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Changes in German Vernacular Language (1884)

Commenting on contemporary developments in linguistic usage – not in literature but in everyday life – the Kassel lawyer and liberal parliamentarian Otto Bähr (1817-1895) identifies the most important changes in German vernacular language: the decreasing use of French terms, shifting forms of address, the inflation of job titles, and other kinds of hyperbole. As Bähr notes, Germans devoted considerable attention to finding the right language to convey fine distinctions among age cohorts, classes, genders, and those who held greater or lesser authority over other groups in society.

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To begin with, two generations ago, the influence of French on our vernacular language was much more noticeable, regardless of whether this was derived from the French current of the previous century or renewed by the French rule of this century. It was quite common, particularly among the lower classes, to say “Bonschur [bonjour]” instead of “Gutentag [good day].” Today this greeting has disappeared. By contrast, the farewell “adieu” (which our language attempted to reshape into the German “Ade” early on, though without real success) is still in use today and persists not least on account of the lack of a similarly simple German phrase for good-bye. Other expressions derived from French were also heard more often in the past – for instance, the saying “Es wurde mir ganz blimmerant (bleu mourant) vor den Augen.” [Everything went black, I blacked out]. One hardly ever spoke of anything other than a “bouteille” of wine. Even in German conversation, some people used the words “peu-a-peu,” “partout,” “doucement,” etc. The expressions “pardon” and “merci” were still widely used. Older gentlemen also still spoke of the “bataille” of Jena or Austerlitz, the “tractement” of the officers, and the “conduite” of the public servants and so on. Moreover, some first names enjoyed the distinction of French pronunciation, and in bourgeois households one could often hear a “Schorsche” or a “Schang” (a George or a Jean) being called for. These and other French words have already disappeared or are disappearing at the moment. Yet in some areas the French language has maintained its dominance. Cooks, with their menus, are most persistent in their use of French. In some aristocratic circles it seems particularly important to sprinkle a great deal of French sounds into one’s speech. [ . . . ]

[ . . . ] Within the last two generations, the most noticeable change in our vernacular language has occurred in forms of address. In the past, they were also ruled much more by the French than they are today. To be sure, one always addressed adult men – insofar as they were deemed worthy of formal address – as “Herr.” It was only when talking to artisans that people used the somewhat more familiar form “Meister” [master], which has reappeared today in the completely different context of the Wagner cult. Young persons aged 14 to 16 years old, however, were called “Musjö” (Monsieur). Considering that “Monsieur,” like all of the titles related to it, such as Monseigneur, Sir, Signore, Senor, etc., derives from the Latin “Senior” (“the older one”), it is indeed a very odd linguistic metamorphosis that in Germany the honorary title “Monsieur” is reserved for the youngest group of men. Today the word “Musjö” is only rarely heard, in which case it is commonly used in a derogatory way (e.g., “A fine

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