- Language and German disunity: A sociolinguistic history of East and West Germany, 1945–2000 by Patrick Stevenson
Patrick Stevenson has published widely on the role of language in Germany’s construction of national identities, on its role in German history since 1989, and especially on the interrelationship between cultural and discursive disunity. Given the complexities of the evolution of the German nation—where, for example, one at times needed to speak of ‘German-German diplomatic relations’—the ambiguity in the subtitle of the book, namely ‘East and West Germany’, reflects both the period of two postwar German states (1949–1990) and the era following (re)unification, in which both ‘East’ and ‘West’ remain part of the public and private vocabulary.
Appropriately, S constructs his analysis around the pivotal year 1990, when the former East German states became part of the Federal Republic of Germany. Part 1 discusses language usage in both East and West Germany during the postwar years, [End Page 545] including under occupation, and especially as the German Democratic Republic developed into what some observers considered to be the model among the Soviet Bloc nations. When it became clear in 1989 that the Soviets would no longer support the East German regime militarily, the movement that would lead to the Wende (‘turning point’) gained momentum, culminating in the unexpected opening of the borders to the West later that year. S acknowledges his status as an outsider (that is, not a German) as he considers change, crises, politics, and especially the notion of difference from a sociolinguistic perspective. Much of this story has, of course, already been told, but it is refreshing and rewarding to follow S’s narrative of both the sociolinguistic history and his careful consideration of the published research on the phenomena.
Part 2 deals with the more recent history since 1990, where S postulates a ‘discursive construction of difference’, one which of course developed out of the multilayered history of the German nation, states, and language. Reaching back to Part 1, S convincingly argues in Ch. 3, ‘Building and un building the GDR’, that neo-German identities find themselves in an ongoing state of being manufactured and contested.
What emerges among the populace is a standard, West German model, the unmarked norm, against which East Germans are measured. As S summarizes, ‘The asymmetry of communicative conditions offers an unpromising prospect for attempts to build well-balanced and tolerant relationships’ (223). Moreover, those interested in persuasive rhetoric (especially businesspersons and politicians, but also those in the media) have adjusted their sales pitches to the audiences they perceive as distinct. S is circumspect in evaluating the role of language in the larger picture; while some observers attempt to identify and, in extreme cases, even find blame in differences in linguistic practice and/or perception within the context of East-West German relations, the analysis S lays out suggests convincingly that language use is a symptom, not a virus. Wherever difference is equated with defectiveness, perceptions of social inequality result.
Overall, there is as much sociology (and psychology) as linguistics in the discussion. While the text appeals to a wider audience, the linguist will want to consult the studies to which S refers for more concrete examples; symptomatic is the absence of an adequate index of linguistic terms and/or examples. Occasional linguistic overgeneralizations (e.g. Bilanz; bearbeiten) will trouble the philologist, as will the translation of anpacken with ‘to get stuck in’. Nonetheless, this study, especially because of its measured tone, copious bibliography, and reasonable conclusions, deserves a wide readership.