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Culture : One Germany, Two Languages, Much Confusion : East and West developed their own lexicons during 40 years of separation. Some variations are minor, but others reflect different ways of looking at the world.

August 16, 1994|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HALLE, Germany — "When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer," George Orwell remarked in the politically befouled climate of 1946, at the dawn of the Cold War. He delivered himself of this pronouncement in his enduring essay "Politics and the English Language" three years prior to the founding of the German Democratic Republic and nearly two decades before bricklayers fell to work on the Berlin Wall, a.k.a. der antifaschistische Schutzwall , or anti-fascist protective wall.

But as is almost always true of Orwell, the man was dead right. The contrasting fortunes of written and spoken German in the two successor states to the Third Reich are more than proof enough.

No sooner did the Wall come down in 1989 than western and eastern Germans discovered thatthey had developed often ludicrously different ways of communicating during their 40 years of separation. Some differences were minor vocabulary quirks--each side had come up with its own word for "grocery bag," for instance--but in many cases the linguistic variations were politically charged, the stuff of two wholly separate ways of looking at things.

Now that the process of German reunification is often proving to be an awkward business for all parties, with easterners resenting the west and vice versa, language is turning out to be one more factor underlining--and at times perpetuating--the national divide.

"People in the east want to learn western German," says Ingrid Kuehn, a scholar of German language and literature at Martin Luther University in the eastern city of Halle. "But, of course, they don't know all the words, so they mix things up. They will be talking with a westerner about their 'work team,' and all of a sudden they'll forget and slip in the word ' Kollektiv .' Then the western German will say, 'What kind of weird language do these people speak?' "

For the past year, Kuehn has been running a hot line out of her department at the university, where easterners can call and, free of charge, learn how to get back onto an even linguistic footing with their western compatriots. Though she takes calls just three days a week, and advertises with simple handbills tacked up on bulletin boards, she averages 60 inquiries per week, from people seeking help with everything from letter-writing--how to close, if you don't say "with socialist regards" any more?--to the pronunciation of the many English words--"leasing," "cash," "surfboard"--that have worked their way into western German over 45 years.

"People in eastern Germany have had to adopt a whole new system and, with the new system, a whole new vocabulary," says Kuehn, herself a former citizen of East Germany, officially known as the German Democratic Republic. "Right now, they don't feel comfortable in their own mother tongue. They don't want to go into a shop and make fools of themselves."

And unfortunately, to western ears, many eastern German words sound just that--foolish. During the Cold War, no one in West Germany made any particular effort to shape the language along ideological lines, but in East Germany the government tried deliberately to write a new socialist lexicon--and, with it, to nurture a new socialist identity.

Much of what the authorities dreamed up sounds straight out of Orwell's "1984." The angels that decorate the tops of Christmas trees, for instance, are called "Christmas angels" in western Germany. But in the east, where angels and Christmas were politically incorrect? Nothing doing. They were sold in boxes labeled "Year-End Winged Figure."

A flag, likewise, was not a Fahne , or flag, in the GDR, but a Winkelement , or "waving element," because the authorities used to hand them out before parades and expect people to wave them. Communist agricultural planners even decided to call the lowly cow a Grossvieheinheit , or "large cattle unit."

"They wanted to show that a socialist cow was something special, different from a capitalist cow," says Siegmar Pfeil, an associate professor of German language and literature at Jena University, who like Kuehn has been watching what happens to the language as the former East and West come together.

Pfeil notes that outside the Communist Party, few East Germans warmed to the Newspeak. They could watch Western television and see easily enough that, in the rest of the world, a Christmas angel was still called a Christmas angel.

"If they used these words, they did so with a twinkle in their eye," says Pfeil. And as soon as there was no more Eastern regime to reinforce the new language, the worst barbarisms died quickly.

But just because easterners know that certain words are non-starters, Kuehn says, that doesn't mean they always know which western words to use. She finds easterners at the greatest loss when it comes to job-seeking--a subject of intense interest, with the unofficial eastern German unemployment rate near 30%.

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