An Interview with Richard Schrodt “German Will Survive its Decline”

Richard Schrodt
Richard Schrodt | © Thomas Köster

The condemned live longer. This especially applies to German, says Richard Schrodt. The Viennese linguist spoke with about the German’s appetite for the decline of language, the productivity of SMS abbreviations, the true nature of linguistic criticism and when it’s better to formulate a love letter in English.

Mr Schrodt, you’ve alrady formulated the key question in the title of one of your books: “Warum geht die deutsche Sprache immer wieder unter?” – Why Does the German Language Decline Again and Again?

The title of course is ironic. The German language isn’t declining at all. It’s only changing. And it’s changing because all living languages must change. In some circles, however, this is held to be a decline.

What circles?

Pessimism about the language is part of a very lively German doomsday culture. It comes from the conservative quarter. And it has been coming again and gain since Romanticism.
Scenarios of linguistic decline often appear in the context of nationalist movements. They’re always stamped by the same patterns and metaphors: thinking in terms of historical cycles, for example, or in terms of bioloigcal analogies, that language thrives, prospers and then must perish. From the point of view of linguistics, of course, all this is utter nonsense.

The message of “scraps of language”

Let’s go through it once anyway. In the current discussion of linguistic decadence, people talk of a kind of “decomposition” of German by digital media, of the “scraps of language” produced by the use of SMS.

To begin with, “scraps of language” (Fetzensprache) is a marvellous term, which enriches the language. In point of fact, however, it’s inaccurate. The German used by digital media is one of many sociological varieties that fulfils important functions in its proper area and doesn’t go beyond this area.
SMS language must look exactly as it does look. Because it’s all about getting across short and emotional messages with a limited set of characters. The “decomposition” therefore is not only completely harmless, but also brings an added aesthetic value into the language of the electronic media.

In literature, out of literature

And what about the decline of language amongst young people? Keyword: Kiezdeutsch, German youth dialect?

Kiezdeutsch is another form of language with a confined area of application, namely the communication of young people of partly different origins with one another ...

... but which certainly has the possibility of entering into the written language and into literature, doesn’t it?

Of course. But it was no different with respect to French words during the French craze in Germany of the seventeenth century. Under the anxious eyes of the linguistic guardians of the day, they also made their way into literature and then, when they were no longer needed, again made their way out.

Taking comma errors seriously

Another trend seems to be the frequently arbitrary spelling and use of commas. Is this no longer subject to the rules?

As a member of the Spelling Commission, I must strongly disagree! Duden definitively still functions as a standard. There are certain problem areas in he case of capitalization. But by and large, it works. The only thing that doesn’t work well at all, in my experience, is punctuation which is grammatically very regulated in German. Perhaps this is something that people no longer want. We might consider whether the “comma error” doesn’t correspond to an expressive need that we ought to take seriously. We shouldn’t always oppose the actually used language.

Stylish feelings

Another try: what about the infiltration of English into German?

In German, English has become as a matter of fact a prestige language. This is already evident in the pop music culture. A prestige language is important. Because communication isn’t only about content; it’s also about how content is couched, about socio-stylistic features. In today’s language, a kind of attention management is important. You no longer want only to communicate; you also want to communicate why you’re communicating something: to convey a stylish feeling of life – for example, in advertising.
This leads to using expressive and emotional levels of style that we formerly didn’t have to use. And here shorter, more catchy and linguistically symbolic English expressions offer themselves. With this development too we should make our peace.

And then English has become the international language of science and scholarship ...

... as was earlier Latin. There’s not much that can be said against this. The global resources of science can be used only when they speak with one tongue.

But doesn’t a science alienate itself from a society whose native language it no longer speaks?

That is in fact a problem. On the other hand, science has now become so complex that the communication of information to the public has long changed hands from English-speaking scientists to native-language speaking science journalists. No one reads strictly scientific publications about quantum physics outside specialists in the field.
And then of course in many of the humanities, German is still the number one language of scholarship. And that’s a good thing. Because especially in philosophy and theoretical work, thinking in concepts formed in the native tongue is very important. Forming concepts in the native language isn’t something you should give up control of. And this hasn’t happened.

Speechless linguistic criticism

What remains then of the conservative critique if it only rolls off the back of German?

Then only the critique itself remains. And it’s often not about the language at all, but rather about social differences. You can see this very well in discussion of the supposed linguistic decadence of German – for instance, in the relevant internet forums. There linguistic criticism serves the primary purpose of distinguishing, naming and characterizing social classes – and, as the case may be, marking yourself off from others.
Behind this is elitist thinking about language. And the view that language is a kind of attire with which its user can adorn himself – or which can expose linguistic miscreants.

So German will survive its current demise?

Absolutely! You have to distinguish between communication forms of distance and those of closeness. In familiar surroundings and in everyday life, German will undoubtedly maintain itself. Even if we need a language for international communication such as English, as in tourism or science.
The area of familiar communication remains completely untouched by this. Here you want to speak the language that those you’re speaking to will understand. No one would advise a native speaker of German to write a love letter in English – not unless, that is, he wants to impress a student of English literature.

Richard Schrodt: Warum geht die deutsche Sprache immer wieder unter? Die Problematik der Werterhaltung im Deutschen. (i.e., Why Is German Forever Declining? The Problem of Presreving Values in the German Language), Wien: Passagen-Verlag 1995.