Word! The Language Column The German Language and the Constitution

Nothing in the German Constitution says that German is our official language. Henning Lobin makes the case for a constitutional amendment to enshrine its social function, though not as a symbol of the German nation-state like our national flag.

By Henning Lobin

Illustration:  A person with glasses looks into an open book It’s important to legislate language policy because linguistic issues can easily become a bone of contention | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank
The national language of the Federal Republic of Germany is German – that goes without saying, right? But where does it say so? In Germany's Grundgesetz, or “Basic Law”, i.e. its constitution? Or in some other German law? The answer is simple: nowhere. There’s no official provision to this effect in the Constitution or in any other law.

No official language under the Constitution

In 1949, the fathers and mothers of the German Constitution apparently couldn’t imagine that the language spoken in Germany might ever become an issue. The word Sprache (“language”) only occurs once in the entire Grundgesetz. Article 3 says: “No one shall be discriminated against or preferred on the grounds of sex, descent, race, language, country of origin, creed, or religious or political beliefs.”

In the Austrian and Swiss constitutions, on the other hand, German is declared an official language – along with three other languages in Switzerland. Then again, various laws in Germany do stipulate that German is to be used e.g. by government bodies and in court proceedings.

Minority languages

For several years now, this particularity of the German Constitution has given rise to efforts to remedy the situation. It was the Verein Deutsche Sprache (German Language Association), founded in 1997 to “preserve and promote the German language”, that first introduced a petition to amend the Constitution in the German Bundestag in 2011. A clause establishing German as the official language was to be added to Article 22, which is about the German capital and national flag.

This motion was soon scuppered, however, by the objection that it would disregard and possibly even devalue regional and minority languages in Germany such as Danish, Sorbian, Frisian, Low German and Turkish. In this regard, the Austrian Constitution, for example, explicitly mentions such linguistic minorities right after declaring German the country’s official language.

Initiative to enshrine German in the Constitution

This whole issue has re-emerged ever since the right-wing nationalist party ”Alternative für Deutschland“ (AfD, “Alternative for Germany”) were voted into the Bundestag (and a number of state parliaments) in 2017. The AfD called for an amendment to the Basic Law in their party platform and proposed a motion to this effect in the Bundestag in 2018. An amendment requires a two-thirds majority, however, and the other parties had already come out against it, so the proposal was doomed from the get-go.

But would it really be wrong to mention German in the Constitution? I don't think so – though not as a national symbol along with the nation’s capital and flag, especially seeing as German is spoken in other countries too. I’d put it this way: the German language forms the basis of the community of German citizens and residents. This should be taken as the basis for enshrining the German language in the Constitution.

Language policy for all

Communication in a broader sense is addressed in Article 5 of the Constitution, which protects freedom of speech, the press, research and teaching. But it could also provide for the function that the German language serves in German society. So I could very well imagine adding a clause here that runs something like this:
 
The German language forms the basis of the German community. The German Federal Government and “Länder” shall facilitate and promote proficiency in the German language.

The protection of regional and minority languages should also be enshrined in the Constitution, especially seeing as such a provision is required of all Member States under EU law.

It’s important to legislate language policy because linguistic issues can easily become a bone of contention, as can be seen especially in multilingual countries. But even in a country like Germany, we have to consider how to allow for the diversity of existing spoken languages. So we need to flatly reject any attempts to instrumentalize language policy for nationalistic ends.
 

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.