From „goedemorgen“ through „goadn dach“ to „moin moin“

19. Juli 2015 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar


A bilingual sign in Fryslân

I’m nearing the end of my trajectory of this year’s cycling trip northward. I crossed the Rhine, my river, only twice: once in Basel and a second time in Rotterdam. Instead of the river, another theme became the major draw of this journey: snaking along and across borders which are hardly felt at all in a region that epitomises Europe more than any other place. It also bears witness to the liveliness and diversity of the German language. I’ve come to think of German as a language mainly squeezed into a state which despite its bulk is too small to hold it. And even inside, it’s more variegated than one may think even if the dialects are on the wane.

German cracks the seams of the republic in many interesting ways. I’m not even talking of the Swiss and Austrian cases now, but let’s take Alsatian, which seemed alive and well along the streets and in the shops around Colmar and Saverne, used not just by the elderly. Then you have Letzeburgesch, which to me raises the question as to why we Swiss Germans could never think of giving our variety its own brand name – we still call it Schweizerdeutsch, Swiss German. Why not have the same cheek as the Luxemburgers and call it Swiss (it clearly existed before the airline)? We don’t have to go as far as codifying it in writing, and never mind that it’s a bunch of dialects. There’s more unity between them than there is similarity to high German.

I also cycled through the part of the northern Netherlands that calls itself officially Fryslân now and sports bilingual name signs, with the Frisian one on top. Dutch speakers told me that for them (West) Frisian was barely comprehensible, and one girl said that they were too proud to let themselves be understood. Obviously, here too, the spoken language is alive and well, and as much as I inquired, none of the regional museums seems to have an exhibit about the language, as for instance the Ladiners have in Italy. The same was true for the East Frisians in Germany around the town of Leer, where I stayed in a crummy pension in dire need of an update. No museums, little evidence of the language spoken within earshot of the tourist.

 But I did get to talk to a lady and her son on the cemetery of Vreschen-Bokel. She demonstrated a few sentences in Platt to me, it’s her natural medium of family communication. She grew up fatherless, she told me, as her dad had died on the Eastern front when she was a baby. Her granddaughter now lives in the Netherlands for the work and love, and had no problems learning Dutch. The conversation amid the gravestones with their very Dutch-sounding names turned back to Nazi times, with the son raging about Hitler as the worst mass murderer in history, whereupon his mother asked, in a timid voice: is he still alive?

On my way to the Hanse city of Hamburg, I passed through Worpswede, where an artists’ colony once set up shop in the middle of the moor and where Rilke first met his future wife Clara Westhoff (here he also wrote the phrase about being without the fear of missing something, „Dies Ohne-Angst-Sein etwas zu versäumen“, a great motto for my trip). From this culturally holy shrine it’s only a stone’s throw to Säuensiek (which sounds to the German ear as if the sows were sick). Strange place names, such as that of the town I’m writing this in, Buxtehude, would deserve their own blog entry.

In the region of Säuensiek,, I rode off the edge of my last bicycle map, and for a while I had to live with the uncanny feeling of orientating myself only with the help of the sun and of going against the grain of meandering cycle paths. Finally, at a petrol station on the main motorway where Danish and Swedish trucks were parked three rows deep, I found the requisite map which would lead me along the quieter country roads. I congratulated the sales assistant on carrying bicycle maps. She had clearly been puzzled when she greeted me, tanned, gloved and grimy as I was. Hallo, she said as if to a Martian, whereas she used the northern „moin moin“ on her regular local punters.

To come back to my earlier point about the spread of German and German-derived varieties: the highway on which the saleswoman was working, the A7, leads south, as far as the Austrian border, and if you continue across the Brenner pass you get into South Tyrol, where they still speak the language, and if you miss a turn or two, you’ll land in the area of Luserna, 1200 km from here, where a few people still speak Cimbrian, an old variety related to Bavarian. I passed through there four years ago to get a sample of yet another manifestation of that vast language. German has been called a pluricentric language. By cycling around its edges, I experienced a taste of its pluricentric and, one might say, pluriperipheral nature.

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