Why does the Russian language sound scary

Not all German is the same: Linguist Peter Rosenberg on the variety of dialects in Russia


When the first German colonists came to Russia in 1764, following Tsarina Katharina's call, they brought an indescribable variety of German dialects into the country. There were villages on the Volga where over 100 different dialects were spoken. Hessians settled next to Rhinelanders, Württembergians next to Palatinate, Alsatians and Lorraine, Dutch and Swiss. In order to collect the remnants of dialect diversity, the linguist Peter Rosenberg (European University Viadrina, Frankfurt / Oder) has been traveling with his colleagues in Russia since the 1990s. German dialects in Russia are also one of the most important topics at the German teacher forum, which will take place from June 25 to 29, 2011 in Moscow.

When the first German colonists came to Russia in 1764, following Tsarina Katharina's call, they brought an indescribable variety of German dialects into the country. There were villages on the Volga where over 100 different dialects were spoken. Hessians settled next to Rhinelanders, Württembergians next to Palatinate, Alsatians and Lorraine, Dutch and Swiss. The linguist Peter Rosenberg (European University Viadrina, Frankfurt / Oder) has been traveling with his colleagues in Russia since the 1990s in order to collect the remains of dialect diversity.
German dialects in Russia are also one of the main topics on the island Forum for German Teachers, which will take place in Moscow from June 25-29, 2011.

Mr. Rosenberg, for 20 years you have been traveling through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to collect the last remnants of German dialects. What exactly are you going to do with it?

My team and I are documenting the decline in the German language and the remixing of dialects. Incidentally, we do this not only in Russia, but also in Brazil, where there are also German-speaking islands. The exciting thing is that islands of language - to stay in the picture - will at some point be flooded by the surrounding sea, that is, by the contact language. We ask how this works exactly: Which language elements disappear first? What is holding up? There is an interesting discovery, for example, in the distinction between dative and accusative. There is a galloping breakdown of nouns: the dialect speakers throw the cases wildly into confusion. In the case of personal pronouns, it is surprisingly exactly the other way around: Here, the distinction is still made quite correctly between “him” and “him”.

Does that mean that a certain core of grammar is retained?

Yes exactly. Our research has shown that cases seem to be most needed when it comes to people, when it comes to people. Language shrinks to the core of what is necessary for differentiation. This is very instructive for linguists - especially at the stage of decline - because it shows us how language works in our head.

The German dialects are also a cultural asset. Its gradual decline therefore does not affect grammar alone.

That's true, although I am less pessimistic about the culture of the Russian Germans. I believe that the former German colonies in Russia will remain cultural islands for a long time, just not language islands anymore. Cultural values ​​- such as traditional Russian-German ideas of work or the layout of the villages - can still be observed, for example, in the German Rayon Halbstadt in the Altaj, even if Russian is mostly spoken there, especially among the younger ones. Incidentally, there are also areas where development will be delayed. Firstly in so-called core areas, for example in Siberia, where the distance alone ensures linguistic homogeneity, and secondly in groups that have a greater cohesion, such as the Mennonites, who still live more according to their traditions to this day.

Isn't the Russian language still partially mixed with German dialects?

The mixing of languages ​​is especially typical for the older ones, the Russian particles like "nu wot" ("na also"), "no konetschno" ("but of course") or "wsjo" ("that would be") naturally with use. Until 30 years ago, the dialect speakers also "Germanized" many borrowings from Russian. However, this “integrative power” has disappeared today - especially the younger ones are going straight to Russian.

What about communication among the Germans from Russia?

Most of the time Russian is spoken - as paradoxical as that sounds. This is because the German that is spoken has a strong dialectic color. Take, for example, the “Low German” of the Mennonites: Today it is hardly understandable for others because it sounds very strange. For example, “I”, which is otherwise pronounced “ick” in Low German, is called “etj” in Mennonite Low German; Children are called "Tjinjer" and church "Tjoatje". In the German Rayon of Halbstadt, we conducted an investigation with high school students, including Mennonites. The result was that the Mennonites talk to each other in Low German, but speak Russian with their schoolmates - that is, speakers of other German dialects.

Couldn't the older Russian Germans, some of whom still understand several dialects, become role models?

That is difficult because it is simply easier for Russian-German students today to speak Russian. High German has only recently become more widespread again thanks to school. In addition, many long-established residents who still understand dialects such as “Catholic” or “Mennonite Low German” are migrating. This accelerates the transition to Russian among the younger generation, and it cannot prevent immigration of people of German origin, for example from Kazakhstan.

Do the younger ones have any interest in preserving the German language or the dialects?

Russia has always been a multiethnic state, which is why I believe that the younger generation still sees German origins as important. But for most of them it is more convenient to speak Russian today. It's easier, it's more on the tip of your tongue. There are children who only speak German until they enter kindergarten or school, but then at the latest the transition to Russian begins rapidly. The dialect may be sufficient for everyday family life. But you don't speak for the sake of the language, but to communicate with your environment, to build your own life, to take up a job. For all of this you need Russian today! There are young people who set up university groups in which only German is deliberately spoken. But overall, everyday Russian life is simply more powerful. Therefore, in my opinion, the future of the Germans from Russia lies at best in bilingualism and in the connection between the two cultures.


The interview was conducted by Sophia Heyland
(Moscow German newspaper).

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