Grammatical mutations
Mistake or variation?

Is it “Schweinebraten” or “Schweinsbraten”?
Is it “Schweinebraten” or “Schweinsbraten”? | Photo: Tomas Banisauskas © iStockphoto

“Zugsverbindung” or “Zugverbindung”? “Die Parks”, “die Pärke” or “die Parke”? All correct according to Stephan Elspaß, a German studies professor who is taking a closer look at the variations in standard German grammar as part of an international research project.

As a university professor, Stephan Elspaß has lived and taught all over the German-speaking regions of Europe, from Germany to Switzerland, and from the far north to the deepest south. When he would open the morning paper in Zurich there was always talk of the Swiss facing an “Entscheid” (decision, ruling), while the newspaper in Munster covered it as an “Entscheidung” (same meaning).

“Für” instead of “auf”

When his colleagues ordered their food at the cafeteria, some said “Schweinebraten” and some said “Schweinsbraten”, both meaning roast pork. While students in Kiel often said they had to study “für eine Prüfung” (exam), in Augsburg they said they had to study “auf eine Prüfung”. As a specialist in German studies, Elspaß quickly noticed that not only were different words and accents being used in the different regions, but that the grammar was sometimes different as well – consistently and even among different speakers and writers within the same region. It was clear to him that these were not dialectical forms, nor were they verbal or written slip-ups. They were in fact grammatical variations of standard German.

Researching and recording the different forms

As part of a large research project, Stephan Elspaß (Augsburg), Christa Dürscheid (Zurich), Arne Ziegler (Graz) and their teams want to take a closer and more systematic look at these grammatical variations. Working with other scientists from Germany, Austria, Lichtenstein, Belgium, Luxembourg, South Tyrol and Switzerland, the project will comb German-language newspapers from the various countries for three years before describing and documenting their findings in a linguistic manual of sorts. The team is mainly interested in how grammatical variations of standard German emerge and spread. Will it be possible to historically retrace the whys and wherefores of these variations? And what relationships do the standard German languages have with the dialects of the region?

“A good example is the so-called 'am progressive' in German,” explains Elspaß. “This form is often referred to as the Rhenish gerund and was already common along the Rhine all the way down into Switzerland. At this point, however, you'll hear the 'am verb' form in nearly all German-speaking regions: 'am Schlafen' (sleeping), 'am Essen' (eating), etc.” Elspaß conjectures that a range of different factors contributed to the spread of this form. “Obviously a progressive form like the one in English is missing in German. Out of the need to grammatically express the ongoing nature of a situation, speakers have long added the word 'tun' (to do) to the main verb: 'Ich tu kochen' (I am doing cooking) or 'Ich tu essen' (I am doing eating). This form was stigmatized, however, and driven out of students by their teachers in school, unlike the 'am progressive' form, which led to the latter as an alternative in an increasing number of regions.”

Sick fans see it differently

Naturally, Elspaß and his colleagues are aware of the fact that the subject of their research is going to be met with skepticism and even resistance in some circles. “Since the advent of school grammar there has been a strong ideological bent toward homogeneity with regard to the standard language. Many people believe that there can only be one correct form. Anything else is seen as a mistake,” explains Elspaß. Educated elements of society react particularly defensively to forms that do not jibe with their vision of standard German. “I am just throwing it out there, but I bet those are the Bastian Sick readers (author of Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod). They think they have an especially good command of the German language and therefore believe they can improve that of others.”

That attitude can sometimes lead to a bit of a minority complex among people who speak the southern-German, Austrian or Swiss versions of the language. Elspaß and the team are hoping to counter that tendency. “We think that if a form is used in writing by enough competent authors, it can't be incorrect. By documenting which forms are used in newspapers, we think it will help vindicate those who use the forms mentioned above and are falsely accused of writing 'incorrect German'.”