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Changes in German Vernacular Language (1884)

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It is also peculiar that some professional designations have degenerated in their meaning. In the past, it was no problem to call someone a “Schulmeister” [schoolmaster] or an “Advokat” [lawyer]. Both expressions have since taken on a spiteful twist. In order not to rub anyone the wrong way, one had better say “Schullehrer” [school teacher] and “Anwalt” [lawyer]. The word “Schullehrer” is also not quite as popular anymore; our school monarchs usually just call themselves “Lehrer” [teachers] now. The servers in our inns used to be called “Markör” [from the French “marqueur”]; today they are all called “Kellner” [waiters], and the “Oberkellner” [head waiter] shines with particular dignity among them. At any rate, the little word “Ober-” [head-] has a tendency to attach itself nowadays – even apart from the public service where it plays a great role – to all kinds of titles (e.g., “Obergärtner” – head gardener). Yet another degenerated term is “Schuster” [cobbler]. We may still walk on “Schuster’s Rappen” [on "the cobbler’s black horses," i.e., shoes ], but our boots are made by the “Schuhmacher” [shoemaker]. Our tailors, too, like calling themselves “Kleidermacher” [clothiers]. The good old German word “Bauer” [farmer, peasant] seems to be falling victim to a similar fate. Some of our farmers already call themselves “Landwirte” [literally, landkeepers] or “Gutsbesitzer” [landowners]. To set himself apart, the former landowner may possibly call himself “Rittergutsbesitzer” [manorial lord]; the former “Pächter” [leaseholder] (otherwise called “Herr Kondukter”) may possibly become “Domänenpächter” [domain leaseholder]. Today, nobody wants to be a “Dienstmagd” [maid] any more. Our kitchen ladies call themselves “cooks” or “Wirtschafterin” [home economists]; “Hausmädchen” call themselves [female housekeeper], etc. Of course, along with an elevated title comes an elevated sense of what each person is entitled to in life.

Current vernacular language also loves to invoke superlatives. For instance, a pupil at a higher girls’ school “would have liked terribly much to have come if it had not been for etc.” She speaks about her girlfriend: “Elsa XYZ is awfully nice.” The gathering was presented with a “huge layered cake.” The pianist performed “with absolutely astonishing virtuosity.” Likewise, “stupendous,” “grandiose,” and “colossal, phenomenal achievements” have become the order of the day, for which the artist then earns “fabulous applause.” Many things are also “on a huge scale.” In order to express their satisfaction, even four-year-old children speak of “charming” or “cute.” None of this was so in the past.

Source: Otto Bähr, Eine deutsche Stadt vor hundert Jahren [A German City One Hundred Years Ago]. New printing of Eine Stadt vor sechzig Jahren [A City Sixty Years Ago]. With an introduction by Fedor v. Zobeltwitz. Berlin, 1926, pp. 123ff.

Original German text also reprinted in Werner Pöls, ed., Deutsche Sozialgeschichte 1815-1870. Ein historisches Lesebuch [German Social History 1815-1870: A Historical Reader], 4th ed. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1988, pp. 34-38.

Translation: Erwin Fink

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