Word! The Language Column

Illustration: a head with an open rectangular mouth, speech bubble containing insects and a microbe
The linguistic dehumanisation always serves to justify and as a pretext for dehumanising actions | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Language can dehumanise, but language can also be firmly positioned alongside the supposedly unnatural. Manon Hopf looks at perpetrator expressions and the deconstructive counter-forces of poetry.

By Manon Hopf

When I use the German words Schädlinge (pests), Ungeziefer (vermin) and Parasiten (parasites), expressions like Volksschädling (human pest) are not far away, no more than a short hop. In this hop a process of dehumanisation takes place, which results in an immediate and tangible effect. In this context the German suffix -ling – which according to the Digitales Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache (Digital Dictionary of the German Language) is sometimes used pejoratively – indicates a person, more rarely an object, identified by a (single) quality or feature. So terms such as Flüchtling (refugee), Häuptling (chief) or even Häftling (prisoner) are open to discussion. While insults of animal origin, like Hasenfuß (rabbit’s foot = coward, like “chicken” in English), Ferkel (piglet or “mucky pup”) or Esel (jackass) seem fairly harmless or even lovingly familiar, the tone does become sharper with Dreckschwein (dirty pig), Hund (dog) or Ratte (rat). Volksschädling and Parasiten opened up a whole new category of dehumanisation in German – where they were primarily used against Jews. It’s easy to use language to turn humans into animals to degrade them – and in doing so to reveal that there is the possibility of killing them, vogelfrei (free as a bird = outlawed) in a logic in which another animal can be killed at any point without conscience or punishment. In this text I will also be explicitly using the German language as a perpetrator language, in circumstances where it’s unavoidable. Thus I aim to illustrate the extent to which our present-day language is infused with this violence, how much it perpetuates the narrative in and with this violence.

Language as an accomplice

Every language has its own history and with this comes a responsibility for the present. The German language has a special responsibility, it has proven to be [not just in the past] a particularly murderous accomplice, a partner-in-crime – and that’s still valid today. And that doesn’t mean in some abstract metalingual discourse, it actually has a very tangible impact on the lives of many individuals. After all, abstract though it might appear, language never exists in isolation from a body that speaks it, and a body about which it speaks, at which it is aimed, to which it applies. Somewhere language is always enmeshed in this body, interwoven with it, the subject of its actions – Handeln – and it is a mutual relationship involving passive and active actions and interactions – behandeln (treat) and verhandeln (negotiate). The word Begriff is a concept, an idea you can grasp – begreifen – with your hand, or understand with your brain. This grasping can become an attacking grasp, a stranglehold - Würgegriff. After all, bodies can also be attacked using language, a life can also be negotiated using language. “Human dignity is inviolable”, it says in Article 1 of the German Constitution – and yet the violability of human dignity often starts with precisely the language we use.

As well as racist and antisemitic logic, this dehumanisation can also follow a capitalist class logic: terms that are used against people who are meant to be labelled, marked out as a supposed threat to prosperity – for example those belonging to the political left or people living in poverty: Parasiten, Zecken (ticks = bloodsuckers, leeches), [Sozial]Schmarotzer [von smorotzen, schmorutzen, schmorotzen = beg] ([social] scroungers, sponges, beggars in English). The linguistic dehumanisation always serves to justify and as a pretext for dehumanising actions – when people talk about parasites, the implication is that they can and intend to take action against a parasite. So in this sense language serves to humiliate, exclude and as an ultimate consequence to destroy entire groups of human beings. It’s vital that this dehumanisation is always confronted firmly every single time – both in everyday life and in the life of the language. For as Victor Klemperer wrote in LTI – Notizbuch eines Philologen [Lingua Tertii Imperii: Sprache des Dritten Reichs] (published in English as Language of the Third Reich): “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”

Ceci n’est pas un parasite

In Ancient Greece they still saw a parasite (from παράσιτος: fellow diner] as a respected citizen, a state official participating in sacrificial meals in the temple.  Later he became a figure in Greek comedy – a buffoon who entertains dinner guests at their own cost. Parasitos entered German language usage in the 16th century and it was only then that it pejoratively denoted someone living off others’ expense. It came to botany in the 18th century via English, as a synonym for the German word Schmarotzerpflanze. Johann Gottfried Herder uses Parasit with this derogatory meaning, applied to humans again – specifically to Jews. From this point it’s not far to the National Socialist ideology, their language and the Nuremberg Laws on “racial hygiene”.

While millions of humans are being deported and murdered, the National Socialists are showing a different side, reimagining themselves as huge animal lovers. To this day they are known for their supposed love of animals and progressive legislation to protect animals and nature, as described by Jan Mohaupt in Tiere im Nationalsozialismus (Animals in National Socialism). Their laws covered wild animals for the first time, unlike France and Britain, for instance. But not all animals were equal before the law – National Socialist logic also distinguished between good and bad animals in this respect, in other words supposedly usable, useful, obedient or strong animals as opposed to supposedly unusable, unuseful, wilful or weak ones. While dog breeding was really gathering momentum in Nazi Germany, cats were considered dubious, strange creatures from the Orient. Animals in whom a “human” character cannot be instilled, in complete contrast to dogs.

The “Herrentier” and humans in an animal capacity

While some National Socialists tried to improve the image of the domestic cat somewhat by homing in on their desire for freedom and untamable nature – characteristics of the “Herrentier” or primate, this approach is primarily valid with their larger relatives: the predatory big cats. Everyone in the closer leadership circle around Adolf Hitler has their own dog or dogs, however no one keeps cats – except Hermann Göring, who bottle-feeds his lion cubs until they grow too large and dangerous to be kept as pets. He’s known as “Reichsjägermeister” (chief huntsman of the Reich), from which the “Göring-Schnaps” Jägermeister also takes its name, and plays the part of a “fanatical animal lover”.  The National Socialists revere predatory animals: wolves, but also big cats. They are also the ones who name the new tanks after predatory cats: “Tiger” and “Panther” are designed as competitors for the hitherto lighter Russian tanks. The Nazi big cat tanks managed to leap into the present day – the “Leopard 2” only recently made the headlines in the debate about German weapon supplies to Ukraine.

if not everyone is a human
there are no humans

i’m not a human
i’d like to be

For me it’s not about balancing the value of a human being against that of another animal – a human is a human. In a place where no other animal can be killed without conscience or punishment, where the life of another animal is valued and protected, where no vermin or pests can be ausgemerzt [may originate from the sheep-farming term merzen = withdraw from the market, single out; or merksen = label, mark out, banish], it should also not be possible to award a human this Ungeziefer or Schädling status. That’s my im/possible utopia – but history and even the present day show a completely different reality.

Reprehensible humanising

But maybe it’s possible, carefully, gently, mindfully, to remove other animals from the arbitrary nature of human ideological interpretations, the arbitrary nature of human and supposedly moral boundaries – without in turn denying humans their humanity. At the point where I start to attribute human qualities to other animals and extol their virtues or find fault with them, demonise or romanticise them, idealise them – I’m ideologising there. Other animals do not exist solely in relation to us as humans: they exist in their own right, outside the scope of my language. There is much criticism of a science that humanises other animals too much – and I would also like to criticise this humanising, but from a different viewpoint: a viewpoint that places everything in relation to this state of humanity and defines it as an irrefutable value, as a benchmark and direction/perspective. I would like to turn this human-oriented language on its head, strike through this human gaze and its claim to power, and ask: What is a human without another animal? What could that be, another animal without the human? I’d like to bring all these terms into question – in/human, non/animal, un/naturalness…

Poetry as a tool

Highlight, draw attention, point, deconstruct, create opportunities both in language and in the world: break down realities, fan them out, drop them again, do it once more, repeat, and here too: ask questions, touch gently – poetry can be a tool with which to circumvent ideologies and language, to deconstruct it. It can create escape/routes. By taking the side of the supposed parasites and monsters, on the side of supposed un/naturalness, by circumventing the Artig (good) in favour of the Unartig (bad), Abartig (abhorrent), Andersartig (different), Entartet (degenerate), and then deconstruct these terms as well, continuing to negotiate, challenge, undermine, transform. Poetry is an agent of surprise, journey and transformation, renegotiating language and the world in all their im/possibilities to create something new each time. I would like to understand poetry as a parasite of language. I’d like to take up the cudgels for all the bugs and lice, ticks and parasites, for scroungers, poisonous toadstools, for all those im/possible monsters and fantasies. For all the overgrown weeds of poetry –

settling in the unsettling
stepping on the threshold
glancing deep into the throat
of a minuscule rift: in nothing
there is a word whispered
murmured through
the cleft
where are the dead zones in language
which species live there


Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.