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A Precious Good - the Brandenburg-Berlinish Language Archive

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Demske and Dr. Elisabeth Berner (r.). Photo: Karla Fritze.

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Demske and Dr. Elisabeth Berner (r.). Photo: Karla Fritze.

“De Farrer woảnt dicht bid Kirch,” teacher Herbert Stertz writes in the questionnaire in front of him. Opposite him sits Anna Wiggert, a widow, who just translated the sentence “the pastor lives near the church” into the dialect of her village for him. The teacher is participating in an unusual initiative. The survey is part of a linguistic study that will lay the groundwork for the Brandenburg-Berlinish dictionary. On the first page he notes the location and date of the conversation: Havelberg, July 28, 1950. 
This scene played out in many other towns and villages of Brandenburg – and in Berlin. Thousands of questionnaires were being filled out during this survey in the 1950s. These and other documents now comprise the treasure trove that is the Brandenburg-Berlinish Language Archive. Former chairholder of History of the German Language Prof. Dr. Joachim Gessinger acquired it from the Saxon Academy of Sciences in Leipzig in 2002. The first 2,000 surveys were digitized in 2016 during a pilot project overseen by Ulrike Demske – Professor of Language History and Variation. The working group is looking to raise more third-party funding to scan the remaining ones in order to preserve these precious cultural assets and make them accessible to researchers and laypeople in a modern format.

“Man jēt prōsnóìjā zāgan” – You go around wishing people happy New Year – answered Berliner Kurt Ossowski in 1959 when asked about local customs on January 1. He filled out column after column of the survey meticulously and – above all – legibly for later generations. The terms for fish stand out: “Kāpfm” for “Karpfen” (carp) or “Štếkolingk” for “Stechling” (stickleback). Users can now find these and many other expressions in the online interactive map developed by Ulrike Demske’s working group. Readers can filter the survey results used in the Brandenburg-Berlinish dictionary by location. About 2,000 of the over 33,000 questionnaires filled out between 1950 and 1959 are now accessible and offer deep insight into the spoken language of the time. They document both lexical and syntactic peculiarities of dialects in Brandenburg, which are firmly rooted in Low German. The material is undoubtedly the dictionary’s most important source, in addition to tape recordings from around 100 places and a vast archive of slips of paper. In 1950, linguist Anneliese Bretschneider, who headed the project at the State University of Potsdam, and her staff began sending out questionnaires to more than 2,000 schools in the region, where local teachers would help long-time residents fill them out. The researchers were quite successful given the over 50% response rate. Particularly helpful for the authors of the dictionary was the fact that 22 versions of the survey were used, offering a broad overview of language usage at the time. The respondents were asked about words and translated sentences on a variety of topics: fishing, agriculture, local customs and traditions, animals, and many more. We now know that for Richard Kühn from Basdorf (today known as Rheinsberg), a “Heuschrecke” (grasshopper) was a “Heuspenzel”, a “Spinne” (spider) was a “Spenn”, a “Stallkaninchen” (rabbit) was a “Kanikel” and dried “Baumnadeln” (spruce needles) were “Nodeln”. These examples document the Low German basis for the dialects used especially in northern Mark Brandenburg.

Dialects deviate from Low German

As is typical of Low German, the dialects lack consonants which – depending on their position in the word – developed only during the High German consonant shift. Yet there are differences between the linguistic basis and its regional development. The dialect spoken in the Mittelmark region is a very good example of it and yet it illustrates a historical process: the various population flows over the centuries. Many characteristics can be traced back to influences of Dutch settlers who came to the region, particularly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Speakers of Low German in the Mittelmark, thus, call a “Kuchen” (cake) a “Kuoken” or “Kuken”, whereas the Low German form is usually “Koken”. In the 1950s’ surveys, a “Regenwurm” (lobworm) is frequently referred to as a “Piermade” and a “Große Waldameise” (horse ant) as a “Pissmiere”– manifestations of how particular historical developments are reflected in vocabulary.

“When I found this treasure, I knew something needed to be done,” remembers Ulrike Demske. “The first surveys were also beginning to yellow.” The obvious solution was to digitize the material. The University funded the project for six months. It took a lot of tedious, painstaking work to upload the many place names and corresponding documents to the online interactive map. “Properly assigning all surveys was challenging,” says staff member Dr. Elisabeth Berner. The online map is based on a database with zip codes linked to the surveys. “Sometimes we had no zip code, or it was no longer up-to-date as a result of Brandenburg’s three local government reorganizations. We had to dig deeper, which was not always easy.”

Language archive also used for teaching 

The digitized Brandenburg-Berlinish Language Archive is already being used by German philology students at the University of Potsdam, mainly for diachronic studies. They are comparing the 1950s’ survey results with a historical model. In the late 19th century, German linguist Georg Wenker compiled 40 sentences – now known as the “Wenker sentences” – and sent them to teachers throughout the German Empire, requesting that they be transcribed in the local dialect. Ultimately, the over 44,000 questionnaires from some 40,000 schools were returned and became the basis for the Sprachatlas des deutsches Reiches – the Language Atlas of the German Empire – from which the Research Center Deutscher Sprachatlas at the University of Marburg emerged. Wenker’s famous sentences include examples such as “Behind our house, there are three beautiful apple trees/three young apple trees with red apples/little red apples” or “The farmers had brought (five) oxen and (nine) cows and (twelve) little sheep out of the village, because they wanted to sell them”. “Now the students are able to compare our material with Wenker’s,” Demske explains. The advantages of this comparative approach are obvious, she adds. “Their own language awareness improves, and a ‘face’ can be put to dictionary work.”

The morphology and syntax of dialects still raise questions

Demske and her colleague Berner are also planning to digitize the remaining surveys. They are applying for the necessary funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG). “If our bid is accepted, we can complete the work in three years,” Berner is certain. The linguists will then be able to use the language archive to examine primarily morphological and syntactic – and, to a lesser extent, lexical – aspects of 20th-century dialects in the region. “For instance, we are particularly interested in how and why word forms change,” explains Demske. You can sometimes still hear it: In the north of Brandenburg, people tend to drop the particle ge- in a word like “gegangen” – and say “gangen”. This language variant has been studied only sporadically. “We don’t always know which verbs take the particle and which don’t ,” Demske says. “It might have something to do with the meaning of the verb or its initial sound.” In addition, there will be more of a focus on sociolinguistic issues. Many respondents left comments on their questions, which allows the Potsdam linguists to deduce their relationship to their dialect. At least this is what initial samples suggest. Some ethnic Sorbian respondents, for example, characterized their German as “awful”. “The comments from the various regions say a lot about how the native dialect was perceived,” confirms Berner, who can hardly wait to go into even greater detail. A vast fertile field awaits her and chairholder Demske: The grammar of Brandenburg-Berlinish dialects and their variability in smaller or larger regions have yet to be systematically studied.

Low German is, therefore, a vast topic. As a regional language, it is protected. Experts find that awareness of regional identities and, thus, regional languages has increased in the wake of globalization. “We who deal with these issues agree that linguistic and cultural heritage needs to be preserved,” underlines Berner. “The few remnants that remain, therefore, need to be protected.”

Text: Petra Görlich
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Alina Grünky
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

The Brandenburg-Berlinish Language Archive can be found at http://www.uni-potsdam.de/guvdds/bbsprarchiv.html. At http://www.bbapotsdam.de, users can access the interactive online map and read the surveys. The originals are kept at the University of Potsdam, Am Neuen Palais, Haus 22, where they are accessible to the public:

Opening hours: 

Tuesday 14:30-17:00 
Wednesday 10:30-13:00 
Thursday 12:30-13:30 
and by appointment 
phone: +49331/977-4265

The Brandenburg-Berlinish Dictionary consists of four volumes and covers much linguistic geography. It comprises the dialects of Brandenburg and Berlin. Both Low German and High German dialects are described. The dictionary began being issued in installments by the German Academy of Sciences in 1968; the Saxon Academy of Sciences in Leipzig took over this task in 1971. In 2001, the dictionary’s compilation ended after 38 issues that all drew on a vast body of research material. The first collections date back to the early 20th century and were assembled by Berlin head teacher Hermann Teuchert.

In German linguistics, the term Low German describes the dialects spoken north of the “Benrath line” – an imaginary line crossing the Rhine River near Benrath (in the vicinity of Düsseldorf) and along the Central German Uplands to Frankfurt (on Oder). The dialects north of this line underwent what experts call the 2nd consonant shift, which concerns the plosives p, t, and k. In High German dialects, they “shifted” to pf/f, ts/s, and ch – depending on their position in the word – in the 7th and 8th centuries but were preserved in Low German. “Planten” for “Pflanzen” and “maken” for “machen” are good examples of it.

By 1880, Georg Wenker had compiled the sentences that would later be named after him. He formulated them in such a way that typical phonological and selected grammatical features would show up when transcribed into the dialects. His objective was to detect boundaries in the linguistic geography. These sentences can be found at de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutscher_Sprachatlas.

The researchers

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Demske studied German language and literature as well as geography at the Universities of Tübingen and Aix-en-Provence. Her doctorate was completed in Tübingen in 1993 and her habilitation at the University of Jena in 1999. After holding a chair at the University of the Saarland, she has been Professor of History and Variation of the German Language at the University of Potsdam since 2011.

Universität Potsdam 
Institut für Germanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam


Dr. Elisabeth Berner studied at the College of Education in Potsdam. She is a certified German and history teacher. In 1983, she completed her doctorate on 19th-century political semantics. She taught and researched for the Professor of the History of the German Language before transferring to the Professor of History and Variation of the German Language in 2010.