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New German dictionary edition stirs debate about language

Philipp Jedicke als
August 13, 2020

The latest edition of the Duden, the preeminent dictionary of the German language, contains 3,000 new words. Language purists are rattled — and some politicians also feel threatened by the changes.

New words in the latest Duden: cisgender and microplastic
New words in the latest Duden

Like all modern languages, the German language is constantly evolving. Nobody knows exactly how many words German vocabulary encompasses. New words are constantly being added to the 70,000 to 100,000 or so words in the standard vocabulary, while others disappear from daily use over time.

With its reference work "Die deutsche Rechtschreibung" (Dictionary of the German Language), theDuden Publishing House has aimed to be "the reliable authority for all topics relating to the German language and spelling" and "always up to date." This reliability is famous throughout the German-speaking world.

Since the first publication of the Vollständiges Orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Complete Orthographic Dictionary of the German Language) by Konrad Duden in 1880, the "Rechtschreibduden" has become the go-to reference work. It is found on virtually every teacher's shelf or desk, in any editorial or other big office in Germany. Despite the digital version, 650,000 copies of the last book edition were sold.

Duden as a mirror of German society

The latest (28th) edition of Duden has just been published and encompasses some 148,000 keywords. It includes 3,000 new words, while editors chose to remove 300 terms which were deemed outdated. Duden editors have also proved to again be up-to-date on current developments, be it in choosing to include words such as: bee-friendly, flight shame, hate speech, Geisterspiel (sports match played behind closed doors), binge watching, cisgender and lockdown. The new terms in Duden are a reflection of the latest social developments, like climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, social media, racism and equality.

Kathrin Kunkel-Razum, Duden editorial director, browsing through the new edition
Kathrin Kunkel-Razum, Duden editorial director Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Among the new entries are numerous Anglicisms and current expressions from gender research, which, for language purists, are emotive words. The Verein deutsche Sprache (VDS, German Language Society—not to be confused with the GfdS, the Association for the German Language), which among other things is campaigning against what it sees as the excessive use of Anglicisms and the introduction of gender-minded language with the petition "Schluss mit dem Gender-Unfug!" ("enough of the gender shenanigans"), has strongly criticized the new Duden edition.

Language preservers vs. reformers

VDS chairman Walter Krämer said this week that it must "finally come to a stop that certain individuals condescendingly decide how language should develop." He added: "Many people take what is written in the Duden at face value and will believe that gender stars and similar constructs are real components of the German language."

The VDS attacks against Duden editors have almost become a tradition. For example, the VDS had named the 2013 Duden edition a "Language Adulterator of the Year," claiming that even back then, it contained too many Anglicisms.

Those who make it their goal to preserve language in a certain form naturally rub up against those institutions that regard language as a permanently changing "universal instrument" that needs to continually develop.

Bernd Gögel, chairman of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) parliamentary group in Baden-Württemberg, criticized the current Duden as an "ideological aid for the implementation of left-wing politics." Terms such as "everyday racism," "right-wing terrorist" or "climate emergency"  are "ideological" and "small groups," according to Gögel, want to tell the majority of citizens how they should speak.

Who decides?

One thing is certain, however: Our society has changed more rapidly than ever before in recent years and decades. Globalization, the internet, social media and rising populism are causing ever finer fragmentation in daily communication.

What was considered "the right tone of voice" yesterday can be interpreted and evaluated completely differently today, and not just with obviously pejorative and ideologically loaded terms like the N-word.

Who decides how and why language should change? The vast majority of linguists have agreed for decades that a living language cannot be contained by academic regulations or by law, but is subject to constant, dynamic change due to social change.

The task of a reference book is to depict these changes and to be a reliable source for people who want to use this language in writing. Topicality is therefore not just a such nice quality to possess, but a necessity. The Duden dictionary depicts —  within the scope of its possibilities — the constantly changing social conditions and forms of communication. Whether or not terms that have gone out of fashion have to be "thrown out" is another matter.