Russian-German dialect: bascht, botscht or borschtsch?
As a child, Nina Berend spoke mostly with a mixed dialect from the Pfalz and Southern Franconia, like the family members, friends and neighbors in her hometown. But Berend's hometown wasn't anywhere near Kaiserslautern or Landau, and it wasn't near Nuremberg or Schwabach. It was about 6,000 km to the east in the Altai region of Russia. The inhabitants of her village were all Russian-Germans whose ancestors had emigrated decades – even centuries – prior and continued to speak in their native dialects. In her youth, Berend learned the local Russian-German dialect before going to school to learn High German, as her primary language, and Russian, as her secondary language. Years later, as a university student, doctoral candidate and ultimately as a professor in Omsk, she embarked on a scientific exploration of the various German dialects spoken between the Volga River and Siberia in the vastly different regions of the former Soviet Union.
An audio sampler: Russian-Hessian, Russian-Bavarian and Russian-Low German
She visited German-speaking enclaves, some of which were centuries old and others which were relatively recent, and spoke with both elderly and young people. She heard Hessian, Bavarian and Low German in her wanderings and all of the interviews and chats were recorded for later research purposes. The outstanding features of the various dialects were also described in detail. “The amazing thing about the Russian-German dialects is that nearly every one of the German dialects can be found in this region, whereas in the enclaves in the United States, for example, only a few German dialects are represented,” explains Berend, now 60 years of age. “The diversity of the Russian-German dialects has always fascinated me.”
Three decades after her getting her PhD, Berend has finally compiled the results of her work into a single reference volume that really makes this fascinating topic tangible for everyone. In her book, Russlanddeutschen Dialektbuch (lit. Russian-German dialect book), she shows which vernaculars have existed in Russia since the time of the czars, where they were spoken and how they have developed over the course of decades and centuries. The explanations, maps and historical documents are designed for the layperson and easy to understand; the accompanying CD gives High German-speaking listeners an idea of how these at once familiar and yet foreign dialects really sound.
Like 100 years ago?
“I have met a lot of Russian-German students in Germany who are interested in both the history and language of their ancestors,” says Berend. Her book helps them get an idea of their own language identity. But it also offers a lot for interested laypeople as well: Russian-German vernaculars that still have similarities with the dialects spoken in Germany hundreds of years ago are particularly engrossing, for example. And, like the dialects in Germany, the ones in Russia have also undergone continued development. “The idioms in Germany were heavily influenced by High German as well as by English,” explains Berend. “The Russian-German dialects, on the other hand, mixed with one another as well as with neighboring languages such as Ukrainian, Kazakh, Kirghiz and of course Russian.”
Many Russian-German dialects, for example, use борщ (borscht) for the traditional Russian soup, but then ended up calling it boscht, bascht, bortsch, borsch, borscht or botscht. Berend's Russian-German dialect book contains a letter from a Russian-Palatinate speaker that features a mixture of Latin and Cyrillic characters. Still, Berend values the fact that the Russian-German dialects are not really mixed languages. “They still differ from one another in their pronunciation and grammar, just like in Pfalz or in Swabia. They are, at their core, still German dialects.”
The influence of history
Berend's book provides exciting insights on other levels as well. In the chapter on the history of Russian-German dialects, the author vividly shows the influence historical developments can have on language. The deportations during World War II, for example, led to the blending of previously, relatively isolated, homogenous enclaves, which in turn led to the speakers relying on a Palatinate, Franconian or Bavarian tinged version of High German to communicate. Berend's examples of how speakers of the various Russian-German dialects spoke about each other are also entertaining. Russian-Swabian speakers, for instance, are referred to by the other Russian-German speakers as “Russläntr” while Russian-Bavarian was referred to as “strange” because of its many oddities. In conclusion, Berend illustrates how the Russian-German dialects spoken by the roughly three million “returnees” and their offspring have developed since they came back to Germany.
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.
Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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