Mária Erb - Erzsébet Knipf:

Observations on the Proficiency of the German Minority of Hungary


The science-historical development of the second half of the 20th century set a new trend in the linguistic studying of minorities. The development of sociology, cultural anthropology and psychology surfaced such questions and problems concerning language as well the rolling up and the solution of which could not be satisfactorily done with the classic linguistic methods applied till now alone. The system-orientation of linguistic-geographical methods was getting into conflict with the actual user-centeredness of usage. Modern researches - while pursuing the classic profile and using its findings of course - tend to regard dialects less and less as homogeneous units. The actual usage and its sociological parameters are getting in the centre of investigations. In case of minorities and isoglosses, the involvement of sociological parameters is increasingly justified - because of the special situation of the ethnic groups in question. However, it is very important, that the data and results obtained this way should be applicable and utilizable in forms of concrete suggestions having a significance beyond theoretical analyses, in the strategy of certain minorities to preserve their otherness.

In case of the German minority of Hungary, these facts were exercising an influence more and more urgently towards a suppletory survey covering its character, its professional grounding and its areal expanse. That is why - after a longer preparatory, surveying and consulting period - we started the comprehensive research still in progress among the Germans of Hungary in the summer of 1995, the aims, methods and the first carefully worded results of which are going to be presented here, although in a sketchy way, because of limits of size.


The data-base

We started a multi-dimensional national survey based on a so-called authorized interviewing technique uniting the advantages of interviewing and questionnaire-techniques among the German minority of Hungary in the summer of 1995. Two problems, both multiply combined in itself and intertwined from several aspects, form the centre of investigation. The first aims the mapping of the communicational profile of the local German dialects of the German minority of Hungary determined by the German standard language and the Hungarian language and in connection with these, the mapping of usage as well. It includes the questions of the mother-tongue, of the first and second language and the attitudes connected to the languages and linguistic varieties mentioned above. The second attempts to investigate and document the yet unobserved effects that the Hungarian and foreign, German-speaking means of mass-communication had on usage and identity among other things. In order to get a more comprehensive picture, we attempted to work with informants differing in sexes, generations, professions, socialization and interactions in case of every fields of research during the data-collection. The investigation is still in progress - partly because of the high number of fields of research and their geographical dispersion. The collection of data has already been finished in the settlements inhabited by Germans of South-Hungary (Counties Baranya, Tolna, Somogy, Bács-Kiskun) and of the environs of Budapest that resulted in more than 600 completed questionnaires and tens of hours-long recordings. Furthermore, we would like to briefly present and outline the present linguistic situation of the German minority of Hungary, together with certain aspects of the usage, their choice of code, and the strategies manifested in it - while using the data collected of the above-mentioned survey as a corpus. Since the present situation is the result of diachronic processes running on several threads, and, as such is not free from remains of the past, by way of introduction we summarize the trends leading up to the present, breaking them down into languages and linguistic varieties.

Historical background

In case of most of the Germans of Hungary, the local German dialects created from the dialects brought here from their homeland by the linguistic compensation inside each settlement have played the role of the primary means of communication until the middle of the 20th century. The existence and probable "ad hoc" use of a regional German standard language above these dialects - mainly because of the life-style and low mobility-rate of the Hungarian Germans - was connected partly to occasional events and - in relation with them - partly to sexes. Only such activities pointing beyond the borders of single village-communities, as the girls' spending some months, less tregnently years, in other villages as servant-maids and as the men's activities in connection with fairs or their spending months in military service, could provide definable occasions for such higher-level balancing. Although the German standard-language was both represented in oral and in written forms in the curricula of schools and in the pulpit, its knowledge was manifested rather in a receptive, than in a productive way in case of most of the Germans of Hungary.

Since the last third of the 19th century, Hungarian has had greater and greater effect and pressure on the communication of the Germans of Hungary. This is partly manifested through the Hungarian linguistic integrates infiltrating into the German dialects of Hungary and partly through the Hungarian Germans' surer and more comprehensive knowledge of Hungarian and in connection with it, through their usage of Hungarian. The latter process - influenced by economic, settlement-geographical, migration and social parameters - shows still measurable, different quantitative and qualitative divergences among the Germans in Hungary: while the contemporary sources inform about a surer knowledge of Hungarian in the attraction of the capital and among all the classes of Germans living in the main industrial areas, the knowledge of Hungarian at that time is rather sporadic in the larger and more compact areas of Southern Hungary inhabited by the German minority, and the complete lack of this knowledge characterizes the peasants. The multiple asymmetric relationship between the German dialects and Hungarian measurably contributed to the influence of Hungarian: in these two means of communication - touching upon the most important details - only the spoken dialects mainly efficient in everyday communicational situations are confronted with a standard-language completely established in all fields of communication. The influence of Hungarian was increased by the fact that among the Germans of Hungary - without tighter relationships with the home-land and their mother-tongue, the Hungarian language took over and fulfilled the role of the so-called "Hochsprache", the literary- and the standard-language instead of German.

Considering the state of language and usage of the Germans of Hungary, 1945 - the end of World War II - and closely related to it 1947 - the year of relocation - mean the most important division line of an era still determining in its negative effects. Two periods differing from many aspects is taking shape in the following fifty years - on the basis of manifold positive changes of the recent years. The first period is composed of the so-called "hard decades" of the German minority, the 50s, the 60s and the 70s, when the well-known historical, political and economic retorsions and changes all led to the extensive transformations of the macro- and micro-social structures both on communal and on individual level. Not any forms of the German language is desirable for the majority nation, neither is the belonging to the German minority (see the data of the census). The social emergence and any kind of self-assertion is depending on the Hungarian language causing the primer socialization mainly being carried out in Hungarian and the astonishing acceleration of the process of language shift. In this context German dialects are quickly degrading, they often get macaronized and their prestige also becomes lower during their usage. After this fast and gradual degradation, the second half of the 80s brings the first signs of a positive change, as a slow introduction of the second period of the post-War era, but their increase in numbers and restricted fulfilment gets more significant in the 90s. Here come the facts and factors that have a determining role in positively changing the state of language and usage of the Germans of Hungary: quantitative and qualitative changes in minority (language) education (building up the system of bilingual schools, a significant increase in the number of minority secondary schools, the employment of native visiting teachers, partner-schools), the expansion of relationships with the home-countries (travelling, scholarships, the network of partner-settlements), the minority law (the codification of minority rights, minority self-governments), rise in the number of different minority organizations. Parallel to this, foreign languages are rated higher in Hungary, partly because of the political, economic opening and the political change, and the Germans of Hungary recognize the market convertibility of their mother-tongue in the Hungarian, and beyond that in the European, labour-market, that, together with the above-mentioned positive changes and new opportunities, seems to lead to the revitalization of the language and the culture.

The first table reviews and summarizes the three periods presented above from the aspect of 'the language of communication', 'the language of self-identification', and 'the prestige-language', broken down to languages and linguistic varieties:

Table 1.


Until 1945

The 50s, the 60s and the 70s

The 80s and the 90s

The language of communication

  • local German dialects
  • Hungarian (in public situations)
  • Dialect (in private situations)
  • Hungarian
  • Local German dialects (older and the oldest generations, primarily in Southern Hungary)

The language of self-identification

  • local German dialects;
  • Hungarian (citizens, intellectuals)
  • Hungarian
  • Hungarian
  • German (within the scope of an unspecified identity)

The prestige-language

  • Hungarian (citizens, intellectuals
  • Hungarian
  • Standard German
  1. Results of the survey
    1. Questions of competence

As it was mentioned before, three means of communication play structure-forming roles in the competence-structure of the Germans of Hungary, namely the local German dialect, the standard German, and the Hungarian language. Such a complexity of the profile of competence on the one part makes difficult and on the other part greatly justifies the division of languages concerned according to different parameters. To define more exactly the place of the three means of communication determined by quality and temporal indicators, we asked our informants in the first place to define the concept "mother-tongue", now without any concrete or private concerns. The answers, laic definitions actually, given to this question could be grouped according to identifying signs, criteria and pivotal motives presented in Table 2.

Table 2.



1. family/mother (the language spoken in the family/is the language of the mother)

"...how my mother spoke to me..." (m./52)

"...what I heard in my family..." (f./22)

"...that my parents spoke..." (f./17)

2. primacy in time (the first learned language)

"...that I heard first at home..." (m./70)

3. function (the frequency in usage)

"...that one uses the most often..." (f./36)

"...that one uses at home and in public..." (f./52)

4. self-identification + the grade of proficiency

"The mother-tongue is not the language one learns from his or her mother, but the language one knows on a high level and can identify with, too." (f./52)

5. origin

"...we are Germans, so our mother-tongue is German too..." (m./65)

"...I'm not Hungarian, primarily I am German, even if I know the language that insufficiently, I am a German. How can you say that you are Hungarian when your mother didn't speak a word in Hungarian? That's a lie, isn't that?" (m./76)

Most of the people surveged made their definitions on the basis of criteria presented in Table 1, in a narrower or wider segmentalizing, etymologizing way, while the identification of the mother-tongue with the primary language was also very common (2. criteria). The definitions under points 4 and 5 are also extremely significant because of their occurrence alone, their complexity and their high consciousness. One thing should also be noted, that many of the interviewees reacted with some kind of an uncertainty to the question, primarily because of its uncommon, out-of-the-way nature. This uncertainty was increasing when we asked them to tell which exactly their mother-tongue, primary language and, in case there is, their secondary language was. The reason is partly that the criteria they defined were contrasted with the mother-tongue they named. So, the criteria revised often and the related definitions show the picture presented in Table 3.

Table 3.


Definition, reasoning

1. The grade of proficiency

"...well I can better express myself in Hungarian..." (m./52)

"...in case of certain topics I have to think about the expressions in Swabian, but it immediately comes into my mind in Hungarian..." (f./46)

2. Loyalty to Hungary as motherland

"...well...since I live in Hungary my mother-tongue must be Hungarian, however, I know another language, the Swabian..." (f./71)

"...I'm Hungarian, I was born here..." (f./85)

"...I know that I'm Hungarian, that I belong here, but one also feels to be German to some extent; there is some dividedness, some uncertainty in me..." (f./46)

3. The communicational opportunities ensured by the language (the establishing of the language)

"...Swabian is backward, out of date, without opportunities, so Hungarian is better..., rather is the mother-tongue..." (m./77)

It is conspicuous, that in the definitions such pronounced expressions as "the language mediated by the mother", or "the first learned language" were forced to give up their places to the language providing more complete communicational confidence, which in most cases means Hungarian, during the concrete designation. The phenomenon that mostly occurs in the middle-aged and younger generations is very interesting: even the fact sank into oblivion that the German dialect was acquired first and through the family during primary socialization. This was revealed when one parent following the interview, the mother in most cases, corrected the answer. The two oldest generations had their problems and conflicts when answering this question: in cases of the two, 71-year-old and 85-year-old, informants (undoubtedly from the oldest generation), the definition of the mother-tongue through Hungary and the Hungarian language is most probably originated in their negative experiences in this question, since both of them know and use the German dialect as their mother-tongue. The following problems characterize the same generation: having more than one mother-tongue, a kind of temporal binding, definition of mother-tongue(s) that the German dialect was their mother-tongue earlier, but since they have few occasions using it and because Hungarian gives them the complete communicational confidence, they regard Hungarian as their mother-tongue now.

The rather complex problems of the question of the mother-tongue presented in an indicative way here is followed by the question of competence. It is unnecessary to deal with the Hungarian competence of the Germans of Hungary, since all of them speaks Hungarian; that is why we only present the results concerning dialects and standard German thoroughly. Summing it up, one should note that in this question "age" proved to be the most determining factor among all the social parameters taken into consideration. Other social parameters may modify the picture, but those do not possess such group-constituting and -creating roles comparable to those of generation affiliation. Dialect competence is gradually decreasing from the oldest generation to the younger generations. It is manifested in that while generally the older people are in possession of the dialect in a productive and in a receptive way as well, an increasing, though narrowing, comprehension-level can be documented at the younger people: the ability of the active use of the dialect is manifested in rather under-represented or fossilized formula or is completely missing.

The dialect-conserving or counteracting role of the geographical, settlement-political and urbanization factors already treated in the historical overview results in measurable difference in case of dialect competence. The restriction of dialect competence and the disappearance of the dialect as an active means of communication is at a more advanced stage in the German settlements around Budapest - in contrast with more compact and expansive groups of settlements of Southern Hungary inhabited by Germans. Here, the function-loss of the dialect is almost complete - with a few exceptions. This means of communication is completely missing from the competence-structure of the younger and even of the middle-aged generation. However, middle-aged people speaking the dialect can still be found in fair numbers in the German settlements of Southern Hungary and some kind of dialect competence can be documented at some of the younger people. Furthermore, probably as a result of the positive changes mentioned above, it is not uncommon that parents, with the help of the grandparents, according to their competence, consciously take the dialect or standard German, besides Hungarian, into the primary socialization of their children.

Besides the erosion of the dialect, its being forced back, or its complete disappearance in some places, the growing prestige of standard German and its gaining further positions is the other important factor that significantly affects and enriches the communicational activity and repertoire of the Germans of Hungary, mostly that of the younger generation, since the 80s. According to statistical reports, it is German, and not English, that is the most popular foreign language among the Germans of Hungary. It generally characterized the informants, even those, who were German by their origin, but lost their linguistic attachment, that they make an effort to ensure that at least their children learn German at school. This is explained by the general international prestige of German and by the fact that proficiency in German can be converted as an economic factor in the European labour-market.


3.2 Attitudes of languages and linguistic varieties

There is a multi-threaded mutual relationship between the attitudes connected to one language, competence and the concrete use of language: the more expansive, the more comprehensive competence is, the more positive a means of communication is considered, the more often and the more confidently it is applied in practice. On the other hand, the restriction of practical application intervening on different accounts has negative repercussions on competence and on linguistic attitudes.

During our investigation, a rather strong emotional attachment concerning the German identity experienced in Hungary was observable at all the people surveyed - even at those who did not speak the dialect or possess a very restricted comprehension-competence. Many of them definitely regretted that they did not speak the dialect, and that, consequently, they had not been able to, could not pass it to their children. Almost all of them were aware of the role the German dialect plays in keeping their identity beside its concrete communicative function. At large, the consideration of the dialect was rather positive, not entirely without emotional influences, up to the point it was not confronted with literary German in forms of concrete questions (eg.: which language do the parents leave to their children if they speak both the dialect and standard German as a mother-tongue?). From this point, the negative attitudes of the dialect came forth. It was very instructive how clearly and discernmently ordinary people defined the deficiencies of dialect, its communicative deficit and decided for the literary German and against the dialect - putting aside the emotional attachments. The most frequent objections concerning the dialect are shown in Table 4:

Table 4.

Negative attitude-components

Reasoning, explanations

1. Nominalizational deficiencies (an incomplete establishing of dialects as linguistic varieties, compared to the standard language; hiatuses in the lexicon of the local German dialects because of being secluded from the development of the mother-tongue)

"...Swabian is backward, out of date..." (m./77)

"...modern topics cannot be expressed through our Swabian..." (f./43)

"The lexicon of the dialect did not develop. If one learned standard German, it is hard to return to the dialect." (f./38)

2. Missing literacy, the spoken linguistic nature of dialects

"It's a pity that my generation can only speak, and cannot write and read. Swabian is inhuman, it cannot be used in writing." (m./59)

"The dialect is a spoken language." (m./33)

3. Difficulties in comprehension and understanding resulting from the areality of dialects

"...what do you want with dialects?! I can't even understand your dialect with mine after all!" (m./79)

"...Our dialect is not understood in Hungary and neither is in Germany. It would have been good to learn standard German!" (m./33)

4. Deviations of the given dialect from standard German (= violating the norms of the language)

"The words people from Vörösvár use cannot be found in standard German." (f./36)

"...Swabian is very far from the literary high German..." (m./77)

"The grandchildren learn standard German in school, they should not be confused, because then they would German with the dialect!" (f./60)

5. The low prestige of the dialect (dialect = peasants' language)

"Those who learned German in school would not say a word in Swabian, those are ashamed of themselves!" (m./37)

"There are fewer and fewer people understanding and speaking the dialect. Standard German is the language that has value, that is taught in school." (f./40)

"The proximity of Budapest affects people, they don't want to be regarded provincial." (f./52)

6. The lack of direct material convertibility (as opposed to standard German)

"...The Swabian dialect is a tradition it can be conserved, it would be nice to see more people speaking the dialect, but it's standard German that is important both in school and in the world." (f./26)

The categorization of German dialects as "peasants' language was observable in these opinions, too, that has some truth in it from a historical point of view, but naturally exerts a negative influence on the dialects' consideration. It is true even today, that in case of certain school qualification or social status - ie. in case of the intellectuals - the use of dialect is not expected. The same attitude characterizes the elderly when it is revealed about young people that they do not speak the dialect and are not even supposed to know it. As compared to former periods, this aspect is losing importance in our informants' considerations, although the communicative establishment, provided by certain means of communication, has a special emphasis on (see points 1 and 2). The fact that knowing the dialect helped the communication when visiting the adequate German linguistic areas - as a result of the "opening" of the 80s and 90s - , was pointed out as something positive besides the many negative attitudes.

By contrast, literary German represents the language that - being above regions - is established and is efficient in all levels of communication, both orally and in writing, for the Germans of Hungary. The above-mentioned economically convertible role and prestige of German is added to this, causing the German parents of Hungary to guide their children towards learning literary German. The foreign German-speaking means of mass-communication also investigated in the survey - mainly the channels picked up in the satellite-network - play an important role in the process.


3.3 Usage and the choice of codes

The formerly mentioned restriction of dialect-competence, supplemented by the negative attitudes, naturally entails the under-representation of dialects in concrete communicational situations. A kind of shift in function is also observable besides under-representation. While the dialect covered all kinds of communicational situations and topics, the following tendencies appear nowadays:

  1. the dialect is forced back to the private, restricted sphere and it is not uncommon that couples belonging to the oldest generation, who both speak the dialect, use Hungarian in a family environment as well or that they mix the dialect with elements of Hungarian to a great extent. According to their reports, the choice of codes is not controlled or conscious, and sometimes they only realize afterwards which language they used;
  2. Although it is used almost only in strictly everyday situations, the dialect thematically became the language of "remembering";
  3. The dialect is often used by parents still speaking it to exclude children not speaking the dialect from the communication - quasi "nicht vor dem Kind". On the other hand, it is interesting that the young speaking the dialect never use it to exclude people of the same age;
  4. the dialect, or certain conserved expressions of it, function as emotional elements. Those frequented sentences like "Nu wos is?" (What's up?), "I hob ka zeit" (I have no time.) or "Kummts essa." (Come to eat!) have a special function, indicating the children belonging to a younger generation whether a given parent is in a good, in a joking mood or not;
  5. the dialect evolved into a "grandmother-tongue" from mother-tongue - according to the words of Miklós Hutterer. The fullest use of the dialect in the given circumstances - that does not mean its complete use - is observable at the oldest generation, and in terms of usage, asymmetric communication, where an answer is given in Hungarian to the question in a dialect, is very frequent.

The role of standard German in the identity and usage of the Germans of Hungary is very plastic because of its recent emergence. Its conscious, though more and more frequent usage is observable among the German intellectuals of Hungary, demonstratively even in private and informal situations, and can be experienced on certain, mainly official and public occasions thematically connected to the local German minority (in self-governmental or society sessions, various public programmes). The question how this linguistic variety of German (mother-tongue), almost only acquired through the institutionalized way of bequeathing, can become a natural mother-tongue and how it is going to be integrated into the identity of the Germans in Hungary, is going to be decided by the future.

Hungarian functions as primary language in every level of communication. It is not only the language of public sphere, but it also starts to drive out the dialect from the private sphere too. The frequency of Hungarian is increased by mixed marriages occurring in several succeeding generations and by the fact, that there are no generations living together in one household nowadays, so the possible passing of the dialect by the grandparents becomes rather difficult or does not happen at all. The language shift occurred to the advantage of Hungarian was attributed by older informants to their persecution after the War and the discriminations of the 50s and 60s. It is supplemented by the fear of the 40- and 50-year-old people that their children, after spending their primer socialization in a dialect, will have significant disadvantages in the school-system based on Hungarian.


Outlook, summary

Based on the data of the survey and the personal experiences collected during the investigation, the determining, actual tendencies perceived in the usage of the Germans of Hungary and the new tasks derived from them can be summed up in the following points:

  1. As a result of the multi-threaded process of degradation detailed above, functionally, Hungarian became the primary language of the Germans of Hungary, both in the private and in the public sphere.
  2. Recently, there has been a significant shifting and restructuring in the question of the competence and active use of the different linguistic varieties of German - comparing to the 50s, 60s and 70s: a variant quite similar to standard German, established and efficient in all levels of communication seems to replace the German dialects gradually becoming functionless. Because of possessing manifold expedience- and functional indicators, this variant has a high prestige among the Germans of Hungary.
  3. In case of the Germans of Hungary one can undoubtedly state that there is no minority without language. The variety-change occurred in German as mother-tongue in a wider sense entails new tasks both qualitatively and quantitatively on every institutions of minority education and the pedagogues working there. Because of the present situation, these situations have to take over a great amount of those tasks of bequeathing (language, minority contents) that were formerly bequeathed inside the family. In order to help those institutions and the pedagogues working there to manage these newly delegated tasks, minority pedagogue-training and retraining seems essential, as well as the reconsideration and reformation of content- and quality parameters of minority textbook-publication.
  4. In case of the Germans of Hungary the fact that new, modern functions were added to their language led to the revitalization of the language and the culture (the possibility of a private professional career, the convertibility of proficiency on the Hungarian and European labour-market). We believe that this should be reconsidered in case of other functionless minority languages or languages restricted in their function and it may also mean an attractive strategy to be pursued.

The problems briefly outlined here indicate that the linguistic present, the communicational profile and the choosing of strategy of the Germans of Hungary is multi-threaded, extremely complex on the one hand, and shows an altered appearance compared to the previous periods on the other hand. The following years decide where the outlined processes are leading between the given possibilities and challenges and to what extent they can be influenced.