Word! The language column
Closing Act

Purple thought bubble with coloured dots
Children's language has a beauty of its own | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

How come we speak German the way we do today? In this final piece for his column on the German language, Thomas Böhm has some surprising news for us about modern-day “Hochdeutsch”.

By Thomas Böhm

This is the final instalment of my “Word!” column. I’d like to thank you for reading – and thank the Goethe-Institut for inviting me to air some of my reflections on the German language. My aim has been to share with you some of the magicpoetry and insights that German has graced me with over the course of my life – and some of the bridges my language has built to help me understand other languages and peoples.

Behind the scenes

Most of that came as a surprise to me – and as a gift. So I’ve been saving the biggest surprise for last: an episode in the history of the German language which, at first reading, seemed so incredible that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known about this before. We speakers of High German are all actors. That may be news to you... But you must have always suspected that something must have happened to the German language behind the scenes. Why else would German have so many different dialects, but only one Hochdeutsch, which we’re taught at school and in language classes?

The story goes like this: In the foreword to his book Deutsche Bühnenaussprache, German linguist Theodor Siebs (1862–1941) came out against the use of dialects in drama, bemoaning the “earthy flavour of the language“. An actor playing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a Berlin dialect, for example, would sorely detract from the audience's enjoyment of the play.

Siebs was referring to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s pronouncements on pronunciation in his Rules for Actors: "When a provincialism creeps into a tragic discourse, the most beautiful poetry is disfigured and the ear of the auditor is offended. Therefore, the first and most necessary point in the training of an actor is that he free himself from all errors of dialect and strive to attain a perfectly pure pronunciation. No provincialism will do on the stage! Nothing must be heard there but pure German idiom, which has been cultivated through good taste, art, and science." (translation by Arthur Woehl)  

How “Bühnensprache” became standard pronunciation


Taking Goethe at his word, Siebs, along with a committee of linguists and thespians, compiled Deutsche Bühnensprache, the first pronouncing dictionary of the German language. It was published in 1898 and its impact soon spread beyond the stage to become the “goal and standard for all refined speech”. So people who wanted to come across as “refined” conformed their pronunciation to that of the theatre. And since Bühnensprache soon came to be spoken on every stage throughout the land, every visit to the theatre also served as an elocution lesson.
If you find this hard to believe, just consider how quickly sayings from popular TV series and films find their way into everyday usage. In Germany, for example, when we hear “Wir stehen selbst enttäuscht und sehn betroffen / Den Vorhang zu und alle Fragen offen” (freely translated: “We stand there disappointed and nettled / seeing the curtain down and all questions unsettled”), fewer people think of Brecht's play Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan), the source of this quote, than of Literarisches Quartett, which used to be the most popular literary criticism programme on German television and always closed with these lines. 

Standard German as a matter of schooling


Which brings us back to an unsettled question... The foreword to the 16th edition of Deutsche Bühnensprache, which came out in 1957, points out that provincial Germany, previously by and large closed off from the outside world, was opened up by the “tremendous expansion of transportation and the growth of large cities, but even more by the millions of refugees”. These “refugees” were people from formerly German or German-occupied areas who were now, after World War II, emigrating in droves to West Germany.
The resulting increased “coexistence of dialects and standard German”, continues the foreword, led to a “sloppy mixing of languages”, ultimately yielding “that philistine form of speech known as jargon”. The editors arrived at the pedagogical conclusion that “schools should cultivate not only the language, but also its pronunciation”: in addition to proper handwriting, “pure articulation” should be taught and instilled into children.

Dimensions of language


Historically speaking, in other words, instruction in “pure” standard German is one aspect of an actor’s training, even if the title of Sieb's book was changed in 1969 from Deutsche Bühnensprache (literally “German for the Stage”) to Deutsche Aussprache (“German Pronunciation”).
So much for my mini-monograph on the history of High German, in which my object – as in the previous articles – is to point up aspects of grammar, linguistics, usage, poetry and Weltanschauung (world view) that are embedded in every single word in the world – and not only in German.
Auf Wiedersehen! – in whatever word, in whatever language you please.