Linguistic Change and Politics

Peter Eisenberg: "The German Language has Never Been in Such Good Shape"

Peter Eisenberg; Copyright: University of PotsdamLaments about the decline of the German language can be heard everywhere. Yet according to philologist Peter Eisenberg, there is no reason for such despondency. We talked to him about the state of the German language.

Professor Eisenberg, is the remarkable success of books and shows like Bastian Sick's a sign that the Germans are concerned about their language?

Some people may be concerned, but that's not the real reason for their popularity. You know, we live in a counselling culture. The kind of general knowledge that previous generations acquired as a matter of course is now often being transmitted via counselling and self-help books. Bastian Sick is simply part of this boom.
Another factor is that we obviously want to be entertained – and people like Bastian Sick are entertainers. The topic of their shows is immaterial. The feel-good factor is more important – and feeling good is strengthened by the feeling that one knows more about the subject than anyone else.
In my view, the way in which these shows are made is completely inappropriate to the subject matter – and I don't think they have a positive impact on language use.

To what extent do you think they have a negative impact?

They have a very negative impact on the image of the German language abroad, for example. German language experts in other countries are complaining that the message constantly coming from Germany is that the language is not in good shape. And that makes it more difficult for them to champion German. What's more, many of them are extremely disconcerted by the controversy over the spelling reform, but also by the never-ending debate about foreign words and the need for language laws. This is severely denting the image of German in other countries.

Do you think it also has negative implications for native speakers in Germany?

Yes, because if native speakers are to develop their use of language, they need to start off with a positive attitude towards their mother tongue. The notion of "linguistic solidarity" has been coined in this context.
However, this linguistic solidarity is being undermined by people like Bastian Sick or Walter Krämer's German Language Association, which is constantly on guard against foreign words. The message being conveyed to the public is that their language and their use of language are poor. Anyone who does not already have strong linguistic self-confidence is likely to think: "The German language is in very poor shape and isn't any use – and things are getting worse".

And yet in your view, there is no cause for concern?

No, none at all.

So the German language is not on the slippery slope?

On the contrary – it's never been in such good shape! German has never had such a large vocabulary, and when it comes to syntax, we can now make very subtle differentiations – far more than during the classical period, for example. What's more, there have never been such diverse opportunities to use our language: we have a well-developed scientific language, a well-developed literary language, and a well-developed media language, for example. However you look at it, it's not the fault of our language if we don't speak properly. German gives us every possible opportunity – and these opportunities have never been as diverse as they are today.

Would you like to see a norm-setting institution which would define what constitutes "good" – and bad – German?

No, but I'd like to see some kind of "normalising" body. When we talk about "norms" in academic debate today, it is assumed that this has to be with "normality". But normal language usage does not result from someone setting a norm and saying: "I know what is right and proper".

So who could play a normalising role?

Teachers – especially German teachers, provided that they have a clear idea of what constitutes standard written German nowadays.

And what is this standard German? Is it the type of German used by the majority?

No – but that's precisely the point. That's what we need to think about. We need some kind of benchmark. I think that the idea of taking the written German that appears in the national press as the norm – in other words, as the formal standard – is very sensible. We now have a wealth of electronic reference material at our disposal which enables us to track very precisely how journalists have changed their use of language over recent years. We might then be in a position to say: "This is still standard or correct usage – and so is this, now".

What do you find particularly regrettable about the direction our language is taking?

Oh, I don't really have any regrets about our language. What I do find regrettable, though, is the tone of the current debate about it.
The great complexity of the German language may pose some risks, however. Our language is becoming so differentiated in some respects that it is becoming more difficult to master. Let's take the nominal phrase as an example. It really is becoming more complex. For example: "gut erhaltene Knochenfunde", which means "well-preserved bone finds". What does "well-preserved" refer to here? Does it refer to the bones or to the finds? We constantly have to be on our guard. This great complexity may mean that speakers who are not socialised in a way which gives them a solid grounding in language may be uncertain about this and other forms of usage. This happens when language use no longer develops from within but is imposed on the speaker, without good reason, from outside, if they are told: "This is right and that is wrong – make sure you stick to it". But it is important to ensure that children develop an awareness of how they are using their language.

So the great complexity of our language could certainly become a problem. On the other hand, it gives us almost unlimited access to precise and wonderful ways of expressing ourselves.

Dagmar Giersberg
conducted the interview. She works as a freelance journalist in Bonn.
Translation: Hillary Crowe

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

June 2007

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