Education and Language

“Multi-Kulti-Deutsch” – An Interview with Uwe Hinrichs

In his book “Multi-Kulti-Deutsch” (Multi-Culti German), Uwe Hinrichs, a professor of Slavonic studies, examines just how much the languages of the app.16 million immigrants in Germany have affected colloquial German. Goethe.de spoke to the professor from Leipzig about the trend towards linguistic simplification and about the German language of the future.

Mr Hinrichs, for years now you have been examining the influence of immigrant languages on the German language, first and foremost the influence of Turkish, Arabic, Russian and the languages of former Yugoslavia. Why did it take the field of linguistics so long to tackle this subject? 

In Germany people seem to have historically founded inhibitions about casting of the blinkers surrounding the subject and simply trying to see what it is all about. Many researchers are afraid that, if they describe linguistic contacts and conflicts more closely, they might in fact add to the discrimination against immigration and immigrants. On top of that there are not enough people who can speak or understand the languages in question and many of the languages are so far removed from the Germans, for example, Turkish or Russian, that they cannot be learned that fast.

In your book, “Multi-Kulti-Deutsch”, you state that when it comes to spoken German there is a definite trend towards simplifying the language. How come you ascribe this change above all to the influence of the immigrant languages?

Multi Kulti Deutsch by Uwe Hinrichs, Cover, © C.H. BeckThe main reason is multilingualism – the use of two or more languages in people’s everyday lives. Whenever multilingualism prevails, everything that is not absolutely necessary for communication falls by the wayside. Complicated grammar is phased out and the linguistic structure is simplified - incidentally not just in the German language, but also in the native languages of the immigrants!  

German is “losing its cases”

What exactly is being phased out or becoming less important?

The best and most important examples of these changes are the cases (accusative, dative, etc.) – they are slowly on their way out. For example, a dative case is used as in “wir fahren im Urlaub” instead of the correct accusative “wir fahren in den Urlaub”, which in English might rendered with “we are going in holiday” instead of “we are going on holiday”. Then there is “ich verspreche es ihn” (“I promise to him”) instead of “ich verspreche es ihm” (“I promise him”). Or sometimes the case endings are completely ignored as in “das Haus von mein’ Vater” (“the house my father”) instead of the correct “das Haus von meinem Vater” (“the house of my father”); a further example would be “die Bedeutung Deutschland” (“the meaning Germany”) instead of “die Bedeutung Deutschlands” (“the meaning of Germany”). This leads to a relaxing of the sentence’s internal coherence – “Die Kinder spielen mit ein niedlichen Eisbär” (“The children are playing a cute polar bear”) instead of the correct “Die Kinder spielen mit einem niedlichen Eisbären” (“The children are playing with a cute polar bear”). In this way linguistic “energy” is saved – energy that can be used later when creating new words.

It is however a well-known fact that a lot of people have certain reservations about this “immigrant German”, because it is perceived as being vulgar and “chav”. Why should something be adopted when there is no prestige attached to it?

In everyday life it is usually things that are useful, economical and effective that enjoy prestige. Often these things can be linguistic forms that develop in the new German language situation from the influence of the immigrant languages. I think the way many immigrants speak is a certain driving force in this case.

Is this immigrant German considered to be cool these days, especially with its special pronunciation?

This abrasive clipping of words and reduced pronunciation can most definitely contribute to a cool image, because they signalise solidarity and a feeling of community. The message can be - I am laid back and easygoing, culturally open-minded and not bound by any rigid norms. There are in fact many young Germans who even imitate immigrant German pronunciation; for example, they say isch instead of ich (German for I) in order to show that they are a member of that peer group.

The average quality of the language is also seldom correct!

A drop in reading standards and a certain social background also often cause Germans to make grammatical mistakes. This is a tendency that is unfortunately on the increase. A second tendency is to be seen in the influence of German dialects that further infiltrate the language of the big cities (the Berlin dialect, for example: “Ick nehm dir in‘n Arm!” (“I’ll put my arms around you!”). Both these aspects share marked parallels with the third tendency - that of the ever-changing colloquial language of immigrants and non-immigrants. This linguistic development, however, can, for its part, mainly be put down to linguistic contact and multilingualism. Unfortunately all this does not make the situation any easier. The important thing is to differentiate between these three developments in the German language. 

Making people aware of linguistic change

Can and should the future development of the German language be influenced?

It cannot really be influenced from the top down or, if at all, only a little (for example, by means of language cultivation or language policy). Examples of these developments should be dealt with in schools – this would bring about a definite awareness. A certain sensitivity towards the various “linguistic registers” of the German language would be heightened and would prevent the development from getting out of hand.

Maybe you could give me a short prognosis on the German language of the future  - Those people learning German in 30 years’ time will …

… will learn that oral usage can deviate substantially from the written grammatical form; they will learn that there is not just one variant of a particular category or construction; and in practice they will notice that many “mistakes” are not considered to be mistakes or are not corrected. Above all, however, they will no longer have to struggle with as many cases.

Uwe Hinrichs: Multi Kulti Deutsch. Wie Migration die deutsche Sprache verändert. C. H. Beck 2013, 294 pages
The interview was conducted by Sonja Panthöfer.
She is a specialist in German studies and a free-lance journalist.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Photos: © Dieter Schütz / pixelio.de, © Ich-und-Du / pixelio.de

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
January 2014

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