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Lingua Franca

Julie GregsonDecember 8, 2007

In multicultural urban areas of Germany, a new variant of German has evolved with its own grammar and rhythm. This ethnolect is spoken among young migrants of various ethnic backgrounds as well as young native Germans.

Silhouette of two people in conversation
The young people generally only use the language among themselvesImage: Bilderbox

Linguists say that fears in Germany that this colloquial "lingua franca" might pose a threat to standard German language are unfounded. But distorted media representations of this ethnolect could, however, serve to merely reinforce stereotypes about the country's migrants.

In popular culture, it's frequently exposed to ridicule, while in the media it is frequently described as a social "problem" and depicted as posing a threat to standard German.

Sarmad Ahmad, who is of Iraqi origin, first encountered this new variant of German when he and his family went to live in Berlin-Wedding, a district with a high immigrant population. He first came to Germany nine years ago and spent the first few months attending intensive German lessons.

The 20-year-old can switch effortlessly from one type to the other. "My language split when I started mixing with the teenagers in this district. I can speak one way or the other. It's separate from the other language. It's as if it's ours. There are also Germans who have grown up here in this area who also use it too," he said.

"There are things in the way we speak to one another that are linked to our mother tongue. In Arabic you would just say "come". There aren't different endings for the verbs like there are in standard German. This just gets carried across automatically," he added.

The grammar is simplified and features new constructions

Young people of various ethnicities sitting together reading
Young people often use an ethnolect as a secret codeImage: picture alliance/dpa

It's not unusual to overhear teenagers conversing hard and fast in "their" language in inner-city districts of Berlin. But it's not restricted to the German capital, Professor Heike Wiese also says the phenomenon has been observed in a whole host of other German cities, from Regensburg to Hamburg.

This German is characterized amongst other things by the omission of particles and prepositions in certain contexts and a certain "grammatical economy", as Wiese describes it.

"For example, instead of saying 'Ich gehe in die Schule' (I go to school), they would say 'Isch geh Schule' (I go school), or 'Isch bin Görlitzer Park' (I am Görlitzer Park) rather than 'Ich bin im Görlitzer Park'," adds the linguist, who works at the University of Potsdam.

It's also sprinkled with Arabic or Turkish words, such as Yalla (Arabic for let's go), Wallah (a compressed form of the Arabic for by Allah which is used to mean "really") and lan, short for Turkish "ulan" and used to mean "guy" or "dude") are frequently featured.

Similar phenomena have been noted elsewhere in Europe. Whereas in Britain no single overarching multilingual ethnolect appears to exist, it has been detected in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands in areas with a high density of migrants.

These European ethnolects even seem to share some common features -- despite differences because of variations in the languages involved, according to Inken Keim, Professor at the University of Mannheim and researcher at the Institute for German language. But it's not yet possible to say for sure. Academic research into this whole area is still in its early days -- both here in Germany and abroad. "It has a certain beat. Perhaps it has to do with tastes in music. That's still completely open at the moment," said Keim.

A sign of marginalization?

Turkish girl learning German at blackboard
Germany has been criticized for poor standards of second language tuition provisionImage: picture alliance/dpa-lni

The phenomenon was first brought to the attention of the chattering classes via literature in 1995. Turkish-born author Feridun Zaimoglu's book Kanak Sprak contains 24 "transcripts" of meetings with young Turkish-German men. Zaimoglu describes the ethnolect as "an underground code", an expression of marginalization by mainstream German society. The term Kanak is itself the pejorative term for Turks and other immigrants from southern Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.

Over the past few years, there has been growing media exposure for this variant of German. German comedy duos such as Stefan and Erkan, and Mundstuhl, as Dragan und Alder lampooned this way of speaking, taking their cue from English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen with his performance of Ali G., a boorish, uneducated youth, of immigrant origin.

A number of feature films, such as Kebab Connection, directed by Anno Paul and screened in 1995, and Süperseks, which was directed by Torsten Wacker and came out a year earlier, have also engaged with the theme and there is increasing news media coverage.

Discrimination in popular culture and news media

Feridun Zaimoglu
Feridun Zaimoglu brought attention to the phenomenon of Turkish ethnolectsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Sociolinguist Jannis Androutsopoulos, Reader in Sociolinguistics and Media Discourse at the department of education at King's College London, is concerned about the distortions involved in representations of ethnic styles of German in popular culture and public discourse and the impact on German mainstream society. Frequently, comedy tends to play up and even invent linguistic characteristics for laughs, while also generally indicating that the speakers of this style of German are badly educated and poorly behaved.

According to Androutsopoulos, a similar tendency to stereotyping can also be seen in films, including well-meaning ones that set out to celebrate cultural diversity. "For example, you have films in which a tough, aggressive and obviously uneducated person of migrant background will be speaking markedly ethnic German, whereas in the same movie the good guys, who are also from an ethnic background tend to speak a much more standard German."

Media reporting similarly tends to associate ethnic minority styles of German far too quickly with socially stigmatized categories or identities, according to the Greek-born, German-reared sociolinguist, and perpetuates stereotypes. "If it's non-standard German, it's linked with the ghetto. It's problematic, an index of deviance, and something that won't get you anywhere in life," added Androutsopoulos.

He believes ethnolect should be regarded much more positively. "The linguistic reality is that the more people are in command of different styles of their language, the better. It's yet another layer in people's linguistic repertoires. There are people, also younger people, who are perfectly in command of standard German and are also in command of an ethnic style of German, just as like a regional dialect."

Media discrimination towards the language and its speakers

German comedy duo known as Mundstuhl
Some of the comedy acts provide truly crass impersonationsImage: AP

The tendency to ridicule ethnically marked German in popular culture has not gone unnoticed by Sarmad Ahmad. "It's got nothing to do with integration. It is only about making fun of us."

However, he also acknowledges that some of his peer group can only speak ethnolect. "Many of these young people live here and don't get to see much more than Neukölln or Wedding. They don't get the opportunity to develop," he added.

As Heike Wiese points out, this is not a threat to the German language, but a problem for the young people in question and German society at large. "For the young people themselves and for the society that loses them because they can't participate in society and have fewer chances professionally it's a huge problem," she said.

Just how enduring this phenomenon is likely to be is hard to predict. Wiese believes like most types of language spoken by teenagers that it will probably die out fairly quickly. Inken Keim believes that it could establish itself, but only if people from ethnic minority backgrounds remained in areas with a high concentration of non-native speakers over the period of thirty years or so.

At the moment, she believes that the chances are low of any of its features entering mainstream German language -- above all because the negative connotations of, for example, Turkish in Germany, in contrast to the higher status of English.