Street Talk, Not Sweet Talk

by Vina Seelam:

“I can’t sleep anymore, it’s loud where I live…but I grew up here and I am staying here; I belong to Berlin,” raps Lisi, a half-German and half-Nigerian MC. In Germany, Lisi’s lyrics are provocative—as much for their message as for the words themselves. Lisi often raps in Kiezdeutsch, a hybridized street slang embraced by pockets of urban youth in Germany. While the language grows in speakers and prominence, for many traditional Germans, Kiezdeutsch evokes fear and disdain.

Kiezdeutsch—“hood German”— is one of several immigrant-influenced street slangs in Germany today. Unlike “Türkendeutsch,” a language generally spoken by Turkish immigrants, Kiezdeutsch is spoken by youth from various backgrounds, including native German speakers who live in ethnically diverse neighborhoods or identify with the distinctive youth culture of Kiezdeutsch speakers. Türkendeutsch is primarily a Turkish-German hybrid; Kiezdeutsch draws heavily on Turkish but incorporates elements of languages like Arabic, Persian, and Russian as well. The strong Turkish influence upon many street languages reflects the recent history of immigrants to Germany: Turks comprise the majority of the over 2.5 million immigrants who came to Germany over the past 50 years as Gastarbeiter, or guest workers. One hybrid street language is even called “Gastarbeiterdeutsch”— indicating its immigrant roots in its very name.

Mixed Turkish-German languages such as Türkendeutsch and “Gastarbeiterdeutsch” evolved as immigrants attempted to both preserve their native tongues and adapt to the language of their new country. The fact that many of these guest workers never formally learned the German language is apparent in the vocabulary and structure of these street languages, which native German speakers belittle as “incorrect” or “broken German.” The slang is so divergent that it is often unintelligible—and undesirable—to native German ears. But the presence and growth of these languages proves that this influx of immigrants has had a significant impact in Germany, whether wanted or not.

Because Türkendeutsch and Gastarbeiterdeutsch do not follow the rules of the Turkish language, many native Turks also find such mixed languages difficult, if not impossible, to understand. Basak Otus, a junior in Yale College, related her cousin Handan’s experience with slang. Handan’s parents immigrated to Germany from Turkey in the mid-1970s as Gastarbeiter. “Her Turkish is disastrous,” Otus explained. “She speaks Turkish at home but she can only go to German schools, so she can’t write in Turkish.” Because most of her friends from her neighborhood in Hamburg also have Turkish backgrounds but do not speak pure Turkish, their chosen means of communication is often a Turkish-influenced German slang.

Although mixed languages like the one used by Handan and her friends facilitate communication and strengthen bonds within immigrant communities, they have also reinforced the sense that immigrants have not assimilated in Germany. For the children and grandchildren of these Gastarbeiter, these dialects and slangs point to the halfway-integration that these youth experience: they are perceived as “outsiders” even though they have grown up in Germany and may feel little connection to their family’s country of origin.

There have been recent movements in Germany to change this perception by introducing politically correct terms such as “migrant” into the mainstream, as opposed to Gastarbeiter or Ausländer—“person from an outside country.” But, according to Julia Eksner at the Center for Culture, Brain, and development at University of California, Los Angeles, little has changed. “Teenagers on the street have never heard of the new term ‘migrant,’” she explained. “They feel, ‘I’m an Ausländer.’ So this word—not being German—is always there.”

While conducting research in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood in Berlin where many Turkish-German youth live, Eksner found that speakers of Turkish-German dialects often identify as Turks but emphasize that they are from Germany and not from Turkey. They live in limbo between two competing cultures, and, perhaps as a result, some speakers of mixed dialects like Kiezdeutsch and Türkendeutsch embrace a cult of aggression and rebellion. Their semi-foreign language can be a tool for intimidation or defense, useful in neighborhoods like Kreuzberg where violence and poverty are the status quo.

Magbule, one of the teenagers whom Eksner interviewed, explained that to a non-Turkish speaker, the language could sound “chaotic and fast, and somehow…hard and strange.” Rahman, an other teenager, told Eksner that using a mixed Turkish-German language can be advantageous for this reason. “You come across hard somehow,” he said. “With that I want to show that I’m serious.”

Young Kiezdeutsch and Türkendeutsch speakers like Rahman have succeeded in appearing “hard” through the use of a mixed language: other Germans tend to fear these youth and the unfamiliar and dangerous lifestyles that their slang has come to represent. “It’s everything—it’s the way they dress, the way they move,” says Eva Wittenberg, a linguistics scholar who worked on a research project in Berlin, when asked what it is about the speakers of this language that evokes fear.

While making the languages of the “street” more accessible to German audiences, Lisi’s rap songs and other media that use stylized versions of slang have other consequences. Such elements of popular culture contribute to the stereotype of Kiezdeutsch speakers as semi-literate, aggressive teenagers. As Eksner explained, in the media these teenagers are able to “move out of total exclusion, from outside of society, but then are presented in stereotypes.”

Wittenberg added, “Whenever people don’t use proper German, there is a big outcry in society, from a connection of a fear of strangers and a fear of German culture dying.” Native German speakers fear that hybrid languages like Kiezdeutsch and Türkendeutsch will erode the purity of “high” German. While speakers of “high” German poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of dialects like Bavarian and Saxonian, they do not seem to fear the speakers of these dialects as they do the people who speak the slang of the streets.

The expanding reach of Kiezdeutsch among youth of various ethnicities and across various media has particularly heightened these fears. The language’s emergence and popularity reflect the changing face of Germany’s demographics—a change which some Germans are not ready to embrace. Unlike Türkendeutsch, which is generally spoken only by Turkish-Germans, Kiezdeutsch exemplifies the blending of cultures that is occurring in Germany’s cities. It remains to be seen whether the solidarity between ethnic groups that is reflected in these languages will spread beyond the immigrant neighborhoods where they are spoken today. Although native Germans are generally distrustful and even afraid of Kiezdeutsch and its speakers, the German youth who have adopted the slang speak to Germany’s potential for greater recognition, integration, and acceptance of its significant population of ethnic minorities.

Like the teenagers who speak it, Kiezdeutsch seems to be the rebel in the crowd, neither fitting into mainstream German culture nor into any other cultural mold. But whether they are Turkish, half- Nigerian like Lisi, or something else entirely, the ethnically diverse youth in Germany exhibit a deep loyalty to the places they choose to call home—a loyalty expressed in the languages they use with their peers. In her music, Lisi makes it clear that she, like many other children of immigrants, is a product of the distinct culture of Berlin, where “between discos, schools, stores, between mosques and churches, somewhere here sects write sick slogans in the subway.” She calls it “the city where my parents raised their children,” and assures us that she is not planning on leaving any time soon.