LINGUISTS SEEK TO PRESERVE ENDANGERED REGIONAL GERMAN DIALECTS
Often looked down upon as “pidgin German,” dialects are an important part of cultural memory and diversity. Researchers say the vibrant spectrum of regional variations of German is under threat.
One recurring assertion in the debates about refugees in Germany has been the demand that migrants have to be fluent in German in order to integrate into, and function within, the society. Standard or High German is what’s meant. But amidst the drive to get everyone who lives in Germany speaking “Hochdeutsch,” others are concerned with preserving the many diverse regional dialects inside and outside the country.
On Wednesday, September 28, the University of Erlangen is to host a four-day conference devoted to German dialects. Organizers say fewer and fewer Germans speak dialects, and many of those have lost some of their local color.
“For example, when we looked at Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, we found that instead of the great number of local dialects there used to be, there are now two main ones that cover a large area,” University of Erlangen linguistic professor Sebastian Kürschner told the DPA news agency.
The number of German dialects depends on how the term is defined, but by any reckoning dozens of them exist. What’s also certain, however, is that there used to be far more.
The original Low German dialects of the Ruhr Valley, for instance, died out when the region was industrialized, with a large number of non-speakers moving there. And school authorities in Hamburg once estimated that the speakers of traditional northern variant of Low German declined from 29 to 10 between 1984 and 2007.
Currently, UNESCO considers seven dialects, including Bavarian, to be “vulnerable.” Four, including Yiddish, are deemed “definitely endangered,” and two (Saterlandic and North Frisian) “critically endangered.”
Increased mobility and the omnipresence of mass media are just two reasons why dialects go extinct. And that raises the question: Do dialects have anything to offer in the globalized world?
One of the obvious advantages of using a standard idiom like High German is that it allows speakers to communicate with larger numbers of other people. But precisely because they are spoken by smaller, more homogenous groups, dialects can be more complex in some respects.