Shame plays a significant role in language. Everyone uses a language, and a society can distinguish insiders and outsiders according to arbitrary linguistic criteria. For example, one can declare that the person who says, “I’m not,” to be educated and sophisticated, but the one who says, “I ain’t,” to be provincial and backwards. What if we made a rule to say that “I ain’t” is correct? The rule is arbitrary, but it creates real divisions by shaming those who say the latter.
Germany teaches a standard literary dialect called Hochdeutsch, or “High German,” to all its citizens, while at the same time includes a dizzying number of dialects, some of which remain incomprehensible to fellow-citizens. Germany follows a strong national agenda, with the idea that Germany should be unified and so works to level differences among its citizens. One sees that the purveyors of High German shame speakers of dialects.
Before I go further, let me explain my focus on German. I do not critique Germany because of any dislike of German culture. The mechanism that I will lay out here applies to many countries, including France, the UK, and even the US. The example I found happens to come from Germany and to link with my personal experience.
In this interview you can hear the TV presenter set up the interviewee, actress Katrin Bauerfeind, for this trap. At 6:17 the interviewer announces, “One can’t hear it, but Katrin Bauerfeind is Swabian! Did you really train away your accent?”
She jokes at the expense of her native Schwäbisch or Swabian dialect, spoken in the South of Germany around Stuttgart. She answers, “Yes. I had to. Up until age 21 I spoke with the worst Swabian accent because I come from the East Alps region…I believe it’s the broadest Swabian that one can speak.” She did not show any pride at bilingualism or the ability to speak a unique variety of German. Her pride came at getting rid of the traces of this dialect, although she displays her proficiency in this dialect as she quotes her grandmother in Swabian a little later in the interview.
Coincidentally, I saw this dynamic around this specific dialect multiple times.
My first trip to Germany I spent at a good friend’s place, outside of Stuttgart. His family all spoke the local Swabian dialect. Because of circumstances, I spent a good amount of time with my his grandmother, who spoke this vernacular almost exclusively. Soon enough, her Swabian made distinct impressions on my German, and I got to see first-hand how other German-speakers reacted to it.
My friend and I went to a disco in Stuttgart one night. “Would you like to dance?” I asked one girl. She rejected me completely nonchalantly; she barely even looked at me. I talked to my friend about it. “What did you say?” he asked. I told him. “Ahh! You sound like a farmer, uneducated! Don’t ask her like that. Ask next time in Hochdeutsch.”
Even in the capital of this region, citizens looked down on the local dialect.
When I traveled North to friends near Köln, the impressions were even starker. “Do you have to keep talking like this?” my friend said with a frown. Some gentler people would make excuses for me. “I see. It was your first experience that made an impression.”
No one except my friend’s grandmother congratulated me on speaking multiple German dialects. For everyone else my Swabian was either a joke or annoying.
We need to make the world safe for regional dialects. If we are judging dialects as annoying or uneducated, how can we ever think that languages will stop dying? How can we hope languages will survive while we allow the attitudes that kill them off?