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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 17:44 GMT
German language rejuvenated
By Chris Bowlby
BBC Radio 3

Ludwig van Beethoven
Like Beethoven, German rappers exploit the rhythms of the language
The German government's proposal this week to criminalise Holocaust denial across the EU is a reminder of how anxious Germans remain about the corrupting power of words.

Their own language, once a proud international language of culture and science, the language of Goethe and Thomas Mann, Freud and Einstein, has had to live ever since the Third Reich with echoes of Nazi and then, in East Germany, communist distortion.

The echoes have not faded completely.

I walked around the new German Historical Museum in Berlin with historian Christoph Jahr, looking at the displays of Nazi propaganda.

On the one hand it all seems very distant from his generation's experience, he said.

"But as a historian I'm aware that we're all living in the shadow of the language of the Third Reich," he added.

That shadow looms, for example, when Germans try to describe patriotic feelings, which were strong during last summer's World Cup but which sound awkward when old words like Vaterland (Fatherland) are used.

Immigrant influence

Awkward echoes have also been evident as Germany comes to terms with its increasingly multiracial society.

German is regaining a vigour and variety that was less evident in earlier post-war decades, and which communist East Germany could never enjoy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described multiculturalism as a failure and the Berlin government wants a more thorough knowledge of German for all its citizens, to be a kind of glue to help hold society together.

But while some struggle to learn the language, others from immigrant backgrounds take the German they have learned in fascinating new directions.

TV comics give the whole country new catchphrases like Was guckst Du? (What are you looking at?) as they make fun of ethnic tensions.

And then there is pop music.

The writer and critic Karin Yesilada, daughter of a German mother and Turkish father, points to the huge rap scene in Germany, where young people often from immigrant backgrounds use the language as a "literary weapon", criticising their society very effectively.
Berlin Wall, 1989
Communist East Germany saw decades of linguistic distortion

"They look for the melody in German," she adds, "it's a kind of regaining German for art".

Lovers of classical German songs set to music by Schubert or Beethoven might find this hard to swallow.

But what is striking is the uninhibited way rappers use the language, just as writers from multiracial backgrounds tackle taboos from the Nazi past, and can also celebrate a time before the Third Reich when German was a common language across much of Europe.

English invasion

German can never fully recover its old international role.

English is now the truly international medium - indeed some Germans fret about the invasion of English into their language, which has even invented its own English words, like Handy for mobile telephone.

And some courses at German universities are now taught entirely in English.

But German is regaining a vigour and variety that was less evident in earlier post-war decades, and which communist East Germany could never enjoy.

It is becoming a more relaxed, self-confident language, flavoured with humour and musicality, yet still alert to echoes within living memory of brutal distortion.

Chris Bowlby presents The Struggle for Language on 21 January on Radio 3 at 2130GMT, the first in a series about how languages recover from political distortion. Other programmes will cover Turkish and Afrikaans.


SEE ALSO
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Country profile: Germany
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