Eine sprachmauer? Berlin's divided  language

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the long-separated citizens of Berlin were finally reunited, the profound social differences between East and West came as a shock to many. Historians and political commentators have tended to focus on the contrasting economic and political situations of Berliners, yet the socio-cultural divergence between the two communities was also evident in another form: their language use.

This was a particular blow to Germany’s difficult reunification process of the early 1990s which had hoped to establish itself easily through a single shared national identity but was persistently undermined by the socially divergent identities of the two Germanies.

The division of both Germany and its capital city after the Second World War resulted in the overnight separation of areas of Berlin which had been exceptionally closely linked economically, socially and linguistically. This created the rare circumstances in which former members of the same communities, living just a few hundred meters apart on either side of the wall, had no means of communication and therefore began to diverge in their linguistic development. These changes were to be seen both in the Standard German ‘Hochdeutsch’ of East and West and in the Berlinish dialect itself.

The most noticeable differences were to be found in the vocabulary. In the GDR, various terms came into use specifically associated with the socialist state, whilst the West was more susceptible to the adoption of Anglicisms through the influence of American culture. Other more subtle differences of terminology served to reinforce markers of East German versus West German identity in everyday speech, such as the term for a retirement home: ‘Altersheim’ in the East, but  ‘Seniorenheim’ in the West.

Even more marked differences were to be heard in language use and style of speech, however. As Professor Norbert Dittmar’s studies from the 1990s have shown, the use of particular grammatical forms and nonstandard variants were often a key indicator of a Berliner’s background in the East. In West Berlin, by contrast, Berlinish dialect usage declined far more rapidly but new grammatical developments occurred in spoken German, with West Germans tending to favour verb-second word order after ‘weil’, a conjunction which typically causes verb subordination to the end of the clause in standardised written German.

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