The name of the special research programme (‘German in Austria’, abbr. ‘DiÖ’) reveals the central focus of the research project: The German language in its entire diversity as it is currently (and was formerly) spoken and written in Austria. We are taking a look not only at the rural regions of Austria from Vorarlberg to Burgenland, but also at the urban agglomeration areas such as Vienna and Graz. In this regard we will be answering the following questions: Who speaks to whom where when and how and with which forms of German? Which forms of dialect can we find in which regions and how have the dialects in Austria changed over the last 100 years? How do people in Austria communicate in situations that were originally reserved for dialect if they no longer speak dialect? What do the regional ‘vernaculars’, which are often used instead of older dialects, look like in Austria? What are the forms of the standard in Austria and what separates it from the other standards in Germany and Switzerland?
There are more than a few characteristics of the German language in Austria that have come about due to many years of language contact. In this regard we have placed a special focus on the contact of German in Austria to Slavic languages, which we are covered in two project parts.
Lastly, we are analysing not only the language forms as they are (and have in the past been) spoken and heard, but we are also asking what people in Austria think about the various forms of German, what are their opinions and values concerning German in Austria.
We would like to share our results with as many people as possible. We will use classic scientific forms of presentation such as publications (books and articles) and lectures, organise diverse informational events, participate in lively exchanges with groups (e.g. from the field of education), carry out interviews and engage the public through alternative media formats such as our homepage. A large portion of the data collected within the SFB will be made available online through an information and research platform about ‘German in Austria’.
All of the research results about the German language in Austria to date have shown that most of the characteristics of the German language in Austria are not limited to political geographical boundaries. Instead, they partially transcend these boundaries, for example into the Bavarian language area of Germany, or they are not found everywhere in Austria. In many cases we can observe language differences between the west and the east of Austria. This motivates us for research purposes to talk about ‘German in Austria’ and not ‘Austrian German’.
In addition, over the last two decades the term ‘Austrian German’ has been used in research to denote the (mostly written) standard German in Austria. This means it has been used for forms of German in Austria as they are found in quality newspapers and in Austrian radio and television broadcasts. The fact that our SFB is interested in all forms of German in Austria (e.g. dialects, regional vernaculars, standard) means that the use of ‘German in Austria’ is more appropriate for describing the object of our research than ‘Austrian German’.
The researchers of DiÖ are a diverse group consisting of established scientists as well as young researchers from a total of four academic institutions in Austria: the University of Vienna, the University of Graz, the University of Salzburg as well as the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
The members of our team also come from diverse academic fields including German studies, Slavic studies, English studies, Translation studies, computer linguistics and computer science.
We especially appreciate the fact that our colleagues have different linguistic backgrounds (language biographies) and language skills. In addition to Austrians, we also have colleagues from Germany, the USA, Switzerland, Italy, Slovakia and Belarus in our SFB group providing us with optimal external perspective to our research.
In linguistics, a pluricentric language is described as a language with several standard varieties that are characterised by specific linguistic features and underlie their own norms. If these norms are written down in reference books and are authorised by the individual states, linguists speak of national ‘full centres’ of a pluricentric language. In this sense, the concept of pluricentric languages corresponds to the concept of plurinational languages.
In linguistic research, however, the question whether German should be classified as a pluricentric/plurinational or rather as a pluriareal language has been the subject of debates. Whereas the concept of pluricentricity focusses on certain national characteristics of the German standard language, the notion of pluriareality stresses that the regional spread and the variation of German do not necessarily coincide with national borders. In our SFB ‘German in Austria’, we follow the pluriareal approach which, as a matter of principle, takes account of regional differences within Austria’s borders.
The term variety is one of the principle concepts used to describe linguistic variation. In linguistics, this concept outlines the prominent theoretical assumption that it is possible to clearly distinguish between different larger areas of the same language. When identifying linguistic varieties, an overarching language – such as German – is subdivided into larger areas based on specific linguistic and extra-linguistic characteristics such as function (i.e. language of the press) or speech group (i.e. youth language). These areas can be clustered and associated with distinct functions (i.e. standard language and dialect).
In recent years, an increasing number of linguists have argued that complementary methods of analysis are needed in order to adequately identify varieties and depict language in its complexity. In this sense, methods need to be developed that can shed light on the linguistic reality of everyday communicative practice and that take communicative contexts into account.
Furthermore, current debates centre around the question whether, in reality, it is even possible to distinguish between distinct areas of language, especially when it comes to describing spoken language, for example in urban areas. Such doubts rest on the notion that linguistic areas should rather be regarded in terms of a linguistic continuum which does not have clear cut borders between the separate areas. However, our own variationist linguistic research shows that the model of a continuum and the concept of ‘dense areas’ within this continuum do not have to contradict each other.
Within our SFB, we will, among other things, tackle these issues and evaluate them with regard to the situation of German in Austria.
From a linguistic point of view, Austria belongs to two major dialectal regions which also form part of the overall German-speaking area: the Bavarian (named after the historical Germanic tribe of the Bavarians) and the Alemannic dialectal regions (named after the tribe of the Alemanni). The entire state of Vorarlberg is part of the Alemannian dialectal region, while Bavarian dialects are spoken in the remainder of Austria. The Bavarian dialectal region of Austria can be subdivided further: First, there is a ‘Central Austro-Bavarian’ area (= parts of the state of Salzburg, almost all of Upper and Lower Austria and Vienna); second, a ‘Southern Austro-Bavarian’ area (= Tyrol, Carinthia, and parts of Styria); and third, a ‘transitional area’ between the other two (= parts of the state of Salzburg as well as the majority of Styria and Burgenland).
It is not possible to say with absolute certainty and linguistic accuracy how many other, small-scale dialects there are within the Alemannian region in Vorarlberg and the three Bavarian regions in the remainder of Austria. There are no general criteria as to which or how many linguistic features in which areas (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, etc.) constitute a ‘discrete’ dialect or distinguish one dialect from other dialects or the vernacular. In addition, language – including all dialects – undergoes constant change. Where distinct differences – perhaps even from town to town – were noticeable two or three generations ago, a common dialect or a supraregional form of speech (a ‘regiolect’) may now be in use.
The linguistically assigned dialectal regions and dialect names rarely agree with those used outside of the field of linguistics. From a ‘lay’ perspective, the federal states are the most important criterion in connection with the dialects in Austria. Speakers call their dialects ‘Tyrolean’, ‘Styrian’, ‘Salzburgian’, etc., possibly with further distinctions such as ‘Mühlviertlerisch’ (the dialect spoken in the Mühlviertel region of upper Austria), ‘Lavanttalerisch’, ‘Seewinklerisch’. Some dialect names also refer to political districts, cities, or villages. These ‘lay’ perspectives with regard to the dialects are by no means ‘wrong’, however, but a social reality. They are incorporated into scientific research on linguistic perception and linguistic attitudes.
The fear that dialects will ‘die’ is based on a misunderstanding: People perceive the ‘fluidity’, the change (scientifically: the dynamism) of dialects and associate this observation with the – false – idea of a ‘true’ dialect prior to the change. This dialect of former times (from childhood, the world of one’s grandparents, the ‘good old days,’ etc.) is imagined as something which has always existed and remained stable (static). Against the background of this ideal, the dynamism of the dialect perceived in reality is interpreted as ‘decay’, ‘loss’, ‘death’.
The fact is that language in all its forms, including dialects, can only ‘live’ because – like society – it is dynamic and constantly changing. Even the ‘true’ dialect of earlier generations did not fall from heaven ‘as it was’. It is rather a snapshot within the process of ongoing linguistic change.
There is no real and uniform German of immigrants, because they differ, among other things, by their level of education, the duration of their stay in Austria, and the languages spoken in their families of origin. At an individual level, the first-generation language acquisition of German results in the expected interferences with the first language, but if people grow up with two or more languages and get access to these languages sufficiently well, they will be able to cope with them without any further problems. During the last few years, some linguistic phenomena, which are typical for the linguistic usage of certain groups of young immigrants from multicultural city districts, have become well-known. For instance, speakers of certain in-groups are characterised by the creation of their own expressions and the use of a language style, which is largely derived from urban colloquial German and parts of migrant languages. Such phenomena do not necessarily have to be associated with inadequate language skills, but – like switching between individual languages within an utterance – can also be the expression of linguistic creativity and a sense of shared identity. Since such phenomena, however, normally do not hold high prestige outside of an in-group, they will usually be given up again with increasing age and thus remain without consequences.
There is a widespread complaint that children and young people in Austria often speak a kind of German that sounds 'German' German or even 'Northern German' German to Austrian ears. Unfortunately, there are no reliable research results so far, so that we can only speculate about possible reasons for a potential spread of a 'German' German (however it is defined). For the time being, we can only state people’s impressions and formulate hypotheses. One impression is that children and young people do not accept Northern German pronunciation to the same extent everywhere in Austria, but that this acceptance appears somewhat more pronounced in cities than in the country. One hypothesis for the cause of this phenomenon is that children are growing up more and more with a 'Media German', which is characterised by a Northern German accent. According to this hypothesis, parents and grandparents in Austria (like elsewhere) spend less time reading to young children. Instead, the children listen to stories on CDs and watch foreign films, which are recorded or dubbed by adults and children with a Northern German accent. In addition, children continue to be exposed to television broadcasts and films (or dubbed films) from Germany, in which regional accents – including Austrian ones – are commonly avoided. However, it is a long-term process to go from the reception of accents and certain forms of speech to their active use; and whether or how such a kind of ‘accomodation’ actually takes place would be the subject of a larger research project.