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General Information for Informants and Interested Parties

Who are we?

We are linguists from the Universities of Frankfurt, Marburg and Vienna who are working together to research the syntax of Hessian dialects. As linguists, we are first and foremost interested in everyday speech and this is what we would mainly like to document and preserve for posterity. Furthermore, we would like to study how manners of speaking differ and to describe them individually as well as with regards to the differences among them. Our most challenging task is to explain how different manners of speaking come about and how they have come to be preserved in their particular manifestations.


Why study dialects, vernaculars, and Low German?

Spoken language is fleeting, which means that it disappears if it is not written down. And if we look around us, we see that the manner of speaking being documented and preserved is generally of the type called “High German“. We encounter High German for example in the news media, in works of literature and in situations that have official character. For the most part, we learn High German (or Standard German) as children in primary and secondary education. Standard German has been extensively normalized, i.e. the rules for what is and is not allowed have been fixed as in a game. In a game, the rules have to be adjusted from time to time because the manner in which people play can change. This is also the case with standardized language. If we learn Standard German for the first time in primary school, then we actually grew up learning something else—the manner of speaking of our caregivers. Dialects play a special role among non-standard manners of speech. They include modes of speaking that are limited to small regions or localities and differ from Standard German more than other “regionally colored“ ways of speaking. In contrast to standardized language, dialects have not been normalized, but rather have grown organically. Since dialects are limited in scope, they are only spoken by certain people and in certain situations, namely with other dialect speakers in everyday situations: at the dinner table, at the market and after church. For this reason there are a vast number of dialects. It is the nature of dialects that they are not written down or recorded. Since they are actually more natural ways of speaking than Standard German—this can be determined by the manner in which they are learned—linguists are especially interested in dialects. All we have to do is look at the way our parents spoke and the way our generation of children spoke in order to recognize this. As linguists, we are interested in how languages work and how they change. How do people speak in dialect? What are the rules that govern this speech? How do these rules change? The ways of speaking that can be best used to answer these questions are the “natural“ ones used every day – the dialects.


What does the word “syntax“ mean in the project name „Syntax hessischer Dialekte (SyHD)“?

Take the following simple German sentence: „Früher wohnten wir hinter der Kirche, aber dann bauten wir noch mal neben der Schule. (Earlier [=back in the day] we used to live behind the church, but then we built [a house] once again next to the school.) We might, for example, wonder about the sounds contained in this sentence and ask which sounds in the spoken dialects of Hessen correspond to the letter “ü in früher (earlier). Dialect speakers from the area around Fulda in East Hesse tend to write “ö (fröher). Speakers of dialect from the North Hessian town of Ernsthausen write “i“ (friher). As linguists we then assume that the residents of Fulda and Ernsthausen pronounce the sound written as “ü“ in Standard German differently. If this type of description is undertaken for all of the sounds in the sentence, the sound structure of the entire sentence can be determined. One might also ask what corresponds to the meaning of “-er“ in früher in the dialects. As with the English equivalent “early“, “-er“ added to the end of früh (early) turns it into a comparison. Früher is a point in time that is further in the past than früh. This can be seen in the sentence pair: “Heute bin ich früh aufgestanden“ (Today I woke up early), and, “Heute bin ich früher aufgestanden“ (Today I woke up earlier).  The “-er“ adds the meaning of “comparison“. One can therefore not only describe the sounds in this sentence, but also all of the parts such as “-er“ that create changes in meaning. In some dialects früher is spelled frieher, in others friehen. This means that two completely different entities, namely “-er“ and “-en“, create comparison depending on the dialect. In addition, we can also look to see if some dialects have words that are completely different than those in standard language. In this respect, dialect speakers around the area of Diemelsee in North Hesse say gigger instead of neben (next to). Lastly, one can look at how the sentence is constructed—the so-called syntax. Syntax looks at the ways in which of the parts of a sentence that create changes in meaning are combined. One can, for example, say “Früher wohnten wir hinter der Kirche“ (Earlier [=back in the day] we lived behind the church) or “Wir wohnten früher hinter der Kirche“ (We lived behind the church earlier [=back in the day]), but you cannot say “Früher wir hinter der Kirche wohnten“ (Back in the day [earlier] we used to behind the church live). The rules that govern which parts of a sentence can be combined together also differ according to dialect.


How does one research dialects?

Dialect is still the most natural way of speaking for many people in their everyday lives. In contrast, almost no one writes in dialect. It would therefore be best if all linguists would record, document and describe dialect, as the phonetic (pertaining to sound) peculiarities of dialects are difficult to express using the German alphabet.  Many of our informants have told us this as well. We have nevertheless chosen to conduct research into Hessian dialects by first sending a questionnaire to our informants and asking for written information about their particular manner of speaking. This way we can learn something about the idiosyncrasies each dialect. In a second step we would like to use this as a basis for actually getting in contact with speakers of dialect. We can then ask them targeted questions about the particulars of their dialects and document the answers with sound recordings. Since this second method of research—direct contact with dialect speakers---is quite elaborate with regards to logistics, finances and content, they will be supplemented by a survey using questionnaires sent to the study participants in advance. In order to attain scientific results, it is of utmost importance that the linguistic data collect from informants are comparable. For this reason we are developing questionnaires and guidelines that will help us to study the speech of our informants in a consistent manner.


Where can one access the results of the project?

Since the results to our surveys constitute very large amounts of data, the analyses take up a lot of time. These analyses lead to scientific publications that help other researchers to understand and use what we have accomplished in our project. We are also planning on presenting aspects of the data to the informants. They are after all the one who worked with us and answered our questions. Unfortunately, this is not as simple as it seems, and for the following reason: we have finished and evaluated one of four rounds of surveys. In this first round we have asked certain questions that are to be once again included in the second round of surveys. If we not show our informants how other speakers of their dialect answered certain questions, then they might be influenced in the next round to make their answers dependent on the way other speakers of the same dialect previously answered the questions. Of course we would like to prevent this from happening and if we did, other scientists as well as our sponsors would accuse us of making a big mistake. We promise, however, that we will gradually but surely be increasing the number of accessible results.


Wo kann man mehr erfahren über Dialekte und ihre Erforschung?

Where I can learn more about dialects and dialect research?

Ask one of our cooperation partners.

We can also recommend the following books on the subject:

... for the general public:

  • König, Werner (2007): dtv-Atlas Deutsche Sprache. 16., durchges. u. korr. Aufl. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.

... for those with a basic knowledge of linguistics:

  • Niebaum, Hermann/Macha, Jürgen (2006): Einführung in die Dialektologie des Deutschen. 2. neubearb. Aufl. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

... for those with advanced linguistic knowledge:

  • Schmidt, Jürgen Erich/Herrgen, Joachim (2011): Sprachdynamik. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag.


Why do we collect personal data from our informants?

Everyone knows that not all people in Germany speak in dialect. In some regions there are only older people who still speak it. This makes studying dialects particularly difficult for linguists, because the rules of our scientific method require that the data collected be taken from people with similar linguistic biographies. For this reason we are limited to certain groups of people. In order to ensure that all of our informants have the same background and are suited to our project, we have to collect certain data such as their age, where they grew up, if they have lived for a long time at another location than where they were born, etc. Only by doing this can we then later say that all of our informants had similar backgrounds. This is a requirement for our project to be accepted by other scientists. We need the names and addresses of our informants for the sole purpose of sending them the questionnaires. Since we are not sponsored by a private company and are not working with any, we are not economically invested in this project. For this reason we can assure that all of the data given is confidential and that there are no costs involved for any of our informants.