Language and German Disunity: A Sociolinguistic History of East and West Germany, 1945-2000

By Walther, Ingeborg | German Quarterly, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Language and German Disunity: A Sociolinguistic History of East and West Germany, 1945-2000


Walther, Ingeborg, German Quarterly


Stevenson, Patrick. Language and German Disunity: A Sociolinguistic History of East and West Germany, 1945-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.275 pp. $24.95 paperback.

Of the many problems that have come to the fore as a result of German unification in 1990, perhaps none has been so persistent as the common and much discussed perception that east and west Germans do not "speak the same language." The idea that had appeared in various guises at least since the early 19th century that all Germans were united by a common language proved elusive, as social differences and inequalities were increasingly projected onto linguistic differences and problems of communication. Patrick Stevenson's fascinating and highly readable study examines "the complex web of questions underlying the central problem: why, and in what ways, is language repeatedly (perceived as) a source of both unity and disunity in the German speech community?" (3). His emphasis is less on individual linguistic forms "than on linguistic practices and on the ways in which language is dragooned into political and social disputes over 'belonging'" (2). In the process, he makes an important contribution to the study of "how 'talk' (socially situated uses of language) contributes to the conflicting processes of developing and contesting social identities" (15).

The value of Stevenson's book lies not only in the fact that it is one of the few comprehensive studies of language in Germany since 1945 written in English for a general readership (the author avoids transcription conventions of conversation analysis, and provides truly excellent English translations of all German texts and speech samples that effectively capture stylistic nuances), but also in the fact that it goes beyond most existing linguistic and sociolinguistic research by setting the contemporary situation in a broad historical context reaching back to the early 19th century, when questions of the relationship between language and national identity became particularly salient. Part I of the book begins with the "questione della lingua" as it was debated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries to provide the context for the language debates which marked the political tensions between east and west Germany between 1945 and 1989. It then moves to a discussion of the particular linguistic strategies used by the GDR to reinforce the socialist state, and the effects of this on the everyday linguistic practices and social experiences of its citizens. It concludes with a fascinating analysis of the polyphony of Wende discourses to which the official discourse, paradoxically, gave rise and that contributed to the GDR's ultimate demise. Part II focuses on the first decade following unification, describing in detail the various and multi-layered linguistic practices that contributed to the phenomena of communicative dissonance and identity construction in unified Germany.

While the author draws on an extensive array of research on the sociolinguistic consequences of unification (empirical studies of lexical difference and speech behaviors, research on language attitudes, ethnographic interviews), he is careful to point out both the value and limitations of this research. For example, the many quantitative, descriptive studies of lexical developments, while important, often fail to account for the varying sociolinguistic "burden" of some words over others (e.g., the differences between the GDR and FRG terms for "supermarket," Kaufhalle and Supermarkt respectively, are relatively unimportant as compared to the differences between the respective terms for "worker," Werktätiger and Arbeitnehmer], and often fall short of accounting for how words are embedded in discursive contexts (47). …

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