Word! The Language Column The Great Donut Divide

Culture wars are sometimes waged over language – as in the current debate over gender-neutral language. But even dialects are liable to cause some pitched battles.

By Olga Grjasnowa

Illustration: two mouths German Dialects | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank
You might think the biggest brawl in present-day German culture wars is between proponents of “gender stars” and those who cling to the generic masculine, i.e. whether grammatically masculine terms like “der Lehrer” (teacher), "der Polizist" (policeman) or "der Kanzler" (chancellor) actually include the other gender too. Now that my daughter and a girlfriend of hers say they can’t become astronauts because there are no Astronautinnen (i.e. women austronauts), only Astronauten, I’ve got doubts about the concept of the inclusive generic masculine.
But language has always been an apple of discord. Especially German. German has lots of different dialects, vernaculars and standard languages that are not readily comprehensible to speakers of "High German". Each dialect has not just a different vocabulary, but also a different speech melody and grammatical peculiarities, though this diversity has been steadily dwindling over the years. Not so High German, on the other hand, the standardized language we use for writing – which, by the way is, as far as I know, the reason why it’s also known as Schriftdeutsch, i.e. "written German", in Switzerland. The process of standardization that began with Luther's translation of the Bible and was subsequently fuelled by book printing essentially concerned the written language, not the spoken versions.

Much ado about donuts

I was socialized in Hesse and the very sound of the Hessian dialect always makes me happy: when I hear the question tag "gell" (akin to “right?” or “innit?” in British English) or the pronoun "ich" pronounced "isch", all’s right with my world again. What makes Frankfurt am Main feel like home to me is not just the cityscape, its river and streets, but the way people sound there too. In Bavaria or Cologne, on the other hand, I often hardly understand a thing in either dialect. The Saxon dialect that surrounded me during my studies in Leipzig is still Greek to me. So is Berlinerisch, even after a decade in this city. Maybe it's because what I’d call a "Kreppel" or "Berliner" (a jelly doughnut with icing or powdered sugar on top), they call "Pfannkuchen". And what most Germans call "Pfannkuchen" (i.e. pancake), they call "Eierkuchen". A "Berliner" goes by other names in other parts of the country, by the way, including "Krapfen" and "Puffel". All these appellations mean the same thing, and I won’t deny that I tend towards a certain local patriotism when it comes to this particular pastry: a Berliner’s a Berliner in my book, at a pinch a Kreppel.

My dialect of choice

This doughnut dispute is even fiercer than the row over gender-neutral language, though only between newcomers and long-time residents. The same goes for regional terms for “chatting”, by the way: folks say "babbeln" in Hesse, "schnacken" in Hamburg and "schwätzen" in southwest Germany. Things get even more complicated beyond the geographic – if not linguistic – borders in Austria and Switzerland.
I don't speak any dialects, unfortunately, except for a few scraps, though learning one would certainly be an enriching challenge, one that would expand my linguistic horizons. Were I ever to take up that challenge, I’d probably go for – you guessed it – Hessian rather than Berlinese.

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.