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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 Doner Kebabs 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 declension 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 Kiezdeutsch 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.”

The influence of globalisation on the German language

Not only migrants have a strong influence on the German language. Technical innovation and, above all, globalisation have also brought a wealth of new words to Germany. These mainly come from the English language and are often not even translated anymore. The Verein Deutsche Sprache counts 7,500 Anglicisms in its Anglizismen-INDEX and estimates that 79 percent of them are “displacing” a German word, which is then replaced by the English term in spoken language. 

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 inflectional endings and which only marked verbs by a suffix.

“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).

Words with a migration background (in German only)

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: realisieren

    realisieren“ bedeutet eigentlich „verwirklichen/umsetzen“, wird aber verwendet als „erkennen/sich klarmachen“ (von „to realize“)

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: einmal mehr

    einmal mehr“ (von „once more“) statt „noch einmal

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: vermissen

    ich vermisse dich“ (von „I miss you“) statt „du fehlst mir

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: sinnlos

    es macht keinen Sinn“ (von „it doesn't make sense“) statt „es hat/ergibt keinen Sinn

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: Weissu

    Weissu?“ (von „Weißt du?“) – „Verstehst du?

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: Yalla

    Yalla!“ (aus dem Arabischen stammendes Wort für „Beeil dich!“) – „Los geht's!“ 

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: Ischwör

    Ischwör“ (von „Ich schwöre“) – „Ich versichere dir

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: Lan

    Lan“ (aus dem Türkischen stammendes, leicht abwertendes Wort für „Typ“) – „Alter“ (Anrede in der Jugendsprache für eine (junge) männliche Person)

  • Wörter mit Migrationshintergrund: Handy

    Handy“ – eine deutsche Wortschöpfung (ein englischer Muttersprachler würde „mobile“ oder „mobile phone“ sagen)

Hinrichs’ findings show that the use of grammatical cases 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.”

Is your native language also being changed through migration?

September 2016

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24 July 2019

I would like to draw the attention on colonisation period that influenced the colonized countries' languages as to the spoken varieties,notably in Arabic countries..

Walber Pereira (Former Stipendiater vom DAAD).
23 May 2019

I think that our language (Portuguese) is strongly been affected by words of Venezuelan migrants, and even by indians on the streets.It is an inevitable fact...

Reade Dornan
14 December 2016

As an American living in a western state, I frequently see new words in Spanglish. The invented words are a combination of English and Spanish that are often more expressive than the original word in each language. The number of inventions is accelerated by children in bilingual emersion school programs and by their Spanish parents who, without much formal training, adopt near-cognates that most help them communicate. They are also quickly adopted by native English speakers who are charmed by the Spanglish and want to communicate with non-native speakers on a friendly level.

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