German to German Translation Across the Berlin Wall

Published on Dec 4, 2019

by Marcos Dinnerstein

Image: The famous, Socialist Fraternal Kiss from 1979.  

Summary: When the Berlin wall fell, how much had the German language changed? Enough to need a German to German translation?

At the end of WW II, the German city of Berlin was separated by a wall into east and west sections. Broadly speaking, the East was influenced by Soviet Russian culture and the West was influenced by Western Europe and the US. This separation lasted for 40 years, until 1989, and during this time the German language began to evolve along different lines on either side of the wall. 

The net effect, according to some language authorities, was not dramatic. No one spoke of there being an East German or West German dialect. And the estimates are that there were between 800 and 3,000 German words that were completely different or used differently on either side of the Berlin wall. That represents between 1.8 and 3 percent of all German words.

How did the German language in East and West Germany change during the cold war?

We looked at another example in which a language splits into variants. And while these are not quite dialects, the changes are headed in that direction. See our blog, Korean Translation Is Hard. Ask Koreans. In the case of the Korean Language of North and South Korean, the isolation of North Korea from the rest of the world has created a much wider linguistic gap. North Korean defectors have a hard time with language - to say nothing of culture - when they arrive in South Korea. But back to the subject at hand - the German language.

Examples: 

Because there were different foods and consumer goods available on each side of the Berlin wall, terms that were unique to one side on the other were coined. 

In East Germany, there was a word, Muckefuck, that means a coffee substitute. This might have come from 1) a variant or crude version of ‘mocha faux’. or 2) ‘rotten wood’. Since coffee was (and still is) readily available in West Germany there was no need for this term. It’s safe to say this wasn’t a word indicating something delicious. Below you'll see other examples of words that differed.

East German

West German

English

Bemme

belegtes Brot

sandwich

Campingbeutel

Rucksack

backpack

Erdmöbel

Sarg

coffin

Feierabendheim

Seniorenheim

care home

Flebben

Fahrerlaubnis

driving license

Getränkestützpunkt

Getränkeladen

bottle shop

Grüne Minna

Polizeiauto

police car

Kombinat

Konzern

company

Niethosen

Jeans

jeans


Source: Central Berlin Blog

When regions aren’t separated with a hard barrier as they are in the case of North and South Korean and formerly in Berlin, there’s a tendency for regional differences to be erased either through travel, migratory patterns or by people using media in common, such as television, radio or media on the internet.

The regional differences erode over time until there is a new, homogenous version of the language. You see this is the major cities in the South in the US, where there is either no Southern accent or it is greatly diminished as compared to those towns in the South where families stay for generations. In those regions, people continue to speak with a stronger accent.

That’s the case with the German language in a now-united Germany. It's been almost 30 years since the Berlin wall came down. The differences that were arising have receded and are mostly discernible only in people who grew up during the time that the Berlin wall still divided the country. No German translation required.

The inspiration for this blog post was this podcast:

Podcast Allusionist 109 East-West (highly recommended for ‘word nerds’)

Read more
Berlin Wall (from History.com)
West German and East German: A Country Divided by One Language
*Update* Germany's dialect iron curtain still divides the country, study finds

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