International Berlin’s “Language Spaces” in Conversation and Literature

Is multilingualism an obstacle to community or a sign of vibrancy? Jake Schneider, editor in chief of SAND: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, contends that a diversity of languages enriches Berlin and its intersecting international communities by creating a unique “language space” where literature thrives. He proposes an amateur theory for how the capital’s international residents navigate language socially, in writing, and on the literary scene.

When I moved from New Jersey to Berlin five and a half years ago, on the pretext of translating a book of German poems, I found myself in a new Sprachraum, or “language space.” This unfamiliar German notion—of a language wedded to its territory—struck me as odd coming from the Anglosphere, an arbitrary zone that had wafted around the world behind invading red uniforms and Coca-Cola cans. But like many international newcomers to the capital, I later realized I was living not in the “German Sprachraum,” but in an entirely different language landscape specific to Berlin.

The geography of German probably molded that monolith of language space. German is a chain of dialects that span Europe from the southern Baltic to the southern Alps, from Wallonia to the Danube. This is an old, self-contained map. Martin Luther did his part to standardize the formal language across those many dialects. Since then, whatever isolated pockets, colonies, and outposts of German once existed—in places as startling as Estonia, Serbia, Brazil, Texas, and Namibia—were either expelled during the brutally violent population exchanges of the twentieth century or dissolved by local assimilation, and in both cases mostly forgotten. Now, from the vantage point of German-speaking Europe, it looks like a language naturally belongs where it lives.

In the German Sprachraum, we all sit by default under a shared thatched rooftop. The common acronym for German-speaking Europe is DACH, meaning roof: short for Deutschland, Austria, and Switzerland’s Confederatio Helvetica (a mix of German, English, and Latin right there). Besides leaving out Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, and German-speaking corners of Italy and Belgium, the roof obscures small and endangered languages under its formidable shadow—Sorbian, Frisian, Jutlandic, Western Yiddish, Sinte Romani—not to mention the huge living diversity of German dialects.

Other language spaces, especially in areas with more noticeable linguistic diversity, were consolidated with more visible conflict. Take France, a hexagon with proud regional languages at almost every edge. It required centuries of Parisian willpower and standardized education to make France French. Or take today’s Israel. Even after statehood, Jewish immigrants and refugees still spoke Yiddish, Ladino, Russian, German, varieties of Arabic, and other “Diaspora” languages in their daily lives. Advocates for Hebrew had to exert peer pressure to resurrect an ancient tongue as the common “language of the place” (alongside Palestinian Arabic), exhorting Israelis to speak Hebrew even to their children.

Monolingualism is the historical exception, not the rule. Speakers of different languages have always coexisted, often in the same brain, and they haven’t always been sorted into neat national boxes. Although linguistic uniformity does create larger communities of communication, this flatness is always forced.

What about Berlin?

As the editor-in-chief of SAND, a Berlin-based literary journal in English, I’ve been troubled by these questions lately. Despite my appreciation of linguistic diversity, many of my thoughts have been self-deprecating or defensive. What is an English-language publication like us doing in a “German-speaking country”? Should we feel guilty for thinking, writing, and holding events in a “foreign” language? Are we perpetuators of a “parallel society”? Or post-colonial colonists? Even if we personally speak German in other contexts, we’re violating the sanctity of the Sprachraum—and at times we feel bashful or even ashamed for speaking anything else.

SAND 15 cover featuring artwork by Ben McNutt

But in fact, to include international Berlin in a unified “German Sprachraum” would be a feat of imagination. There is no sanctity here. It’s a large enough city to have an international draw, but not quite large or diverse enough to sustain the kinds of self-contained immigrant communities seen in London or Los Angeles. Germany as a whole is near the bottom of Fearson’s global ethnic diversity rankings, but 28% percent of Berliners were foreign-born in 2015. Within this group, a wave of cosmopolitan newcomers (especially Europeans) has arrived in growing numbers since the turn of the century, attracted by cheap rents (until recently), free residency for Europeans and easy visas for many others, a relaxed life by big-city standards, opportunities for independent/creative work, and the companionship of the broader international community.

Last week, I met an American friend Alex at a Mexican restaurant for his birthday. We were joined at first by some Spanish friends of his. The conversation began in English. Then Alex and I ordered in German and the Spaniards ordered in Spanish, after which the whole conversation switched to Spanish with occasional Italian infusions (Alex used to live in Rome). Later, when a Portuguese couple joined us, we all defaulted back to English for a heady discussion of EU politics.

Let’s call this the meta-Sprachraum of “international Berlin,” a specific cultural zone in the city where navigating between languages is commonplace. Although European mobility looms large in this example, I know Brazilians, Israelis, Ukrainians, Syrians, Egyptians and also Germans who move in these circles. So it’s not about being “foreign” or from a “privileged” country/background. It’s about belonging to an international community that smoothly crosses these lines of language and origin all the time. My birthday story isn’t so unusual in these circles, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone.

From my own observations—I’m no academic—this international Berlin meta-Sprachraum contains three basic “sub-spaces”:

Home Languages

Groups of friends or colleagues coming from the same original Sprachraum naturally speak their own language. The Spanish friends and the Portuguese couple, for instance, were each speaking Spanish and Portuguese on their separate ways to the restaurant. There are plenty of cultural organizations and informal gatherings that cultivate these spaces: Swedish church services, Turkish social clubs, Filipino bingo games, American Thanksgiving dinners.

Many international Berliners speak several languages, so they might be included in other groups’ “home language” spaces as Alex and I briefly were with Spanish. (I’d picked some up in the US—which has even more Spanish speakers than Spain—and Alex had learned to adapt his fluent Italian.) But as soon as even one non-speaker joins the circle, the group switches politely so that everyone can participate in the conversation. That restricts these home language spaces—they need to be mostly homogeneous to persist. At the same time, these can be valuable and comforting environments, sustaining the specificity of our cultures and customs outside of the international soup.

The Host Language (German)

Many of us chose to come here because of personal connections to Germany or its language, having learned it at school or from a German-speaking parent. (I started learning German in school at age 12.) Others are drawn here out of an interest in Germany, rather than Berlin, and sometimes arrive after living and speaking German in less international parts of the country. Many attend language schools in the capital with plans to work or study in German-speaking environments. Still others have a German romantic partner, came here with their families in childhood, were born here to international parents, or arrived before the international renaissance of the past fifteen years. These people are often more socially integrated into German-speaking Berlin, and they are more likely to be settling here for the long term.

Many international Berliners speak German situationally, in their WG (shared apartment), at work, or with certain (groups of) friends. Almost everyone who speaks basic German will use it in commercial interactions—at the supermarket, at the post office, at a restaurant—and then switch back to another language with their international companions. (Alex and I did this when we ordered.) Berliners of all nationalities are at ease with this convention, and they speak German to us in those commercial situations no matter what we’ve been speaking amongst ourselves. (Elsewhere in Germany, this kind of language switching can baffle people.) Only when someone seems to struggle will the waiter or shopkeeper switch languages—usually to English.

The Lingua Franca (English)

Which brings us to the last of my international language spaces, the lingua franca of English. English is currently the lingua franca here for the simple reason that, for decades, it has been the most common foreign language to learn in school both in Germany and in the many other places we all hail from. There are many other lingua francas in other regions and eras, from Latin to Classical Arabic to Swahili to French. (Lingua Franca was originally the name of a specific one, also called Sabir: a hybrid Romance language with Turkish and Berber influences. It was used for centuries by sailors, traders, and envoys around the Mediterranean.) In each case, the lingua franca is determined by geopolitics, religion, or economics—but then takes on a life of its own.

The reasons people learn English today have to do with the historical roles of the US and the UK, but the English spoken in this city by its diverse international residents isn’t the Queen’s or the President’s. It’s a unique Berlin blend informed by our common experiences here and borrowing handy words from German and our home languages. Berliners from English-speaking places find themselves using some variety of Berlin English even with each other, and struggle sometimes to revert to another “unadulterated” form of English in other contexts. English doesn’t necessarily “belong” to anyone here.

Literary Language Spaces

The international literary scenes in Berlin follow the same pattern. Again, they are embedded in a much larger German scene, which international literary Berliners approach differently depending on their relationships to Germany and German. And again, we are constantly moving between these language sub-spaces, even though literature is an art form inherently linked to language, and even though the pull to write in the comfort of our native languages is very strong.

Berlin is rich with literature in its many home languages. Last year, for example, the Stadtsprachen festival asked “What languages does Berlin write in?” After tracking down countless disparate literary scenes, publications, and writers, the organizers brought them together with specially commissioned German translations. Just scrolling down their website, I see writing by Berliners in French, Georgian, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Yoruba, and on and on. On June 8th, as part of their follow-up event series Parataxe, the novelist and past SAND contributor Ian Orti (from Canada) will be reading his work alongside Sonia Solarte (from Colombia) with German translations and discussion in a healthy mix of languages. In more cases, Berlin writing is being showcased beyond the individual home language communities through combination (e.g., Der Lesende Krake), simultaneous interpreting (auslandSPRACHEN), or translations in the program (Artichoke).

Other international writers are choosing to express themselves in German (the host language), finding it a better suited medium for the material they want to portray. Two prominent examples, both from former Soviet countries, are Wladimir Kaminer and Olga Gryaznova. But native English-speakers write in German too: besides the UK-born Sharon Dodua Otoo, who recently won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for her first short story in German, I can think of at least three friends this applies to. One of them is Isabel Fargo Cole, from the US, whose forthcoming 500-page novel Die grüne Grenze is set in 1970s East Germany, an environment her German readers will more immediately relate to.

Finally, there is English (the lingua franca). English-speakers have been coming here to write at least since the freewheeling Weimar years of Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden. Even though English is a home language for some, including many writers, its lively literary scene is more open thanks to English’s unique role in the international Sprachraum. And the English writing here is similarly cosmopolitan. On June 14th, six Berlin writers will be reading a “collective love story” combining excerpts from novels and short stories by each of them. Moved from their original contexts into a shared story, the characters’ nationalities begin to blur: Are they Basque? American? Greek? British? German? We should be proud of all our intertwined stories and languages.