Germany: Immigrants Help Create New Type of German Language

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.

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

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.


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.

Source: Deutsche Welle (English)

See also: Netherlands: Dutchified Turkish

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