German & the Neutral Language?

Since I last committed pen to paper with the intention of publishing a blog nearly a whole month of me living in the city of Leipzig has passed. Tomorrow my first lectures and seminars begin after what I have to say has been quite an extended settling-in period.

As mentioned in the previous post, my first three weeks were spent taking part in a language and orientation course during which some events were organised to facilitate us getting our bearings and experiencing some of the culture, alongside there being suggestions almost every night for possible evening’s entertainment. Of the former the Leipziger Buchmesse, which was a huge event for literature of all kinds including a mini comic-con for manga (fun fact: Leipzig is home to the largest goth gathering in Europe) and at which there were several panel discussions going on being filmed for various TV networks, and the opening and closing buffets were the highlights. The first was held in the Moritzbastei semi-subterranean student union, constructed as a fortification in the 16th century, partially destroyed in the Second World War and then reclaimed by students, among them Angela Merkel, in the 1970s.

For the evening activities my favourite would have to be the “Wir feiern Bach” concert at the Kunstkraftwerk in Plagwitz in honour of the composer’s 333rd birthday. The venue was this converted industrial warehouse lit variously in pink blue and green, with a massive winch descending from the ceiling and an iron staircase running up one wall to a lonely door at first-floor level – this was utilised in a call-and-response oboe piece from alternating between atop the steps and amongst the groundlings. We were placed right at the back and simultaneously had front row seats; the performances happened in all corners of the room and these included barber shop quartets, experimental jazz guitar and a local celebrity busker with a 10-euro flute (sounds horrific – it was, and made more so by his wearing of ear defenders to play a full three movement concerto!) as well as the expected choral and classical instrument ensembles. My only criticism would be the three-hour duration without an interval. Nevertheless, it was excellent value for money.

I’ll admit the introductory course really held your hand through the setting-up process of studying at German university and specifically Leipzig, but I think it has eased my anxieties about what tomorrow will bring to some degree. So far, I can say that I like the city’s vibe and, from what I’ve seen, the university culture seems pretty cool. Getting the vulgar out of the way; it’s much cheaper than Hamburg and Edinburgh, especially rent. People are quite relaxed and the Innenstadt has some beautiful public architecture; the library in particular is utterly gorgeous with its marble interior, abundant natural light and self-regulating blinds (which are admittedly unnerving the first time you notice them scroll up unprovoked). Around midday the Mensa opens for two hours and you can get a lot of food for very little money using your student ID as cashless payment – it’s highly efficient and very convenient as a system and makes me kind of despair that there’s not that culture among UK universities. To be frank, the food is far from gourmet, but it suffices and there are always plenty of options.

Ok, so you’re waxing lyrical about infrastructure; I think that’s really best left to concept albums from Kraftwerk and Public Service Broadcasting don’t you? What about the people you’ve met?

Ah yes, you might be surprised to hear that I have actually bumped into a few of those during the past month. Not always very good about talking about other people in this blog, it’s all a bit introspective as a literature student might say (wait what?)

Flatmates might be a good place to start. To save myself the trauma of going on the Wohnungssuche again, I reserved a place in a Studentenwohnheim – basically halls. This form of accommodation is actually pretty unpopular for German students, so their now being filled up with college students and people doing their Abitur (secondary school leaving qualification) – this applies to my two Mitbewohner who are from Uzbekistan and Syria respectively, the latter being a refugee of Palestinian heritage. They are both very friendly and helped me get my internet set up when I first moved in. I’ve also now got 5000 Uzbekistani som in my possession (traded at the extortionate rate of one pound sterling).

Yes, and then there are the Erasmus, or more accurately international, students as of yet existing in our own microcosm of blind leading blind, but this week released into the real world of Universität Leipzig. Italians make up the largest constituent of the group and there are quite a lot from China, add to this Korea, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, USA, France, South Africa, Brazil, Portugal for a flavour of some of the other nationalities, oh and there is a surprisingly large Manchester contingent.

Since moving here I’ve reassessed my relationship with the English language. Although I’m using German as an Alltagssprache of day-to-day business, we speak it in our flat even though none is a native speaker, I employ it when talking to other Erasmus students whose English isn’t as strong as an equaliser and of course in the presence of actual Germans, English does seem to be the default international language. On the one hand that’s incredibly practical and allows you to be the truest version of yourself in social situations, barring complex phraseology (from my time as a teaching assistant I’ve become more used to simplifying and repeating what I say in different words) and using too much of a regional inflection – which I suppose is a kind of betrayal but worth it to be understood, and after all, standard English is also my native language. It’s just sometimes I’m in a group of say six people and I look around and account for all the nationalities/languages and wonder why it should be that although only one or two of us are English native speakers, the conversation is in English. It seems unfair that this should be the case; my advantage is undeserved.

I’m grateful for having grown up where I did because it makes travel and contact with other nationalities incredibly easy, but I’ll also never have the experience of having to employ the dominant international language abroad as a lingua franca.

The effect here is kind of a neutralising one that makes English seem like a base-level language after David Hume (writing as a thoroughly Anglicised Scotsman during the Enlightenment) “the ENGLISH, of any people in the universe, have the least of a national character.” This is obviously not the case, but one can’t help but feel that in these situations. Another effect of English spoken as a language in common is that it feels as if everyone is sort of playing diluted, watered-down versions of themselves on this level playing field and I have this inherent upper hand. It makes English feel rather soulless and not the language of true feeling if that makes any sense at all.

At the beginning of this year I watched a German film called Toni Erdmann which I think sums up this idea quite well. The German class I’d been working with were going to be analysing this in school; something I think was a strange choice considering the film’s exceedingly bleak or very darkly comic tone, extended “love” (more accurately loveless) scene which culminates in the consumption of a semen-smeared cupcake and the film’s climactic final scenes hinging upon extensive nudity as a crucial plot point. This was not the choice of the school, I hasten to add, but the Hamburg education authority; the scenes were going to be cut but I don’t see how they could properly assess the piece without them – needless to say I changed by timetable (but not just because of that).

Anyway, the basic premise of the film is that a 60-something German’s 30-something daughter never has time to se him because she’s working for this multinational company in Romania which completely absorbs her and deals with most of its customers in English. In order to get back into the daughter’s life, her father poses as a client, Toni Erdmann – forcing her to interact with him in a business capacity.

Here the English language is presented in terms of the globalising, depersonalised and disingenuous means of communication. The interests of the Romanians are shoved aside and the daughter flatters and accommodates her business connections’ every whim in flawless English, whilst her British assistant helps arrange her professional life in noticeably fumbling German. It’s a fascinating multilingual film that is far from an easy watch but that really puts language into the spotlight as well as being a critique of global capitalism. Silence also plays a significant role with restrained use of soundtrack and minimal dialogue in the final scenes. German speakers will get more out of it, but I would thoroughly recommend regardless.

I realise this stirs up more questions than answers, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately! It’s probably too late for Esperanto and gone are the days of Latin as a neutral language (these are both very Eurocentric suggestions anyway). I’m not sure what the solution is, maybe there’s not even much of a problem. In any case I think it’s an interesting issue.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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1 Response to German & the Neutral Language?

  1. It is definitely an interesting issue you have put up here Flett!
    I totally agree with you…No matter how much “neutral” a language poses itself to be, it remains the cultural currency of its speakers despite of the socio-economic forces that operate.
    But the new thing you’ve pointed out here is the fallacy of Esperanto (If i may term it that way)
    I would surely like to read more about that!

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