Save our Deutsch! Can the German language be saved by a sentence in the Grundgesetz?

If you’re an American expat living in Germany, you’ve heard this debate before — in the U.S.

It’s such a simple little sentence that some people want to insert into the German constitution: “Die Sprache der Bundesrepublik ist Deutsch.” (“The language of the Federal Republic [of Germany] is German.”) Who would have thought that five German words could provoke such a debate? This quote from Berlin’s Tagesspiegel sums it up pretty well: “Die Idee der CDU, die deutsche Sprache im Grundgesetz zu verankern, hat eine heftige Diskussion ausgelöst: Läutet der Beschluss einen ‘Anti-Einwanderer-Wahlkampf’ ein oder die Rettung der deutschen Leitkultur?” (“The CDU’s idea to anchor the German language in the German constitution has set off a vigorous discussion: Does the resolution herald an ‘anti-immigrant campaign’ or the rescue of the German core culture?”)

When the German language gets mixed into German politics, the results are rarely good. What the Nazis did in the name of spreading and preserving a “pure” German language has ugly ramifications to this day. The recent CDU proposal (against the wishes of German chancellor and CDU head Angela Merkel) has echos of the German “Leitkultur” minority integration debate and that political controversy back in 2000.

Yes, there is German humor!
Not without a nice touch of ironic humor, some German journalists have asked “which German” does the CDU party want to save? Bureaucratic German, legal German, boulevard-newspaper German, Der Spiegel German, or perhaps Bavarian German? In a nod to the many dialects of German, Helmut Schümann asks: “Deutsch ins Grundgesetz? Das wäre anti-schwäbisch!” (“German in the constitution? That would be anti-Swabian!”).

Very predictably, the Verein Deutsche Sprache e.V. (VDS, German Language Association) has come out in favor of the CDU’s constitutional amendment. The VDS has long decried the growing use of English in German (so-called “Denglish”) and thinks somehow that a new sentence in the German Grundgesetz will put a stop to such nonsense. Even before the CDU proposal, the association was out collecting signatures to put German in the German constitution, as 17 other EU countries have done (including neighboring Austria).

Many supporters of putting German in the constitution cite these 17 countries in support of the cause, but they fail to mention that the countries who do not have such a clause in their constitution (or like the United Kingdom, have no constitution at all) are somehow surviving without it. Some of the EU nations with such a constitutional provision have done so out of fear. Latvia protects the Latvian language as a defensive measure against Russian. France did not have anything about French in its constitution until 1996. Belgium’s constitution recognizes not one language, but the four “language regions” in that nation (French, Dutch/Flemish, German, and the French-Flemish capital city, Brussels). Few of the English-speaking countries have any constitutional clauses protecting English. Neither Australia nor the U.S. have constitutional protection (although about half of the states in the U.S. do).

German is different
German is not like most other European languages — in more ways than one. For one thing, unlike French or English, German never had a capital city (like London or Paris) or normative influences like the Academie français. Far more than geopolitical factors, German was standardized through religion (Martin Luther’s Bible) and literature (Goethe’s Werther). But spoken German today is still a wide range of regional dialects!

The Germans also came late to the colonization game. Despite its reputation for starting wars, Prussia/Germany proved to be rather lousy at spreading the German language and culture beyond Europe. Contrast that with the British empire, upon which the sun never set. For better or worse, the French still have former colonial outposts in Africa, the Caribbean, North America (Quebec), and other parts of the globe. There are 25 Spanish-speaking countries countries on five continents (and an estimated 41 million Spanish-speakers in the U.S.).

We sometimes forget that there was no Germany until 1871. Until then it was a motley quilt-work collection of kingdoms, duchies, and principalities. Not until the late 1800s did Germany make any serious attempts at colonization — all brought to a screeching stop by the First World War and Germany’s defeat in 1918. Most Germans don’t even know about their country’s former colonies in Africa, the Pacific, and even China. That’s mostly because there is little trace of German in any of those colonies, some of which were under German control for only a decade or less. In African Namibia today (former German South West Africa) the official language is English (with Afrikaans, German, and Oshiwambo recognized as minority languages). The Austrian Habsburg Empire’s Mexican adventure with Maximilian was also doomed to failure.

So German is spoken by about 100 million people today, almost all of them in Europe. Even in Europe, German “don’t get no respect!” Despite German complaints, the European Union publishes all of its official documents only in English and French, even though more Europeans speak German than any other single language in the EU. At the United Nations, German is not one of the official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) either.

So the Germans have a complex about their language. No wonder that 73 percent of Germans in a recent poll (after the CDU proposal) said they were in favor of putting German into the constitution.

Leave it to Die Zeit, one of my favorite German newspapers, to point out to Germans that this language-in-the-constitution debate is not confined to Germany. The U.S. has its own ProEnglish and U.S. English groups that want an official-English clause in the U.S. Constitution, but it’s just as bad an idea for the U.S. as it is for Germany. Usually, when countries stick language into their constitution, it’s a sign of insecurity and an inferiority complex. Efforts to strengthen the majority language in the USA or Germany would be better directed at improving education and the use of language by its citizens. A sentence in the constitution does nothing to help bring that about.

WEB > Grundgesetz und Oberlehrer: Die deutsche Sprache braucht die Verfassung nicht (Süddeutsche Zeitung)
WEB > Manager haben keine Lust mehr auf Englisch – Englisch ist out. Englisch auf Rückzug (Die Welt)
WEB > Sprache ist Wandel (Tagesspiegel)
WEB > Liebes Deutsch – Franz Josef Wagner (Bild)
WEB > Man spricht Deutsch – David Hugendick (Die Zeit)
WEB > AboutGerman.net (learn German)
WEB > The German Language (The German Way)