A few weeks ago, Elsa Huber was buried in a Munich cemetery. She lived to be almost 100 years old and was one of the last guard of city women who use a language known as fine old Munich in their conversations. This idiom sounds a bit elegant and casual, the articulation is reminiscent of Italian and French and, last but not least, onomatopoeic remnants of official language from the time of the monarchy and from a long-gone rural culture.
In a recent conversation, Elsa Huber described her cat’s purring: “That’s when d’Katz started rogling.” This example is a piece of the mosaic from the cosmos of the disappearing city language that brings joy just to listen to. This idiom can still be heard occasionally in coffee houses, you just have to keep your ears sharp when older women are talking who address each other by their first names, but still as you.
How rapidly everyday language is changing is expressed in a satirical exaggeration in the comedy “A scheene Leich” by Gerhard Polt and the Well brothers. In the piece, a sole heiress appears, whose exaggerated expression is full of boastful anglicisms, which shrilly underline the uninhibited egocentricity on display.
In a rapidly growing city like Munich, dozens of languages are now heard in everyday life. Nevertheless, a language must emerge on the basis of which general understanding is possible, says scientist Alfred Bammesberger. However, this new city language has little in common with the Bavarian language previously spoken in Munich. This change prompted the 85-year-old from Bammesberg to write a book that can be understood as a wistful look back at the Munich dialect (“Munich. For those who really want to be able to do it”, Volk Verlag).
The book does not offer easy fare for laypeople, as it deals with the categories of grammar and the finer points of a strict set of rules. “Dasn da Deife hoi!” is the old Munich subjunctive, the wish that the devil will take the other person. But you also come across linguistic relics such as the previously common command form “Kaffts Radi!” (buys radishes), which is said to go back to a trader who asked customers to buy radishes, but could only offer turnips.
The word Radi appears in almost every dialect book because the relationship to Latin (radix, root) is unmistakable. This makes it clear how many sources Bavarian draws from, a language region with more than 13 million people that stretches from northern Bavaria to South Tyrol.
Johann Andreas Schmeller presented this dialect area as an autonomous linguistic system as early as the 19th century. His “Bavarian Dictionary” is still the measure of all things today. In addition, countless specialist books on Bavarian have been published. In addition to Bammesberger’s work, there are currently other new publications by grand masters of the subject on the table.
Anthony Rowley presented a language history (“Boarisch-Boirisch-Bairisch”, Verlag Friedrich Pustet), who was head of the editorial team of the Bavarian Dictionary until 2019. In his book, which is based on his lectures at Munich University, he goes on a journey from the Celts to the present day. Although not all of his theses on the early medieval genesis of Bavarian are uncontroversial, they do provide an illuminating overall view of the development and change of languages in general. Rowley rejects the theory that Bavarian language is on the verge of extinction. The imminent disappearance of the dialects was predicted as early as the 1880s, he writes.
In her book “Hunt samma scho” (publisher Samples Stecher), linguist Elfriede Holzer limits herself to the variety of Bavarian spoken in Lower Bavaria. Among other things, she recognizes similarities with English, for example in the extended forms with the verb do. These are dismissed as indelicate forms of speech (“It doesn’t please God . . .”), but were even used by Goethe. The to-do paraphrase is also common in English.
The often confusing idiosyncrasy of the dialect (“meim Bruadan sein Wei ihra dog”, that is the brother’s wife’s dog) extends to the influences of Slavic. This is clearly visible in the porcini mushroom, which in the Bavarian Forest is called Dobernigl (nigl=little guy, dobry=good).
This Monday (7 p.m., Regensburg State Library), Ludwig Zehetner, who is often referred to as the dialect pope, is presenting volume 5 of his major work “Basst scho” (Edition Vulpes). According to Zehetner, Bavarian represents an independent linguistic system. And anyone who wants to know what verbs like twistamanschieren and verurassen are all about will be well served here.
It is becoming increasingly important to study regional language history, says Rowley. Last but not least, it is about understanding social developments. It remains a mystery why publishers often provide their books about language and dialects with covers that show old men, lederhosen and chamois beards. A science that has so much exciting and important things to say is presented like cheap Hollarädullijä. And that is “not very comfortable,” as Elsa Huber would have described this mishap.