Northern German accent in its last generation, experts say

The northern German accent is dying out. The quirky regional manner of speech has become more homogeneous and won’t be passed on to young people, language experts said Monday.

Northern German accent in its last generation, experts say
Photo: DPA

“It’s the last generation,” said Kiel German language professor Michael Elmentaler.

Characteristic to prominent Germans such as recently deceased Loki Schmidt, Heidi Kabel and Günter Gaus, the staccato dialect is most closely associated with Hamburg. Instead of the “sch” sound, speakers use simply an “s,” usually separated by a brief pause before the consonant that follows.

The accent, which is influenced by Plattdeutsch, or Low German, was spoken throughout the Hanseatic League and became the prominent form of speech for most of northern Germany before the 16th century.

But by the 19th century this began to change, says Elmentaler, who has just completed a 12-year study of the regional accent.

According to his findings, in 1998 almost all northern Germans older than 70 still spoke with northern inflection. Meanwhile only 30 percent of those under 61, and none younger than 40 were familiar with it.

The development is part of what Elmentaler calls a “de-regionalization” of the accent, though he said “it will never come to pass that everyone speaks the same” because many Germans are actively preserving their language.

“The tendency in the north as well as the south is heading toward a similar standard,” confirmed Augsburg professor Werner König, explaining that today the use of a clear German was more important at work than in the days when most tasks were completed by hand.

While the lilting southern German dialect is often looked down upon by northern Germans, whose speech is closest to the standard High German, König said the northerners make their own mistakes.

“Of course that is wrong according to articulation experts,” he said in reference to the northern German tendency to leave the “p” off of words like Pferd, or horse.

But König rejected placing value judgements on regional accents and dialects, citing Norway’s educational system as Europe’s best example for language preservation. Since 1878, teachers in the Scandinavian country have been forbidden from chiding students for their different regional accents, he said.


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German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

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‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

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Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.


Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page