Bay Area German

"A gold hunter on his way to California via St. Louis." UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library. Behrens, F. A. (active ca. 1849), publisher.
"A gold hunter on his way to California via St. Louis." UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library. Behrens, F. A. (active ca. 1849), publisher.

Native-speakers of German in the San Francisco Bay Area may have already experienced a phone call or e-mail seeking their language expertise in the Bay Area German Linguistic Fieldwork Project (conveniently called BAG). Since 1984, graduate students of Germanic linguistics, together with Professor Rauch, have been observing how the German language is changing in the speech of native-speakers of German residing in the Bay Area.

Through interviews with Bay Area German speakers we have rich sets of data on an array of topics which include politically correct (PC) German, the German language of vulgarity and civility, and the grammar of e-mail German, snail-mail German, and German texting. In the case of PC German we also gathered comparison data from German speakers in Berlin, and with the vulgarity/civility project we obtained comparison data from a group in Bonn. In recording the sounds of spoken German in the Bay Area, the BAG fieldworkers interviewed not only German-speaking adults but also first generation German-speaking children (yielding a “Kinderlect”) to compare with the spoken English of both these groups. It allowed us to understand how the sounds of California English have affected the German language. The architecture of the apology and of the lie yielded timely data. A paradigm change occurred with the inclusion of data on gesture and emotion beside verbal language. Another methodological leap is represented in the BAG study which obtained data on human and canine communication.

Since the anonymity of the resource persons is strictly observed, we enrich our data analysis by factoring in elicited profile information such as age, sex, education, occupation, duration of residence in the Bay Area of the resource person. This leads to interesting conclusions, for example, the fact that the politically correct Frau, instead of the un-PC Fräulein, to designate eine Person die 23 Jahre alt und weiblichen Geschlechts ist is spoken by three men ages 28, 29, and 30 who hold higher degrees and who have resided in the Bay Area less than five years. Our comparative data yield valuable insights, for example, to the effect that while native German speakers produce the sounds of German better (for example, Kuh, Mehl, so, tun) than do first generation German children, the children hear/perceive the distinction between German and English like-sounding words better (for example, German du, English do). Comparison of elicited data on civil/vulgar German prompted fieldworkers to ask the provocative question whether the Bay Area or the Bonn resource persons are better at swearing.

Our fieldwork modus operandi is as follows: first we formulate a hypothesis about a given German language phenomenon, for example, that German e-mail is more infected by English than is German snail-mail. We then devise an optimal questionnaire for elicitation of our data. Next we make contact with possible resource persons who are native-speakers of German in the Bay Area to ascertain if they might be willing to participate in providing answers to the data questionnaire. We assure them that their name, address, and phone number will be kept confidential. After the student fieldworkers complete the interviews, the BAG group analyzes the data; the findings are then prepared for publication. Student fieldworkers benefit from this educational experience by acquiring the theory and methods of linguistic fieldwork, which result in publication of the project findings. Resource persons who engage in the fieldwork experience by supplying data are often pleased to witness what sorts of educational work academics do. This thirty- year and counting research project continues to serve as a prototype for offshoots here and abroad.

For further information, contact Professor Irmengard Rauch.