Northern German accent in its last generation, experts say

Northern German accent in its last generation, experts say
Photo: DPA
The northern German accent is dying out. The quirky regional manner of speech has become more homogeneous and won’t be passed on to young people, language experts said Monday.

“It’s the last generation,” said Kiel German language professor Michael Elmentaler.

Characteristic to prominent Germans such as recently deceased Loki Schmidt, Heidi Kabel and Günter Gaus, the staccato dialect is most closely associated with Hamburg. Instead of the “sch” sound, speakers use simply an “s,” usually separated by a brief pause before the consonant that follows.

The accent, which is influenced by Plattdeutsch, or Low German, was spoken throughout the Hanseatic League and became the prominent form of speech for most of northern Germany before the 16th century.

But by the 19th century this began to change, says Elmentaler, who has just completed a 12-year study of the regional accent.

According to his findings, in 1998 almost all northern Germans older than 70 still spoke with northern inflection. Meanwhile only 30 percent of those under 61, and none younger than 40 were familiar with it.

The development is part of what Elmentaler calls a “de-regionalization” of the accent, though he said “it will never come to pass that everyone speaks the same” because many Germans are actively preserving their language.

“The tendency in the north as well as the south is heading toward a similar standard,” confirmed Augsburg professor Werner König, explaining that today the use of a clear German was more important at work than in the days when most tasks were completed by hand.

While the lilting southern German dialect is often looked down upon by northern Germans, whose speech is closest to the standard High German, König said the northerners make their own mistakes.

“Of course that is wrong according to articulation experts,” he said in reference to the northern German tendency to leave the “p” off of words like Pferd, or horse.

But König rejected placing value judgements on regional accents and dialects, citing Norway’s educational system as Europe’s best example for language preservation. Since 1878, teachers in the Scandinavian country have been forbidden from chiding students for their different regional accents, he said.


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