How the German language is being transformed by migration

  • 2016-09-21
  • Verena Striebinger
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Enhancement or decline? How the German language is being transformed by migration

Migration is not only changing the appearance of many places and cities in Germany, it also leaves its traces in German culture, most of all in the German language. What are the tangible consequences of this phenomenon? Is it harmful to the German language or could we even see it as an enhancement?

Migration has been influencing the German language, most of all in the colloquial language. Spoken language is becoming less complicated and the discrepancy between colloquial and written language is increasing. At the same time, the German vocabulary is growing, consisting of 5.3 million words to date – and counting!

Language is dynamic, it adapts to our everyday reality. For instance, today we no longer look something up, we google it.

Language is open; it incorporates words and structures from other languages. For instance, Turkish have not only been a welcome addition to German menus, they have also added to our vocabulary: In the German Duden dictionary, they have their own entry, complete with tables. But not only new terms are added, but also grammatically incorrect phrases: We have long since adopted the English idiom “Das macht keinen Sinn (that doesn’t make sense)” and no longer say “Das hat keinen Sinn”, even though the latter is grammatically correct.

But how much is the German language really being transformed by the foreign languages introduced by migrants?

A migrant idiom, not only in Germany

“Lass ma‘ chillen, Julia. (Let’s chill, Julia)” or “Gib zwei Euro. Ich muss Guthaben kaufen.  (Let me have two Euro. I have to recharge my phone)” – these are two quotes from the German film “Fack ju Göhte”, which was shown in cinemas in 2013. They are examples of “Kiezdeutsch”, a German youth dialect, which has been observed since the 1990s. Kiezdeutsch has long since become a subject of scientific research because it also helps to identify the influence of migration on our language.

The definition of says “that this youth language has developed in a situation of contact between various languages and cultures, mostly in urban neighbourhoods like Berlin-Kreuzberg, where people from different origins and native languages live together. (…) Similar youth dialects have developed in other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Kiezdeutsch is therefore not an isolated German phenomenon.”

Anything that complicates language is dropped

Wherever two languages meet, a trend towards simplification can be observed. Anything that unnecessarily complicates a language is dropped. In his book “So kommt der Mensch zur Sprache”, author and journalist Dieter E. Zimmer cites the example of Russian merchants trading with Norwegian fishermen. They communicated in a strongly simplified version of the Russian language, which had no need of endings and which only marked verbs by a .

“In a situation dominated by multilingualism, everything that is not needed for communication is removed. Complex grammar is therefore reduced and structures become simpler – not only in German, incidentally, but also in the native languages of the migrants”, says linguist Uwe Hinrichs in an interview with the Goethe-Institut. He has been researching the influence of migrants’ languages on the German language and published his results in the book “Multi Kulti Deutsch. Wie Migration die deutsche Sprache verändert” (2013).

Hinrichs’ findings show that the use of in particular has decreased. “Cases are often confused – as in ‘ich verspreche es ihn’ instead of ‘ich verspreche es ihm’ (I promise it to him). Endings are frequently fully omitted, as in ‘das Haus von mein Vater’ rather than ‘das Haus von meinem Vater‘ (my father’s house). “This loosens the sentence’s inner context and frees up linguistic ‘energy’’, says Hinrichs. “This can be used elsewhere, for instance in the creation of new words.”

Simplifying grammar thus serves to facilitate the communication among speakers of different native languages. This means that the focus does not lie on the correctness of the language but on its function: communication.

Plenty of mistakes in native German colloquial language

Apart from the transformation of the German language through migrants, Uwe Hinrichs sees two additional trends. He has observed an abundance of grammatical mistakes in native German speakers – these arise from a decreased level of literacy and in a specific social environment. He further refers to the German dialects, which are mixed into spoken language, especially in large cities (in Berlin dialect, for instance, they say “Ick nehm dir in’n Arm” rather than “Ich nehme dich in den Arm”, which means “I am hugging you”). In contrast with this, the migrants’ language is changing through language contact and multilingualism. “It is essential to distinguish these three developments of the German language”, says Hinrichs.

In his view, spoken German will strongly diverge from written grammar in the future. Someone learning German in 30 years will become aware, that in practise, many “mistakes” will not be seen as such or even corrected anymore. “Above all, they will not have to bother about so many grammatical cases.”

Related links

Book suggestions

Uwe Hinrichs

  • Multi Kulti Deutsch. Wie Migration die deutsche Sprache verändert. C. H. Beck 2013

Dieter E. Zimmer

  • So kommt der Mensch zur Sprache. Heyne 2008 (neueste Auflage)
  • Die Wortlupe. Beobachtungen am Deutsch der Gegenwart. Hoffmann und Campe 2006

For your entertainment: Philipp Möller

  • Isch hab Geisterblitz: Neue Wortschätze vom Schulhof. Bastei Lübbe 2015
  • Isch geh Schulhof. Unerhörtes aus dem Alltag eines Grundschullehrers. Bastei Lübbe 2012

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