Yiddish, Kanak Sprak, Klezmer, and HipHop: Ethnolect, Minority Culture, Multiculturalism, and Stereotype in Germany

By Loentz, Elizabeth | Shofar, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Yiddish, Kanak Sprak, Klezmer, and HipHop: Ethnolect, Minority Culture, Multiculturalism, and Stereotype in Germany


Loentz, Elizabeth, Shofar


Minority and immigrant Germans' embrace of the derogatory term Kanake as a self-ascription and of the low-status ethnolect Kanak Sprak has been compared to US rappers' combative use of "niggah" and Black English. This essay, however, compares the revaluation of the term Kanake, a non-assimilatory Kanak identity, and the ethnolect Kanak Sprak to some early 20th century German Jews' revaluation and embrace of Eastern European Jewish culture and Yiddish. It demonstrates also how non-minority and non-Jewish Germans have used Yiddish and Kanak Sprak in literature, theater, film, and popular culture to re-inscribe ethnic difference, especially at times when minorities and Jews were becoming indistinguishable from non-minority Germans (emancipation edicts or nationality law reform). Because Kanak Sprak is inseparable from HipHop culture, the second half of the essay examines the many parallels between the importation and naturalization of German HipHop and German Klezmer. Both were imported from the United States in the early 1980s; and following the fall of the Berlin Wall and German re-unification, both have played a role in German Vergangenheitsbewältigung [mastering the past]. While HipHop and Klezmer have become the soundtrack of German anti-racism, anti-Nazism, and multiculturalism; some observers are critical of non-minority and non-Jewish Germans' appropriation or instrumentalization of ethnic music, and have cited instances of antisemitism and racism in German Klezmer and HipHop.

The word Kanake is a highly derogatory term that has been used since roughly the 1970s to refer to visibly non-German foreigners or presumed foreigners, especially Turks.1 Although still considered a slur, Kanake has been appropriated as a self-ascription by some minority Germans. According to Tom Cheesman, this "combative usage" of the term originated in the late 1980s in urban hip hop circles, where it was likened to US rappers' use of "niggah."2 In 1995, Turkish-German author Feridun Zaimoglu introduced Kanak Sprak, the ethnolect spoken by self-described Kanaken, to a wider German audience in his book Kanak Sprak: 24 Mißtöne vom Rande der Geselhchaft [Kanak Speak: 24 Notes of discord from the margins of society].3 By the late 1990s the ethnolect became part of mainstream German pop culture, in the genre Kanakcomedy, which features caricatured portrayals of foreigners and minorities, speaking Kanakisch, a stereotyped form of the actual ethnolect spoken by some Turkish-Germans of the second and third immigrant generations. Via these popular media portrayals, Kanakisch has entered the speech of Germans without immigrant background.

Linguists and cultural critics who have examined the revaluation of the term Kanake and the use of the ethnolect in popular culture and youth speech have noted similarities to roughly contemporaneous trends across national and linguistic borders (especially in the U.S. but also in the U.K.).4 The phenomena have not, however, been examined diachronically, to consider whether they have historical antecedents in Germany's own past.

Turkish-German author Zafer Senocak has suggested that Turkish-Germans, contemporary Germany's largest minority group, should examine the history of Jews in Germany to better understand their own situation as a non-Christian minority in an increasingly multicultural Germany and Europe.5 In a 1995 interview, "May one Compare Turks and Jews, Mr. Senocak?," he compares the experience of Turkish-Germans at the close of the 20th century to that of German Jews at its beginning:

[In Germany] minorities remain foreign, in spite of their adaptation. This will cause tension, which will in turn look familiar to us from history. The history of Jews in Germany and their assimilation is accompanied by a tense debate, which was especially speared by Zionism and its thesis that there is no German-Jewish cultural symbiosis. This thesis posits that the mediation failed, that the Jew remains Jew and the German-who defines himself as non-Jew-remains German. …

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