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Thinking in tongues

Posted by Richard on UTC 2018-11-12 09:56.

A little over two years ago we presented a translation of part of Martin Walser's (1927-) account of a walk from Wasserburg am Bodensee to Langenargen, two towns on the south-eastern shore of the Lake of Constance. The walk was described through the eyes and language of a ten year-old boy.

In our recent piece on Albrecht von Haller we argued that in order even to begin to understand Haller, his poetry and his biography, it was necessary to understand the role of Bernese dialect (and Swiss dialect in general) in Haller's poetry and in his personality.

These two strands merge in a speech that Walser gave on 18 June 1967 on the occasion of the award to him of the Bodensee-Literaturpreis. Walser was brought up speaking a dialect of German called Alemannisch, Alemannic, a name derived from the name given to the local tribes by the Romans, the Alemanni. The dividing lines between the Alemanni, who occupied what is now southern Germany and Alsace, and the neighbouring tribe, the Helvetii, in what is now Switzerland, are extremely diffuse.

The present day situation is that, to the great delight of linguists, the entire region is divisible into areas – sometimes as small as a cluster of villages – the inhabitants of which speak some variant of this great dialect family. The modern speakers of these dialects can understand each other with little difficulty. Your author has attended numerous baffling meetings held in a cacophony of dialect variants.

Figures of Speech is a website in English. It would be an impossible task to translate Walser's talk and especially the many examples he provides in a way that would make sense to someone who does not speak German. But Walser's categorisation of the psychological differences between written German and spoken dialect is interesting and adds some weight to our thesis about the importance of Bernese dialect to Albrecht Haller. Let's have a crack at a few excerpts from Walser's talk that express some of the the key points of his speech.

Martin Walser on the shore of the Lake of Constance, ©Frank Röth, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Martin Walser among the reeds on the shore of the Lake of Constance. Image ©Frank Röth, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Martin Walser: Remarks about our dialect

For the last 150 years, anyone from these parts who wanted to be anyone imitated the speech of the civil servants from Munich or Stuttgart who had moved here. Munich Bavarian and Stuttgart Swabian became status markers. The Alemannic of the natives became a sign of an inadequate upbringing and education, the imitation of the Bavarian or Swabian, on the other hand, a career marker.

Wer in den letzten 150 Jahren hier etwas gelten wollte, hat die zugezogenen Münchner oder Stuttgarter Beamten imitiert. Münchner Bairisch und Stuttgarter Schwäbisch sind zu bürgerlichen Standesmerkmalen geworden. Das Alemannische der Eingeborenen wurde zu einem Ausweis für mangelnde Erzogenheit und Bildung, die Imitation des Bairischen und Schwäbischen zu einem Karriere-Indiz.

As time goes by the dialect speaker loses courage and independence, one does not trust oneself that one can still speak this orally sensitive language. One only still thinks in it. One hears it only with a single ear, which is deeply hidden in the body. That does not imply that it is difficult for a person to keep such a dialect alive. Not at all. This dialect, as the first language, has clearly had an effect on all the senses. It is, even when one can no longer speak it, the extreme opposite of a dead language. All the languages which one later learns and gets to know are routed through the dialect. As the first language it takes control of the ear and tongue and all the conscious and unconscious interactions between the muscles of expression and silence. Since one can never get rid of this mother tongue, one starts to ask oneself whether it is an obstruction, a continual obstacle to expression and cause of slowness, or whether one has something for which one should be grateful.

Mit der Zeit verliert man dann auch den Mut und die Unbefangenheit, man verläßt sich nicht mehr darauf, daß man diese lautempfindlichste Sprache noch kann. Man denkt sie nur noch. Hört sie nur noch mit einem Ohr, das tief im Kopf versteckt ist. Das soll nicht heißen, daß es etwa Mühe mache, so einen Dialekt inzüchtig am Leben zu erhalten. Das überhaupt nicht. Dieser Dialekt, als die erste Sprache, hat sich offenbar auf alle Sinne ausgewirkt, er ist, selbst wenn man ihn nie mehr sprechen kann, das äußerste Gegenteil einer toten Sprache. Alle Sprachen, die man nach ihm noch lernt und kennenlernt, werden durch ihn gerichtet: er als die erste Sprache besitzt Ohr und Zunge und alle willkürlich und unwillkürlich zusammenarbeitenden Muskulaturen des Ausdrucks und des Schweigens. Da man diese Muttersprache also keinesfalls loswird, beginnt man sich zu fragen, ob sie eine Hemmung sei, eine andauernde Ausdrucksbeschwernis und Langsamkeit oder ob man ihr auch etwas zu verdanken habe.

I attempted to translate this whole statement [from High German] into the form of Alemannic with which I grew up. It didn't work. A High German sentence does not become dialect, when one simply speaks it with a dialect [accent]. The most important words of such a [High German] statement do not exist in Alemannic.

Ich habe den Versuch gemacht, diese ganze Erklärung zu übersetzen in die Art Alemannisch, in der ich aufgewachsen bin. Es ging nicht. Ein hochdeutscher Satz ist eben noch nicht Dialekt, wenn man ihn bloß im Dialekt ausspricht. Die wichtigsten Wörter einer solchen Erklärung gibt es aber im Alemannischen nicht.

We now know the importance of the first three or five years of life for behaviour; and the behaviour as far as language is concerned is with certainty influenced for life in these early years. We acquire patterns of receptivity from which we cannot easily escape. Whoever grows up entirely and hermetically in an ancient dialect, which for many reasons has never become a dominant language or even a written language, for them a lifelong tension arises between the mother tongue and High German; he or she is in the deepest way bilingual…

Wie wichtig die ersten 3 oder 5 Lebensjahre für das Verhalten sind, weiß man jetzt; und das Verhalten der Sprache gegenüber wird sicher ebenso lebenslänglich in diesen frühen Zeiten geprägt. Da werden Empfindlichkeitsmuster in uns erzeugt, denen wir nicht mehr leicht entkommen. Wer also ganz und gar und geradezu hermetisch in einem uralten Dialekt aufgewachsen ist, der aus vielen Gründen keine herrschende Sprache und keine Schriftsprache geworden ist, dem entsteht zwischen seiner Muttersprache und der hochdeutschen Sprache eine lebenslängliche Spannung; er ist auf die heimlichste Art ein »bilingue«…


Excerpted from Martin Walser, 'Bemerkungen über unseren Dialekt'. Rede in Überlingen anläßlich der Verleihung des Bodensee-Literaturpreises am 18. Juni 1967. Reproduced in Heimatkunde: Aufsätze und Reden, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1968, p 51-57. Translation ©FoS.

Some images of the scurrilous fountain in Überlingen dedicated to Walser created by the local sculptor Peter Lenk can be seen on the sculptor's website. [Note: it is a mystery why an artist who creates public sculptures and lives off his reputation should lock down with copyright all the photographs of his works on his website.]