I speak, therefore I am? – German language and national identity

Young people holding up speech bubbles
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How does language influence our way of thinking, our culture and our identity? Conversely, how does our language develop under the influence of constant changes in our environment? Language researchers have always been fascinated by the link between language and identity and how they influence each other.

Philosophers and scientists have been examining the connection between thought and language for three thousand years. One major topic of research has been whether language evolved from thought or vice versa. Whatever the truth, all theories agree that our language, our culture and our identity are inextricably linked.

The way we express ourselves determines how we as individuals, as a generation, as a group or as a nation behave and are perceived. To what extent this is the case becomes apparent when we talk to people whose native language is not our own. The differences in the way they use the language are often surprising, and can give us a clue as to how different their patterns of thought and their identity are from ours.

German language: words and ‘un-words’ of the year

Rising public interest in the German language and identity has spawned a number of language competitions, with expert juries who decide on the most beautiful German word – or indeed, the ‘un-word’ – of the year. In 2004, the most beautiful German word of the year was the somewhat old-fashioned Habseligkeiten. The term, the jury explained, was selected as it refers to a mix of earthly possessions and the state of bliss (Seligkeit) that is unattainable while still on earth. This interesting juxtaposition of concepts, the jury continued, inspired positive emotions in the reader towards the owner of said Habseligkeiten. The capacity to feel love towards small things of little value suggested a capacity for happiness.

The group of language critics who select the aim to sharpen our awareness of how we use the German language and how this influences our identity, and to combat the decline of the language in general. The un-word of 2011 was Döner-Morde, or ‘doner murders’, the word used to denote a series of murders committed by right-wing extremists among the Turkish immigrant community. The expression, said the jury, was indicative of the fact that the authorities failed to recognise or to acknowledge the political dimension of the murders for a number of years. Reducing these atrocities down to a term used for Turkish street food, they continued, discriminated against the murder victims and marginalised an entire social group due to their ethnic origin.

Social change reflected in the language

All social changes and developments and all historical events are reflected in the way we use language. Since World War II and the holocaust, for instance, Germans have been unable to use the German word Führer (leader) without this producing an immediate and negative association with Adolf Hitler.

Today, the debate surrounding the link between the German language and German identity tends to heat up whenever concerns arise that our language is deteriorating – which, in turn, could impact negatively on our identity. One recurrent topic of discussion is the spread of anglicisms throughout the German language. This has produced what is known as , a hybrid language that has become commonplace thanks to the internet. Since the internet and social media became an everyday part of their lives, verbs such as downloaden, posten and liken have become a fixture in young Germans’ speech.

‘Street German’ as a youth language

The strong influence of Kiezdeutsch, roughly ‘street German’, on the language used by many young people inside and outside the immigrant community is particularly controversial. However, this form of ‘youth-speak’ (or ethnolect, to use the scientific term) is seen by many language researchers as less of a threat and more as an enrichment of the German language and identity.

Language: A home away from home

The strength of the link between the German language and national identity also becomes apparent when looking at the literature and life stories of Germans living in exile. For many German writers who left Germany during the Third Reich, their native language became by far the most important element of their identity, a piece of home that they held on to for dear life. In a poem she wrote while in exile in the United States, the poet Mascha Kaléko wrote, ‘For sure, I am very happy; but I am not glücklich.’ In doing so, she expressed her love of the German language which she considered to be an important part of her identity.

In the same way society is subject to constant change, our language, too, is in constant flux yet remains an important part of our identity. It would be interesting to find out whether in a few hundred years from now, the works of Goethe and Schiller will still be considered part of the German literary canon and whether, when someone prepares to travel or move house, they will still think of their possessions as Habseligkeiten.

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