One nation, two voices

Language and German Disunity
February 13, 2004

In the early 1990s, a friend of mine from East Berlin struck up a conversation with a West German woman. When it emerged that my friend was from the east, her new-found compatriot declared: "Oh, but you can't tell at all!" Underlying what was intended as a compliment on the westerner's part was the assumption that continues to permeate many exchanges between Germans in the formerly divided country: west=good, east=bad.

In this outstanding book, Patrick Stevenson explores how and why so many such "German-German" encounters, in the pre and post-unification period, appeared to result in some form of communicative dissonance. Why did these situations often seem to represent a case of East and West Germans using the same language without necessarily understanding one another? And why does the German language continue to function as such a potent symbol of disunity, even though it was the very fact of a shared language that rendered the unification of the two German states in 1990 so inevitable?

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, "Language, nation and state", Stevenson situates the questione della lingua in Germany within its broader socio-historical context, before moving on to explore the period of political division between 1949 and 1990. Here, he describes the "Byzantine architecture of official discourse" in the German Democratic Republic, showing how, in a system where the interests of party and state were virtually synonymous, official language was permeated by a rhetoric that sought to emphasise the solidity and continuity of socialism. Yet, despite their attempts to shape language in public and semi-public domains, party functionaries appeared pitifully unaware that the constant repetition of such langue de bois could only dull its power to forge political consensus. This was exacerbated by the fact that almost all East Germans had access to western TV and radio, offering them analyses that often undermined official rhetoric.

The rise and fall of the GDR had many complex causes. But it is impossible to deny that language was fundamentally significant, especially when one considers that unification in 1990 came about almost entirely peacefully; it is clear that the GDR was talked both into and out of existence.

As Stevenson emphasises, there was no single official discourse in the GDR that was subsumed by a straightforward discourse of unification. He argues instead that there was a "polyphony of discourses" before and after 1989. That said, there was a key moment shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall when popular chants on the eastern side of the Brandenburg gate mutated from "We are the people" ( Wir sind das Volk ) to "We are one people" ( Wir sind ein Volk ). It was this crucial transition from the self-assertion of the people as "demos" to "ethnos" that in effect sealed the unification process - the sense of ethnos underpinned, not for the first time in German history, by the fact of a shared language.

In the second part of his book, "Relocating 'east' and 'west'", Stevenson turns to the post-unification period between 1990 and 2000. He highlights how a strong sense of deficit surrounding all notion of East, coupled with dominant assumptions that "West is best", quickly gave rise to the stereotypical concepts of the Besser-Wessi (western "know-it-all") and the Jammer-Ossi (whingeing easterner). From a western perspective, this served the all-important function of shoring up a western sense of superiority.

But the author shows how it also acted as a way of scapegoating easterners for the threat to western affluence implied by unification. For East Germans, by contrast, the notion of the Jammer-Ossi presents the problem of whether to suffer in silence or to continue articulating a pervasive sense of injustice, thereby confounding one's status as a "moaning minnie". As Stevenson explains, some East Germans have resorted to the strategy of "polyphonic speaking": through citation and integrating different voices into the stories they tell, they manage to articulate their personal disgruntlement through narratives that avoid self-attribution.

Will the German language continue to function as a potent marker of disunity? Stevenson concludes that "language is neither the problem nor the solution" where German-German dissonance is concerned. This may seem a strange assertion. Yet Stevenson is at the forefront of thinking in this area, not only because his book explores language in a way that interfaces with recent social, cultural and political theory, but because his analyses capture throughout the inherently indexical nature of language as manifest in, and through, communicative practice.

Sally Johnson is professor of linguistics, University of Leeds.

Language and German Disunity: A Sociolinguistic History of East and West in Germany, 1945-2000

Author - Patrick Stevenson
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 5
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 19 829969 9 and 829970 2

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