Language

    No Purism, Just the Actual Case: Two Exhibitions on the German Language

    Vending machine for books, 1912 German is a difficult language. This is regarded as an established truth; comparisons are often made with English, the grammar of which is less complicated. In fact, languages make different demands of those who learn them.

    The case system in German is more complicated than, for example, that in Turkish, but easier than the Russian. Yet in spite of structural differences the average length of time before a child has mastered its mother tongue is roughly the same all over the world. Social environment, the status and level of education of the parents, emotional attachments to those doing the teaching, and also the sex of the child seem to be the decisive factors that make for individual variations in the acquisition of language, not really the idiom itself. In this respect talk of the difficult German language needs to be put into perspective.

    Lutheran Bible and writing robots

    Vending machine for books, 1912 In historical terms High and written German evolved late; moreover, they did so without a central complex of rules, and without a guiding institution like the Académie Française. Neither Luther’s Bible, despite its significance as a book of the common people, nor the activities of the Baroque language societies, which patriotically advocated the unity and purity of the mother tongue, possessed the power of an authoritarian regulator. Is that perhaps a virtue, because the journey from Old High German via Middle High German to New High German was a journey of love instead of loathing – the love of dialects, which never had to fear that they would be eradicated, as they were elsewhere? Or is it a drawback, making German more susceptible to neglect and the introduction of foreign words?

    There are currently two exhibitions devoted to the German language. In Bonn, the Haus der Geschichte addresses striking aspects of the contemporary language under the title ‘Man spricht Deutsch’ [‘We Speak German’]; and in Berlin the Deutsche Historische Museum has just opened its exhibition ‘Die Sprache Deutsch’ [‘The German Language’], which goes right back to the eighth century. Together the two exhibitions are intended to form a whole; they were developed in collaboration. The Goethe Institute is the third party involved; in the autumn it will export a version of the exhibition for foreign countries. The bouquet of exhibits is a colourful, even motley one, and as with many historical exhibitions this too lacks rigour. However, one has to admit that the exhibition organisers in Bonn and Berlin have come up with a presentation that is sufficiently attractive and instructive to mask the occasional weakness in conception.

    A writing robot is the big sensation in Bonn. Fed with grammar and words, the machine commits sentences to paper in which it is hard to distinguish nonsense from profundity. Sentences such as ‘All history aspires towards satire’ seem grandiose, but they rely solely on the random principle. Products not of randomness but of fury, anger, and calculated dissociation are the testimonies in slang and youth-speak to be seen on partition walls: flippant remarks, defamations, crude insults. Communication via text message is of a more friendly kind: ‘HaSe’ stands for ‘habe Sehnsucht’ (‘missing you’), ‘akla’ for ‘alles klar’ (okay), ‘BSE’ for ‘bin so einsam’ (‘I’m so lonely’). Love in the time of the mobile.

    The main theme in the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn is the ways in which language separates and connects people. A theme is less apparent in the Berlin museum’s exploration of history. Handwritten medieval texts take us back to the origins of written German; there is a brief look at the significance of Gutenberg’s art of printing for the spread of the Reformation and the Lutheran Bible, and with these the suppression of Latin; the alliance of propaganda and technology is demonstrated in the juxtaposition of a Nazi-era ‘People’s Radio’ and the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper (the double-page spread exhibited here, from 19th February 1943, announces the ‘referendum in favour of total war’). The yellow pamphlets from Reclam’s universal library share a little pantheon with Kurt Schwitter’s sound poetry. Tall, coloured display cases are scattered around the room like islands: one shows anatomical models of the tools for articulation in our mouths and throats, while another plays videos of small children acquiring language; over here is technological history in the form of a phonograph and an early telephone (Bell’s model from 1878), while over there we find youth culture represented by fanzines from the punk scene.

    Emigré words

    There is a particularly nice map of the world showing ‘emigré words’. From this we learn that ‘Weltschmerz’ (world weariness) and ‘Gemütlichkeit’ (cosiness) have made themselves at home in North America, ‘Baggersee’ (a flooded gravel pit) and ‘Dobermann’ (the type of dog) in Italy. People even say ‘lecker’ (‘delicious’) in central Africa. Whether these émigré words can offer genuine compensation for the anglicisms that plague the German language is something the visitors must decide for themselves. The creators of the exhibition, who are not linguistic purists, present German in all its abundance, without trying to control it or make cultural-critical judgements.
    Joachim Güntner
    is the Germany correspondent for the features section of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The Bonn exhibition was extended until Easter due to popular demand; the exhibition in Berlin ran until May 3rd 2009. From the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 16th January 2009

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

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