German is part of a family of languages known as the Indo-European Languages, which encompass most languages across Europe. Unsurprisingly, German comes from the Germanic family of languages, which encompasses other languages including English, Swedish, Frisian, Dutch, Norwegian and many others. The Danube region is a mixture of Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages that developed over time, as such this means the German language has a number of variations and dialects that occur around this region. The dialect of German that we have been looking at with German migrants is the Southern German and Austrian variant, which is the most dominant in the region. Although, there are a small number of Hungarians who speak German in a slightly different dialect who are known as a Danube Swabians and speak a variant called Danauschwaebisch (Danube Swabian); this is also known as Banataschwaebisch.
The Southern German and Austrian variant of the language has been described as separate from the standard German language, however this does not mean that German speakers in this area did not understand standard German. In fact, linguists have seen that German speakers in this region can speak both dialects, but neither dialect is spoken to perfection over the other and for a German speaker in this region to be fully proficient in one dialect or the other is very rare. In most cases, Southern Germans and Austrians can understand and speak standard German, which means the local dialects are seen the context of social identity. The various dialects within Austria are socially viewed with ambivalence and have meanings depending on the context. An example would be the difference in dialect between Vienna and Graz, with people in both cities viewing each other’s dialects unfavorably due to rivalry; by contrast, people in Innsbruck prefer the dialect from Salzburg and Upper Austria but reject the Viennese variant.
So how does this all relate to German migrants in the UK? Well, when looking at the German language and its history, English is part of the same language family, and so the first instinct is to say that it would be fairly easy for a German speaker to learn English. However, this is not always the case; in fact, many Germans find English quite difficult as there are key differences in the language. When a German speaker starts to learn English, they will find it easier to learn as it has a simpler grammatical structure to sentences. However, as they seek to become more proficient speakers and writers of English, it becomes much harder. Mostly, this is due to the different uses of vowels, with English having a larger number of sounds associated to each vowel such as ‘ay’ in hay, ‘a’ in bat, and ‘ar’ in barge, whereas German only has ‘a’ and ä. In German, this is mainly due to letters and words being associated with what they sound like rather than in English, where words are not spelt as they sound. Another factor that adds to this is the diversity of the English language, with English borrowing many words from other languages such as French and Latin. In contrast, German uses compound words to create new vocabulary such as Flugzeug which translates as Aeroplane in English but literally it combines Flug, which is ‘flying’, and Zeug, which translates as ‘thing’. Finally, verbs and tenses can be confused as there is a lack of correspondence when English uses the simple present to refer to the future tense; so often German speakers will tend to say, ‘I tell him when I see him’ instead of saying ‘I will tell him when I see him. When all these factors are combined with subtleties of English pronunciation, learning the English language at a proficient level is challenging for German speakers.
Looking at the German language in this way shows that, although languages can be closely linked, migrants coming to the UK face a significant challenge when trying to the learn English. But also, when looking at this in the wider context of the Danube region, linguistic differences in languages such as German shape the identity of migrants who comes to UK, and so to understand the people of the Danube, learning the languages that are spoken is crucial to do this fully.
Pereltsvaig, Asya. “Languages of the World: An Introduction”
Stevenson, Patrick. “The German Language and the Real World: Sociolinguistic, Cultural and Pragmatic Perspectives on Contemporary German”
“The differences between English and German” Accessed June 8, 2017 esl.fis.edu/grammar/langdiff/german.htm.
Mallory, J. P. “In Search of the Indo-Europeans”