Word! The Language Column  Current controversies over language

Illustration: Two people, pictured sideways, facing each other; both have their mouths open, the left person holds a megaphone with a jagged speech bubble, the right person a microphone
The role and function of language is a recurrent subject of heated debate © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

What are the ideas and values that characterize a given society? And what do debates about the role and use of language have to do with that? Our new columnist, Henning Lobin, the director of the Leibniz Institute for the German Language, takes on some controversial language issues that go to show how vital language is for how a society sees itself.

It’s a pleasure to learn a foreign language: in the process, you learn about a nation and its culture, plus you can talk to locals in their native tongue when travelling around that part of the world. But language can also be a bone of contention, a cause of controversy, even violence. This is true of ordinary usage: to give an obvious example, an insult is liable to trigger a violent reaction. But the use of language in politics can prove equally contentious insofar as it directly involves political content, and its so-called "flag words" set the terms of the ideological debate.

Language issues writ large today

But the role and function of language itself is a recurrent subject of heated debate – whether it’s a matter of minority languages, standardization issues, or the use of language in the public sphere and the media, in schools, in national and international governmental organizations. All of this may be subsumed under the heading of "language politics" or “language policy” in the broadest sense.

Political controversies about the German language have been causing no end of wrangling lately. Some of these issues have been thrashed out in the past and are flaring up again these days. Others are brand new and reflect recent changes in society. In the five articles I’ll be writing for you over the next few weeks, I’d like to delve into some specific language issues and show what can be learned about a country, about a society and its history, by looking closely at its language.

Much ado about the spelling reform

First off, I’ll be looking at spelling, or more precisely: the German spelling reform, which caused quite an uproar back in the 1990s, with lingering echoes and aftershocks to this day. The reasons for the ruckus are not self-evident: after all, in hardly any other language do spelling issues give rise to such emotional outbursts as in German.

My second topic will be the use of loanwords in German, in our day mostly from English. The crusade against loanwords in German began back in the 17th century, when the object was to defend German against a spate of incoming Latinisms. Gallicisms, i.e. borrowings from French, were then banned in the 19th century. In our day, some language associations object to the onslaught of Anglicisms as part of a broader criticism of current trends in Western society.

Two other topics are closely intertwined, but will be considered separately: gender-inclusive German usage on the one hand, and gender-inclusive language in general on the other. The former is about feminine markers in the language, the latter concerns gender diversity in general. Both are being hotly debated by the German public at the moment.

Last but not least, I want to look at the official role of the German language in Germany and in Europe as a whole. Why isn’t German declared our national language in the German constitution? And how important is German within the institutions of the European Union? Many German speakers feel that their language deserves greater importance in the EU and that the applicable laws should be amended accordingly.

Symbolic struggles

That all these issues are writ large today goes to show one thing above all: language is regarded as an important, if not essential, aspect of the international community. But what role the German language should play in that community is highly disputed. So debates about the relative standing and use of German can be understood as a symbolic struggle over which ideas, values and world views should prevail in society.


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.

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