Do East and West Germans still speak a different language?
Read a German version of this text.
On 12 September 1990, about ten months after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the foreign ministers of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) met with their French, American, British, and Soviet counterparts in Moscow to sign the so-called Two-Plus-Four Treaty. This paved the way for the German Reunification, which was finalized roughly one month later, on 3 October – the Tag der Deutschen Einheit (‘Day of the German Unity’) – when the five eastern states officially joined the FRG.
It’s now been 25 years since these events took place, and, as Germany is looking forward to celebrating the anniversary of its reunification on Saturday, one can expect the German press to commemorate this special date as usual – with a myriad of articles exploring the supposed differences that supposedly still exist between East and West. In the past, such discussions have typically focused on the question of whether the East German economy has finally caught up with the West’s (no, it hasn’t), but what about the linguistic legacy of the GDR?
German was, of course, the official language spoken in both the GDR and the FRG. But still, the two states weren’t just separated by a geopolitical border. GDR politicians were keen on forcing a linguistic division by creating a vocabulary that was supposed to distinguish them from their enemy neighbours – an attempt that frequently yielded humorous results.
A language division?
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the language used at that time reflected the GDR regime’s socialist ideology. For instance, the official name of the GDR was Arbeiter-und-Bauern-Staat (‘workers and peasants’ state’) – so called in accordance with the Marxist-Leninist world view of the East German state. Similarly, the Wall was officially known as Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’). The term Schutzwall has defensive connotations and is hence used euphemistically here, giving the impression that the people of the GDR had to be protected from an outside threat.
Socialist ideologies also infiltrated everyday language use. The lexicon of the GDR differed quite a bit from that of the FRG in that it deliberately borrowed words from Russian while the latter was awash with Americanisms, indicating the political alignment of each state. While in the West a space traveller was called Astronaut, to use an oft-cited example, in the East they said Kosmonaut, cognate with the Russian космона́вт. Furthermore, on weekends the people of the GDR would spend time relaxing in their Datsche (‘summerhouse’), taken from Russian дача, or take part in a Subbotnik (from суббота ‘Saturday’) to do some (not quite) voluntary community work.
Apart from Russian loanwords, the GDR jargon was filled with convoluted technical terms. A canteen was referred to as a Werkküche (‘work kitchen’), a swimming pool turned into the equally political charged Volksschwimmhalle (‘people’s swimming hall’), and to order a side dish in a restaurant one had to ask for a Sättigungsbeilage (‘filling side dish’). Officially, there were no Krankenhäuser (‘hospitals’) in East Germany, but Polikliniken, and students attended a Polytechnische Oberschule (‘Polytechnic Secondary School’), the standard type of school in the school system of the GDR.
As the state wanted to promote atheism, words with religious connotations also had to be mostly avoided. Thus, Weihnachtsgeld (‘Christmas bonus’) became Jahresendsprämie (‘year-end bonus’) – a decision that led to the satirical coinage of the term geflügelte Jahresendsfigur (‘winged year-end figure’) for Weihnachtsengel (‘Christmas angel’). This term was, of course, not a word that people actively used as it is sometimes assumed. Its sole function was to parody the language politics of the GDR.
The linguistic legacy of the GDR
Having grown up in the eastern part of a unified Germany, such words sound as alien and comical to me as they probably would to someone from the West. Obviously, a lot of them lost their function because of the economic and political changes that took place after the collapse of the GDR. The Ausreiseantrag (‘exit visa’) became obsolete once the borders were opened and people were free to travel between East and West. You’d also have difficulties finding an Intershop anywhere in today’s East Germany – a shop where foreign goods and top-quality GDR goods were sold for freely convertible currency. But, with so many words now gone out of active use, are there any that have survived the Fall of the Wall?
For a start, although I do my shopping at the Supermarkt (‘supermarket’) nowadays, many East Germans are still familiar with the terms Konsum (‘cooperative shop’) or Kaufhalle (‘shopping hall’). Their usage, however, tends to be restricted to rural areas in East Germany only. I also use a Plastetüte (‘plastic bag’), rather than a Plastiktüte to pack my shopping. These two words in particular might seem innocuous to an outsider, but for Germans the Plaste vs. Plastik question constitutes a national controversy. (I’ll stop here without elaborating further.)
You also need to be careful with your answer when asked what time it is. Saying Viertel Neun (‘quarter nine’) or Dreiviertel Neun (‘three quarters nine’) instead of Viertel nach Acht (‘quarter past eight’) or Viertel vor Acht (‘quarter to eight’) is often assumed to be an East German peculiarity. I’ve sat through many discussions with West German friends, trying to explain to them the logic behind these expressions – often to no avail. However, it is a misconception that this is an East/West issue. East Germans generally understand and use both forms, but these are regional variants that also exist in parts of West Germany.
Leistungskontrolle (‘efficency control’) and Kurzkontrolle (‘short control’) are more unlikely to sound familiar to a West German. In East German schools, that’s still what we call exams or short tests. We also had a Polylux at school, which was the generic name for Overheadprojektor (‘overhead projector’) in the GDR that is still widely used today. In fact, the word is so popular in the East that I remember my university professor being thoroughly mocked when he referred to the device with its more common name Overheadprojektor.
While these are some terms from the former GDR that are still in use, it would be wrong to assume that their usage was restricted to the eastern part of the Federal Republic. A lot of the examples mentioned here are probably well known to West Germans, too, and quite a few of them actually made it into the gesamtdeutsche (‘all-German’) lexicon. For instance, the terms Ossi and Wessi, short for East German and West German, never actually left the vocabulary. Today, they are mostly used as a form of insult by each side, though.
In the media and everyday conversations, Germans still often speak about Ostdeutschland (‘East Germany’) and Westdeutschland (‘West Germany’) when discussing any economic or social differences that might still exist between the two parts of the country. However, attempts have been made to replace them with the more neutral designations neue (Bundes-) Länder (‘new states’, for East German states) and alte (Bundes-) Länder (‘old states’, for West German states). One of the reasons for this is that geographically, states like Thüringen and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern are not actually located in the East, but in central and northern Germany respectively. Moreover, the names appear anachronistic when used not in a historical context, but to point to the current political situation in Germany, as they contain a reference to a division that ceased to exist 25 years ago.
With that being said, this rather short overview is far from being exhaustive. The topic of language use in the GDR is so vast that it has filled many books. If you’re a German speaker, and can think of any other East/West differences, feel free to add them in the comments below.