Schnitzel-Land silenced?

On the alleged decline of the ‚Austrian’ language.

Language seems to be a hot topic in Austria this year. After a series of other incidents, the Viennese daily Die Presse alarmed the sunny nation last Sunday that the Austrian variant of German is in danger of extinction. A survey among first-year students of German at the University of Vienna carried out by linguist Peter Wiesinger has revealed that one third of the young adults use German-German expressions even in cases where there is an Austrian word, eg. Junge instead of Bub („boy“, „lad“).

A blatant scandal under our grey-blue skies: we had no idea how wayward our children really are! But who is responsible for this outrageous leveling of necessary national differences? I guess it is once again evil (German) cable TV and the ruthlessness of globalized youth culture.

A long time ago Karl Kraus, that intellectual mastermind of fin-de-siècle Vienna, allegedly said: “What separates Austria from Germany is the common language.“ However, a computer analysis of Kraus’s extensive oeuvre has certainly shown that he never formulated that oft-quoted phrase as such. It is more likely that the sentence was coined by the Viennese comedian Karl Farkas in the 1950s. Or rather stolen, since George Bernard Shaw had said almost the same thing about the British and the Americans (NB: Shaw himself was neither, but Irish.).

On the other hand, it is a historical fact that “Austrian” German was not only the language of Kraus, Freud and Musil, but also of Prague-born authors such as Kafka and Rilke. However, this little linguistic difference between German speakers has become important mainly due to its political instrumentalization: it was increasingly used to mark the difference between the ‘good’ old Habsburg monarchy and the ‘evil’ Prussian Empire as well – while ‘Greater-German’ nationalists tried over and over again to convince their stupid little brothers in the south with linguistic arguments that Austrians in fact are true Germans…

No wonder that the petite difference was revived gladly in Vienna after 1945 to prove to the world that the small Alpine republic had little to do with “the Germans” actually: a little self-deception in order to sneak out of the complicity with the Nazis in World War II and the Holocaust; on the other hand, an expression of aggressive inferiority complex vis-à-vis West Germany’s success story after the Wirtschaftswunder years. Anyway, many Austrians still believe in this mythology fervently.

In reality, however, the linguistic differences affect only five per cent of the vocabulary, especially in office use and in the kitchen: Karfiol instead of Blumenkohl (“cauliflower”), Paradeiser instead of Tomate (“tomato”), Ribisl instead of Rote Johannisbeere (“red currant”). These words are not necessarily used in all of Austria; others ‘we’ share with the Bavarians and the Swabians. Nevertheless, they would have beaten you up in the Vienna of my childhood days, had you dared to say Tschüs instead of Baba (a corrupted form of English bye-bye) for farewell. Nowadays this is common procedure, especially on the countryside.

The real problem seems to be that language ‘lives’ in and through its speakers. Therefore it is difficult for scholars, teachers and politicians to put it under the bell jar; also in those cases where purists bemoan the “Anglicizing” of Europe. What language does is nothing else than representing the power relations and majorities of its day – whether we like it or not.

Is Austrian German thus an endangered species? Not really. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) will be hardly asked in for help; it has recently come under media crossfire itself for alleged manipulations… It will probably be up to the languages of our neighboring countries to conserve words ‘we’ might lose, simply because ‘we’ have borrowed them from there anyway. Ribisln, Powidl (“plum jam”): you name it. What makes me feel much more worried is the low level of parliamentary debate in Vienna compared to the Berlin Bundestag – not only in terms of language.

Text (c) Ruthner & LIDOVÉ NOVINY, 2012

>German version


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