Three countries divided by a common language – on differences in language use

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In general, speakers of English are rather aware of their language being used differently in several parts of the world. The same is true for German speakers, but here, the difference is often seen with a feeling of inferiority on the side of speakers from the small countries, i.e. from Austria and Switzerland. Ulrich Ammon e.g. requested teachers to evaluate texts which contained words that are unique to one national variety. While all teachers from Germany considered their own variants to be correct, Austrian teachers corrected 12.3% (Swiss: 14.1%) of their own national expressions.

Two projects, which started this year aim at improving the general awareness of and acceptance for the equal status of the varieties. The first one focuses on the lexicon and is a follow-up to the Variantenwörterbuch des Deutschen. Even though the first edition has been a well received and very useful book, there is room for improvement. Work on this edition started in a time when no corpora (text collections) that could be searched for regional differences were available. Thus, for regional differences (within nations), the team had to read texts and sometimes to draw the line between dialect and standard based on their own intuition as well as on usage in newspapers. Nevertheless, some expressions that would be considered as dialect by many native speakers found their way into the dictionary which claims to be limited to standard use. The second edition, which is underway now, will thus make the jump into the digital world. Not only will it make extensive use of corpora and thus extend and improve the data, but will probably also be published both on paper and electronically. As an extra, it will cover more areas of German by including the varieties from Romania and Namibia, in addition on the three centers Austria, Switzerland and Germany as well as Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, South Tyrol and East Belgium, which the first edition already comprised.

The second project worth mentioning treats on completely new ground. Even though regional differences in Grammar are frequently mentioned in linguistic publication, they have never been collected and described systematically. This is where the project Variantengrammatik wants to step in. While speakers of a language are mostly aware of differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, grammar and differences in grammar go mostly unnoticed, even though they are frequent. Take the Austrian sich etwas erwarten as an example. In Germany and Switzerland erwarten can only be used without a reflexive. In spite of the low awareness from Grammar, it still often poses problems for native speakers of German: “can I use this formulation or is it dialectal?”. At this point the “Variantengrammatik”” will come in handy for native speakers. In evaluating both projects however, the focus is not only on native speakers but also on learners of German. Not only can these publications be used to cut back on prejudice against varieties from countries other than Germany, they can also be used in class to raise the awareness for their equal status.

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  1. leifhendrik

    Great article. The website for the ‘Variantengrammatik’ project contains links of its own that lead to more helpful and interesting information.

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