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Culture

How a dictionary aims to expand standardized variants of German

Germans may not believe that the versions of their language spoken in Namibia, Mexico and Romania are standards. The creator of an expanded German dictionary says they are - and he explains why.

 Mennonites in Mexico (picture-alliance/Augenklick/Rauchensteiner)

An archive photo of German-speaking Mennonites living near the Mexican city of Cuauhtemoc

A typical dictionary is presumed to be an authority on a given language. An English dictionary contains a reliable catalog of all the most important words in English, a German dictionary takes on its own territory. What they don't tend to advertize is that they contain only the words of one version of the language - the so-called standard version - and often dismiss variants as distractions, in turn dismissing the minority groups who use them.

The "Variantenwörterbuch des Deutschen" (German Variants Dictionary), now in its second edition, does not shy away from the language's multiplicity. Compiling words from German-speaking communities around the world, the reference book wanders outside the borders of standard German with an uncharacteristic curiosity. It opens itself up to the possibility that there is more than one way to say whipped cream in German: "Sahne," as the Cologne-born Heidi Klum might say, or "Obers", as Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger might call it.

When the Variants Dictionary was first published in 2004, it gathered its material mostly from countries where German is one of the official languages: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg. With the new edition, the book reaches further, probing the speech and writing of German-speaking communities as far-flung as Namibia or the Mennonite farms of Mexico.

The creator of the project is Ulrich Ammon, professor emeritus of linguistics and a specialist in Sociolinguistics at the University of Duisburg-Essen. In an interview with DW, Ammon reveals how the conflict over whipped-cream nomenclature can be a political conflict.

Deutschland Ulrich Ammon (U. Ammon)

Dr. Ulrich Ammon, creator of the German Variant Dictionary.

DW: Dr. Ammon, what are your favorite words from the new edition?

Dr. Ulrich Ammon: I'm naturally drawn to the kinds of words that have a rich diversity. The field green mache, for example, which is called "Feldsalat" in High German, is called "Rapunzel" in north Germany. And it's called "Nüsslisalat" in Switzerland and "Vogerlsalat" in Austria. I like that kind of thing.

Another example of diversity is the number of German words for "community leader." Among the Mennonites, the mayor is simply called "der Älteste" - the eldest. Among the Swiss, a community leader would usually be called an "Ammann" or in some places a "Gemeindepräsident" - a community president. Here in Germany, the city mayor is known as the "Bürgermeister" - literally a master of the townsmen. In Switzerland, that person is called the "Stadtspräsident," or the city president. So there's a whole bunch of words that sound different in different centers of the German-speaking world.

These are standard words where they're used, not oddities from dialects. But they aren't standard German terms, either. Where is the line between dialect and standard speech?

In general, it can be described this way: Certain expressions from dialects are confined to their own region and cannot be used in public life without problems - "dat" and "wat" for "that" and "what," as they say in the Ruhr region, in the western part of Germany, instead of the High German "das" and "was." It's not possible to use these words everywhere without risking being laughed at or not taken seriously.

Standard language can be used in public realm without objection. And though you may indeed hear a light regional accent, it doesn't interfere. Likewise in writing, the standard can be used for public texts - in national newspapers, say, or in nonfiction.

An even more important difference is that the standard language forms are the forms that are taught in school. And the basis for this is the codification of standard German, the way that the language has been systematized in dictionaries and grammar books.

So standard languages are the languages of the elite?

Yes, that's true in places where local dialects are still commonly spoken. In southern Germany, for example, less-educated people often have difficulties with standard German.

The educated class, on the other hand, cultivated a standard German. They wanted to overcome the barriers of dialect and communicate without problems. The merchant class wanted to be understood everywhere. In writing his 1552 German translation of the Bible, Martin Luther attempted to pick up on the most commonly used words in large areas of Germany. And afterwards, authors, writers of grammar books and dictionaries, all began working in this direction.

That was an effort of the educated class. And the farmers of those days were sort of left behind, even more so than the laborers and craftsmen. This, of course, is still a problem today.

German settlers in Namibia (Imago)

German settlers in Namibia hosting an outdoor dinner party on Osombahe Ranch in 2000

You've added words to this new edition from German-speaking minority groups in Romania, Namibia and Mennonite settlements in Mexico. Why are these three places included this time?

Because they were the only additional forms of German we could find that contained specific standardized forms within them. There are probably 20 German-speaking minorities in the world, in every region imaginable: Australia, Brasil, Israel, for example. But in all of these communities, no standard speech has been developed. But in Romania, Namibia and the Mennonite settlements, we found a large number of words and word usage that are specific to their region, in daily newspapers, for example. And which a teacher would consider correct in a student essay.

For example?

Like in the Mennonite communities, if you want to say "the kids want to let off some steam," the verb would be "sich ausspringen" - literally to bounce themselves out. And in Namibia the male sheep are called "Rammen" instead of the standard German "Bock." It comes from the English word "ram."

How many people still speak German in Romania, Namibia and Mexico?

In Romania it's between 30,000 and 40,000, but there have also been people coming back to German there. And even more importantly: a number of schools there use Romanian-German as their main language. As for the Mennonites, it's hard to say how many in total. Probably 100,000 to 300,000.

In Namibia, it's quite few - roughly 30,000. But it's exactly those people who hold the keys to the economy. If you're in Windhoek, you'll see that almost all the writing in the windows of businesses is in German. So it's a significant, influential group.

That's part of Namibia's colonial legacy…

Yes, the massacre of the Herero [Eds.: a systematic killing of over 100,000 Namibian Herero and Nama people by German colonial troops between 1904 and 1908] has been recognized as a huge problem for some time now. But things have come to a crisis once again with recent debt collection efforts.

The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich once said "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy." The suggestion is that language can serve as a political tool. How do the language variants you've collected in the dictionary operate? Do they promote unity or division?

Namibia Lüderitz (imago/blickwinkel)

Welcome to Lüderitz, a coastal town in Namibia on the southern rim of Africa, founded in 1883 by German settlers

This is most obvious in Austria, where the particularity of the standard language is seen as a national symbol. This came up when Austria was joining the European Union. The mayor of Vienna at the time - a guy named Zilk - had signs posted everywhere reading "Erdäpfelsalat bleibt Erdäpfelsalat" [Eds.: literally translated, "Ground-apple salad will always be Ground-apple salad!"] Potatoes in Austria  are called "Erdäpfel" - literally "ground apples" - and not "Kartoffeln" like in Germany. The Austrians made sure during the EU negotiations that the Austrian variants of German were used in the official EU texts.

Book cover Variantenwörterbuch des Deutschen

German Variant Dictionary: the standard language in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, eastern Belgium and South Tyrol as well as Romania, Namibia and Mennonite colonies.

The Austrians have been fighting against the fact that so many words have come into their language from Germany. For example, a respected Austrian author wrote an essay titled "The Battle on the Cream Front" committing himself to the fight against the invasion of Germany's standard word for whipped cream - "Sahne". He was defending the Austrian variants "Rahm" and "Obers." It's an indication of how Austrians symbolically promote their nation through verbal expressions.

Does your dictionary provide ammunition for nationalist movements?

Actually, it doesn't. In fact, we had precisely the opposite goal in mind. The problem is that Germans have been treating other standard variations of German in Austria, Switzerland, Romania and Namibia as dialects, not as standards. When Austrians said "Obers," Germans called it dialect. And our dictionary emphasizes that it is indeed not dialect - not inferior, not something that you can't use in public discourse. Rather, it is considered "the correct German" wherever it is used, and Germans had better see it is such.

The dictionary provides a sort of emancipation for the underdogs who should be encouraged in their particularities. That's how it's been received in Austria and Switzerland. The book sold especially well in these countries, and the "New Zürcher" newspaper published a long article: "Finally a democratic dictionary."

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