Preserving German expressions and dialects for posterity

Germans are known for their fondness for potatoes, but what exactly might a Bratkartoffelverhältnis be?

Preserving German expressions and dialects for posterity
Alemannic dialect for "bee marriage hut." Photo: DPA

Martin Hartung from the IDS German Language Institute in Mannheim knows that a “fried potato affair” was an World War I era tryst that ended because one lover could no longer provide their hungry partner with proper victuals.

Hartung is the keeper of some 15,000 voice recordings at the Archive for Spoken German at the Mannheim institute, where researchers collect audio samples to document changes in the German language. The collection of 4,400 hours of recordings includes rare dialects and interviews with German-speaking emigrants – who keep antiquated expressions alive abroad.

“Our task is not only to collect this cultural-historical documentation. We also pass them along when requested,” Hartung said. “Clubs and museums use the voice recordings for exhibits and parties. Children want to know how their parents used to talk.”

Anyone travelling from the Germany’s North Sea coastline to the Bavarian Alps can tell you German comes still has strong regional flavourings. But the 43-year-old linguist said modern life is making Germans more and more alike – which in turn encourages people to explore their local linguistic heritage.

“While cultural differences are threatening to disappear, interest in dialects is noticeably growing,” Hartung said, adding that the number of inquiries from people from what used to be East Germany had surged in recent years.

Interest in Plattdeutsch, or Low German from the country’s northwest, is also experiencing a considerable revival.

The collection includes a wide array of language samples including the work of archive founder Eberhard Zwirner, who in the 1960s made recordings from more than a thousand different places in the German-speaking world.

“Media, popular culture and historical events constantly change language,” Hartung said, explaining that in the age of globalisation and the internet the use of Anglicisms in German is rapidly increasing. But he said similar developments have taken place before, such as the French influence during the Napoleonic era.

But new technology is also playing a role in the institute’s quest to preserve endangered dialects and expressions like Bratkartoffelverhältnis. With most of the 15,000 recordings on audiotapes, one of the main tasks for Hartung and his 14 colleagues is to digitalise the entire collection. Eventually all will be available to listen to online.

For members


EXPLAINED: What to know about Germany’s youth culture pass

Young people turning 18 in Germany this year are getting a voucher 'birthday gift' to enjoy culture. Here's why and how they can use it.

EXPLAINED: What to know about Germany's youth culture pass

What’s Germany’s culture pass?

The KulturPass – or culture pass – is a bit like a voucher that young people in Germany can use to buy tickets to cultural events, or even products like books or sheet music.

Those turning 18 in 2023 – estimated to be about 750,000 people – can get their hands on the pass. They will have €200 credit that they can spend on a special culture pass platform over two years for event tickets and other cultural offers. 

It’s worth noting that the digital pass, which launches in mid-June, is available to all young people living in Germany, even if they don’t hold German citizenship.

How is it given out?

The pass won’t be handed out automatically – those who are eligible have to sign up and prove their identity and age.

Cultural venues can also sign up to sell their tickets or entrance cards via the Kulturpass app and website, so they can get a boost to their sales by promoting it on this central platform.

READ ALSO: Everything that changes in June 2023 in Germany

Why is Germany doing this?

The move follows similar youth culture projects by other countries, including France, Italy and Spain. 

The German government initiative has two major aims: the first is to give young people an opportunity to get out and experience live culture in a way they weren’t able to during the pandemic.

Culture Minister Claudia Roth said last year that she hoped the KulturPass would get “young people go out and experience culture, see how diverse and inspiring it is”.

The second aim is to help give a boost to cultural institutions like theatres, galleries, live music venues and similar businesses. 

The culture industry was one of the hardest hit in the pandemic, due to the Covid shutdowns put in place by the German government to combat the spread of the virus. 

Venues have struggled to encourage people to break out of their pandemic habits and get out to live events again.

What kind of events can young people go to?

The emphasis is on live events to get people away from their home and to give the arts scene a boost. Theatres and concert venues will likely be a popular choice, but also independent bookshops, art galleries, and small business cinemas.

Amazon, Spotify, big chain movie theatres – those kinds of vendors are excluded. So think local, think independent, think higher culture like opera, theatre, and concerts.

Are there plans to roll it out to other age groups?

At the moment, this is a pilot project for people turning 18 this year. Depending on how it goes, the government may be looking at plans to roll such a pass out for 16 and 17 year-olds as well.

To hear more on this story, tune into our Germany in Focus podcast episode released on Friday, March 26th.