Out of Germany: German helpline breaches the 'wall in the head'

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The Independent Online
BERLIN - The mental blocks were clear enough. The 'wall in the head' became shorthand for the psychological barriers between east and west. But those barriers are not just psychological, but linguistic too.

In 40 years of growing up in different countries, east and west Germans learnt different ways of getting their point across. So severe are the problems of mutual comprehension that a university department in the east German town of Halle has opened a helpline, a 'German-German translation service', for Germans to untangle semantic difficulties.

Sometimes the problems are easily resolved. One seven-year-old east German sought confirmation that the word geil was merely a word of approval, meaning 'brilliant' or 'great'. The traditional meaning of the word is, to quote the Langenscheidt dictionary, 'hot, horny, randy'. The seven- year-old claimed his grandfather would beat him if he used the word geil. The boy merely wanted to prove his linguistic innocence.

More often, the advice line is used by those worried about putting a foot wrong in the brave new western world. They can ring to find out how to express themselves, correctly. Thus, the Kollektiv - a group of people working together - has given way to the western Team. The Sitzung, or session, been replaced by the Konferenz or Meeting. Meeting, it must be said, is a tricky one for east Germans. When east Germany was still East Germany, Meeting (which did not arrive directly from the English, but as a fraternal import via the Soviet-speak political miting), meant party secretaries banging on about the class struggle and the triumphs of Communism. Some east Germans are therefore understandably unenthusiastic about attending Meetings with their new western bosses.

In some cases, the meaning of a word is clear enough, but the logic of the west-east split is not. For years, the East German driving licence was called Fahrerlaubnis ('driving permission'), while the West Germans had a Fuhrerschein, or 'leader certificate'. Stern magazine's (east German) columnist sought expert advice on why her Fahrerlaubnis had changed its name. 'Why didn't I think of it myself] The word 'driving permission' suggests: 'You may, Ossi (east German)]' In other words, orders from above. The Fuhrer certificate, on the other hand, sounds much more self-confident and says: 'I, the driver]' (No, not what you were thinking.)'

Thus, east Germans are officially being converted from passive to active. Klaus Almstadt, a researcher at the Halle institute, coyly explains the logic of the Communists' original ban: 'Fuhrerschein was consciously not used, because of the not-so-nice meaning of that word, because of historical associations - if you know what I mean.'.

Some calls to the Halle helpline are merely grammatical. But questions about west-east contrasts are, says Dr Almstadt, 'much more frequent than we expected'. The vocabulary of west German job application forms prompts many queries. How can an east German guess, for example, that when he or she is asked for a 'demonstration of achievement', what is wanted is a bank statement showing financial liquidity?

Meanwhile, Dr Almstadt notes an eastern backlash against the linguistic Anschluss. 'People have started using words that were abandoned.' New shops in the east are called WtB, an abbreviation which translates approximately as 'general stores' - and a revival of a Communist-era label - unknown in the west.

The Halle linguists see this as symptomatic of a determination not to allow the east German identity be crushed. That applies to the economy, too. Dr Almstadt points out: 'East-product' used to be a negative word. Now, though, people have become proud of the things they make. The signs say: 'Here, you can buy east-products.' You would never have seen that before.'