Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute

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German on Both Sides of The Wall

The way we use words involves a whole lot more than the "correct" implementation of grammar, spelling and punctuation rules.

It says much about how we view ourselves and others. Speaking a dialect or using particular words can show a sense of belonging.

In 1949, Germany was divided into West and East. The former was officially referred to as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG); the latter, as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) under the Soviet Union.

Throughout the 50 years that Germany was split, the conservative West German newspaper Bild-Zeitung adhered to a rigid policy of printing the German name of the GDR in quotes: "DDR," for Deutsche Demokratische Republik. This simple act signaled clearly a refusal to accept the idea of two German states.

By late 1961, West and East Berliners were separated by a wall. The two Germanys were following entirely different economic models. Interesting differences in language emerged.

West Germany, which emulated the American, capitalist, free-market economy known as die freie Marketwirtscaft, used terms such as Arbeitgeber (employer, literally: "giver of work") and Arbeitnehmer (employee, literally: "taker of work.")

East Germany, having adopted a Soviet-style, socialist, planned economy, rejected these terms on the basis of a Marxist interpretation of labor: the employee was the "giver" of work, and the employer, the "taker." East German usage tended to stress the shared nature of labor through words such as das Kollektiv (workers' collective), and das Kombinat (large state-run company).

Roughly 2,000 German words were used solely in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Despite half a century of ideological and physical separation, the German language did not develop into two discrete, national varieties. Some words - such as Volkseigener Betrieb which referred to a state-owned company - were simply made archaic by the wholesale adoption of the West German economic model.

Many of the roughly 2,000 <a title='Learn German in Los Angeles' href='german-language-classes-los-angeles'>German</a> words used solely in East Germany would fall with the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Many of the roughly 2,000 <a title='Learn German in Los Angeles' href='german-language-classes-los-angeles'>German</a> words used solely in East Germany would fall with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Still, many GDR words were retained in both written and spoken German. They were either deeply ingrained, or they perfectly symbolized a past that people needed to talk about when discussing the effects of the political changes.

The word Wende (literally, "turn") became exclusively used to describe these changes. Both sides had to learn new words, or attach new meanings to them. After official and political unification in October 1990, new terms had to be coined to describe the former East and West Germany; for example, die neuen Bundesländer and die alten Bundesländer.

To the victor go the spoils. Several new words had specifically negative connotations toward the former GDR. Abwicklung referred to the liquidation of East German businesses, while Seilschaft described people who had been powerful in the GDR using their authority to obtain new positions in unified Germany.

Some in the east voiced their disappointment and resentment with words like Besserwessi (based on the verb besserwissen "to know better," and wessi for "West") to signal West Germans who thought they were better than East Germans. They used Superossi to refer to other East Germans who are proud to be "from the GDR." In the West, this is countered by Jammerossi (from the verb jammern "to moan," and ossi for "East").

Today, the conscious use of the East German der Broiler rather than das Grillhähnchen for "roast chicken," or die Plaste rather than die Plastik, implies a certain Ostalgie - the tendency to reminisce about the former GDR in post-euphoric regret that its positive features were not preserved. The term is a word-play on the German word nostalgie.

Perhaps the emblem of Ostalgie is the Ampelmännchen ("little traffic light man"), designed in the GDR to make traffic lights safe for the color blind. Standing against early attempts to standardize all traffic signs in the unified Germany to the West German forms, it has achieved cult status and has also become a popular souvenir item among tourists.

Authors Sally Johnson and Natalie Braber, in a book which explores the origins and evolution of the German language, write that restaurants in the former GDR sometimes post signs which say, Hier können Sie Broiler sagen ("You can say 'broiler' here). Keeping less charged GDR vocabulary, they note, became an important part of an East German identity which reunification had deemed to be as defunct as the East German state.

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