Turkish In Germany

Dec 8, 2011 by

BY NELLIE STOECKLE (“Languages of the World”)

On November 4, two members of the National Socialist Underground, a tiny neo-Nazi cell, were found dead in their motor home after evading police for well over a decade. Between 2000 and 2006 the group, composed of just three core members, killed nine people, eight of whom were of Turkish origin. This killing spree was dubbed the “Döner murders,” because many of its victims operated Döner kebab stands, selling a street food popularized by Turkish immigrants. The group claimed responsibility for a 2004 bombing that injured 22 people, mainly Turkish, and in 2007 shot a policewoman in the head. Germany, a country whose current attitude toward ethnic violence can be termed at least vigilant, seems an unlikely candidate for such occurances. Yet the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German domestic intelligence service which is roughly equivalent to the FBI, estimates that 25,000 people belong to far-right groups, and 9,500 of those could be violent (Economist).

Figure 1: German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits a typical Döner kebab stand. These can be found on any street corner, especially in the Neukölln district of Berlin, an area with many immigrants that has acquired the nickname of “Little Istanbul.”

Turkey and Germany seem, upon first glance, an unlikely pairing. Contact began, however, with the seventeenth-century siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks, and resumed when, faced with a post-WWII labor shortage, the Germans began a program to bring Gastarbeitern, or guest workers, into the country. Though the program was initially aimed at young men, entire families began migrating, and the Turkish population took on a much younger age profile because Turkish families tend to have more children than Germans. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, national dialogues emerged about what it meant to be truly German – traditional measures such as a passport meant the exclusion of the Ossis, or East Germans. (The word Ossi derives from ost, the German word for east.) As the two halves of a country struggled to become one again, relations across ethnic bounds became tense.

German is a language of umpteen lengthy compound words – Schadenfreude (joy at the pain of others), and Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzungschild (speed limit sign) spring to mind – and the words for immigrants are no different. To be a foreign member of the workforce is to be an ausländische Arbeitnehmer. (Horrocks) While the meaning of the compound word is innocuous, a more literal translation reveals prejudice: it means an person from an out-country, one who is a work-taker. Because unemployment in the former DDR (East Germany) topped 20% in 2003 and has only recently fallen to 12.3% (as compared to 6.9% in West Germany), the idea of foreigners taking work that should belong to Germans was repugnant to the more conservative members of society (Weber, BBC).

Germany has an interesting linguistic pattern. Because of the occasional mutual incomprehensibility of dialects, many Germans could be considered not to be home-background speakers of Hochdeutsch, or “High German,” the standard form of the language taught in schools (Ironically, Hochdeutsch developed in southern Germany, and its name is a nod to the higher altitudes of mountainous regions like Bavaria). Children routinely toggle between the dialects spoken at home and the technically precise German of school beginning around age 9, upon entering middle school. In one elementary school in Hamburg, German acts as the lingua franca, but other immigrant languages play ever-growing roles. (Gogolin). Because the age distribution of the Turkish population is overwhelmingly skewed towards the young, Turkish functions as a peer group vernacular, especially in urban settings. (Gogolin). Turkish words also become intertwined with German phrases: “Komm her,” meaning “come here,” has acquired the Turkish suffix “lan,” meaning man. This becomes “Komm her, lan,” or “Come here, man,” an amalgamation of languages forged in the furnace of teenage angst. (Horrocks)

Figure 2: A popular bumper sticker from the southern German Bundesland, or province, of Baden-Württemburg; it translates to “We can do anything. Except speak Hochdeutsch.” This attitude of regional rather than national pride is common in Germany.

There is a sense of impermanence, of being caught between two worlds, in the rhetoric of second- and third-generation immigrants. An occasionally imperfect knowledge of both languages, combined with a tendency to switch languages situationally, leads to Halbsprachigkeit, or semi-lingualism. (Horrocks) To outsiders who do not speak both languages, this can be aggravating and seem like semi-competence, but others see it as providing a freedom of choice not available to monolinguists. Additionally, the standard term for an immgrant is der Migrant, which translates most literally to migrant. Though they may have been in Germany for generations, Turks are reminded by German rhetoric that they have to go home again – they are migrants and guest workers. (Horrocks)

The xenophobia of the terror cell is merely an example of a disturbing pattern in contemporary German society. In 2010, Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the board of the Deutsche Bundesbank (the central bank of Germany), wrote a book entitled “Deutschland schafft sich ab,” or, Germany does itself in. It is an anti-immigration treatise which posits, among other things, that the growth of the Turkish will overwhelm the German population by “Eroberung durch Fertilität” – conquest through fertility. He even goes so far as to title a chapter “Poverty and Diversity,”linking the two states. This is by no means a fringe statement – as of May 2011, 1.5 million copies have been sold. As the linguistic interplay between their two languages shows, Turks and Germans have a lot of work to do. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, readily admitted that the German attempt at a multicultural society has failed, and as such, it will be interesting to see how Turkish and German continue to interact in the future. (BBC).


Figure 3: Thilo Sarazin poses in front of promotional art for his controversial book.

********************************************
Works Cited:


“A horror from the past: Angst over a ten-year killing spree by a neo-Nazi group.” The Economist 19 Nov. 2011: n. pag. The Economist. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.


BBC News. “Merkel says German multicultural society has failed.” BBC News. N.p., 17 Oct. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2011. .

Gogolin, Ingrid. Linguistic Diversity and New Minorities in Europe. Strasbourg: Universität Hamburg, 2002. Print.

Horrocks, David, and Eva Kolinsky. Turkish culture in German society today. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1996. Print.

Sarazin, Thilo. Deutschland schafft sich ab. Munich: Random House, 2010. Print.

Weber, Tim. “Waiting for the East to flourish.” BBC News. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. .


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  • language artists of the world

    Brilliant!

  • TigerEyes

    Using "lan" as a suffix, reminds me of the use of "la" as a suffix by Singaporeans speaking English.

    I think its an emphasis marker, "no, la" indicates you really don't understand do you, in my experience always used in good humour.

  • Brenda

    A couple of remarks on some of the details:

    I would disagree that the formation of the phrase "ausländische Arbeitnehmer" shows any particular prejudice. "Arbeitnehmer" is one of the standard words in German for "employee" — one who takes a job — as opposed to "Arbeitgeber" — one who gives a job (employer). There's no implication of taking away jobs from others.

    The term "Hochdeutsch" is a bit confusing because there are a couple of different meanings. It can refer to geography (from the "highlands" as opposed to the "lowlands") or to a dialect that is socially higher-prestige than other dialects. It's therefore a bit misleading to say that Hochdeutsch is based on the language of southern Germany. As I understand it, contemporary standard German is an artifical mixture of a variety of dialects. The central German dialects played a substantial role because of the influence of Martin Luther and German enlightenment thinkers.

  • John Cowan

    Indeed, standard German is essentially Middle German spoken using Low German phonology.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thank you for the good points on High German, Brenda and John!