms” and speaking “Moscow jargon.”“But the building of the wall raised the specter of the division, now poured in concrete, leading to a division of the language,” said linguist Manfred W. Hellmann, 78, who was Mr. Moser’s student assistant at the time.After founding The Institute of German Language in Mannheim in 1964, Mr. Moser asked Mr. Hellmann to join him in pursuit of more research on the subject. With a small team, Mr. Hellmann began systematically analyzing the usage of language in East Germany compared to West Germany.They were guided by a warning raised immediately after World War II by Victor Klemperer, a professor of literature at the Dresden University of Technology and author of the book, “The Language of the Third Reich,” who wondered if the nation might see signs in shop windows outside Germany reading, “East German spoken here” or “West German spoken here.”Language differences were especially evident in ideological terms such as 'democratic,' 'progressive' or 'freedom,' which in the East were narrowed to Marxist-Leninist definitions.Over 15 years, researchers collected more than 3 million words from the official East German party newspaper, Neues Deutschland, and the West German national daily newspaper, Die Welt, comparing them with each other and vocabulary from other sources. Once a year, they traveled to East Germany to verify their findings and to study the language.They also studied Duden, the definitive dictionary of the German language, in East and West, whose last common edition was published in 1947. One year later, the Leipzig-based German publishing company, Bibliographische Institut, was declared a publicly owned operation by the East German state. As a result, in 1951 the Duden in the East redefined the word “Weltbürgertum” (cosmopolitanism, or literally world citizenship) as “an ideology disguised as cosmopolitanism (…), the enslavement of the nations in support of Anglo-American imperialism’s ambitions of power.”To make the division of Berlin invisible, East Duden removed the hyphen from “West-Berlin” and created a new city called “Westberlin,” which was also used on transit route signposts, to the anger and resentment of the city’s citizens.By 1964, the research team found 400 cases under the letter A in the East Duden that deviated from the West Duden vocabulary, and 200 with different definitions, Mr. Hellmann said. To differentiate the terms, the West Duden would add “(DDR),” the German abbreviation for German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, at the end of definitions while East Duden added “(in the capitalistic economic system).”The researchers documented neologisms describing the political system of the German Democratic Republic, such as “Volkskammer” (people’s parliament), “Ministerrat” (cabinet), “Staatsrat” (head-of-state council), “Staatliche Plankommission” (state planning commission) or terms from the socialist working world, including “Dienstleistungskombinat” (combined service), “Brigadetagebuch” (brigade logbook), “Zielprämie” (goal premium) and “Plansilvester” (a plant fulfilling a year’s plan ahead of schedule).Language differences were especially evident in ideological terms such as “democratic,” “progressive” or “freedom,” which in the East were narrowed to Marxist-Leninist definitions.While researchers initially focused on signifying words (substantive, adjective, verb), computer evaluations soon showed marked differences in attenuating modifiers such as “circa,” “etwa” (such as/for example), “annähernd” (approximately) or “nach Ansicht von” (from the point of view of) which appeared far more frequently in newspapers in the West than the East. The East, on the other hand, preferred reinforcing adverbs such as “umfassend” (comprehensive), “konkret” (specific) and “breit” (broad).Thus, a five-year plan was not simply completed but fulfilled all-round. Emotional adjectives were also popular, such as steadfast ranks or friendship, unshakeable principles, unwavering solidarity, productive mass initiative or creative adoption of Marxism-Leninism.“The DDR’s official use of language was a mixture of soapbox pathos and stiff directive style through excessive repetition and nerve-wrackingly tedious stereotypes,” said Mr. Hellmann, who has produced almost 100 publications on the subject.While there were many “Made in DDR” terms in the political and economic spheres, terminology in natural sciences, technology and medicine were largely unaffected. In computer technology, however, sometimes attempts were made to avoid English, Mr. Hellmann said. For example, instead of the command “go to,” widely used in the programing languages of the 1960s and 70s, the DDR command was “gehzu.”Generally, English terms seldom entered the DDR language, with some exceptions such as “juice” instead of the German “Saft.” “Nietenhose” (studded pants) was originally a term for jeans in the West, Mr. Hellmann said, and while in the East it remained the official term, unofficially jeans prevailed.Russian words also were a rarity. “Datsche,” a term used for weekend houses in the country, is one of the few exceptions. Loan terminologies also reflected the political viewpoint with phrases such as “volkseigen” (publicly owned), “Kombinat” (combined) and “Held der Arbeit” (hero worker).In 1970, Walter Ulbricht, the East German head of state from 1960 until his death in 1973, declared: “Even the once common German language is in the process of dissolution. There is a huge difference between the traditional German language of Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Marx and Engels, which is full of humanism, and the language that has been contaminated by imperialism and manipulated by the capitalist monopoly of publishing houses in many circles in the West German Federal Republic. Even the same words often no longer have the same meaning.”No official body methodically created new terms in the DDR and the leadership had no hope of influencing the people’s thinking in this manner.The DDR not only had its own terminologies on the propaganda level, but many terms were firmly entrenched in everyday vocabulary, such as “Kaufhalle” (department store), the “HO” (state-owned national retail business), the “Pioniernachmittag” (regular membership meeting of the state’s youth pioneer organization) or the “Muttiheft” (a notebook for communication between teachers and the parents of schoolchildren).While in the individualist-oriented West, citizens spoke in terms of “I,” East Germans preferred the terms of “one” or “we.” The Bonn-based research group also observed a few changes on the grammar level. For example, “to inform” was used without “about” and without the accusative, for example, “as the minister informed.”West German language also changed over decades – perhaps even more so – since it continually adopted new anglicisms and neologisms from German advertising language, for example “unkaputtbar” (indestructible).Still, DDR citizens clearly distanced themselves from the jargon of their leaders. They sought escape in insinuations, irony and biting humor. The gap between private and public language was generally far greater than in the West, Mr. Hellmann said, and even speaks of a “multilingualism acquired through training.” Official and private language usage permeated each other.No official body methodically created new terms in the DDR and the leadership had no hope of influencing the people’s thinking in this manner. Erich Honecker, head of the DDR from 1971 until the weeks preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, declared in 1973 that language and culture were not critical for the borders between the DDR and West Germany, but rather the opposing structure of the DDR and the West.In fact, the “language split” his predecessor Mr. Ulbricht hoped for never arrived. German remained German. Yet the sum of the many linguistic and political differences resulted – together with the many understandable disappointments – in “communicative chaos” after the fall of the wall, Mr. Hellmann noted. People in the East were forced to learn innumerable new words. Instead of “Kaderakte” (cadre file), the term was now “personnel record” and “team” was used instead of “Kollektiv.” Those in the East had never learned to fill out job applications, handle a job interview or deal with landlords.In 1991, the market and social research firm TNS Emnid asked East Germans about three terms that hadn’t been used in the DDR. Only half knew what an “Azubi” (trainee) was, 57 percent understood the term “opinion poll” and only 22 percent knew what to make of the term “value added tax.” The lack of knowledge of East German words in the West was far greater. Only 21 percent knew “broiler” (grilled chicken) , 33 percent understood “Datsche” and 38 percent “Sättigungsbeilage” (filling side dish).Mr. Hellmann estimates 1,200 to 2,000 East German terms became superfluous after Reunification, most within the first five years. Among them “Facharbeiter für Schreibtechnik” (writing technique specialist) instead of the West German stenotypist, “Feierabendheim” instead of “Altenheim” (old folks home), “Organ” for “Behörde” (government administration), or “Kaufhalle” for supermarket.Among the few terms to spread among West German speakers were “angedacht” (planned), “abgenickt”(given the nod), “in Größenordnungen” (in orders of magnitude) and the term favored by Mr.Ulbricht, “Fact is . . .”To this day, East German women can be heard saying “Ich bin Lehrer” (“I am a teacher”) using the masculine form for teacher, while West German women say, “Ich bin Lehrerin,” using the feminine form. And Mr. Hellmann noted that elderly East Germans mean something different when they talk about “Gerechtigkeit” (justice) and solidarity. In the West, it is the semantic concept of legal justice or equal opportunity, while in the East it is more social, referring to equality in living. Solidarity in the DDR, he said, was a term for little people who closed ranks against “those up there.”Such nuances can also be found in the West, but increasingly, it is managers who demand their workforce show solidarity with the company, for example, through wage sacrifices. And East Germans still lean toward another behavioral trait: When they don’t particularly want to defend their own opinion in front of assumed authorities, they persevere in silent resistance instead.Mr. Hellmann sees such behavior in marked decline and believes it will die out soon, just as his area of research will also soon expire. The linguistic Reunification was successful, he said, and was largely the result of “primarily the East Germans’ brilliant achievement of adopting and adapting.”