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German in the context of Prague's multilingualism
Franz Kafka's literary language

For a long time, Franz Kafka's German was only known from the posthumous edition of his trustee Max Brod. However, in order to maximize the circulation of his friend's writings, the latter intervened to correct them, primarily with the intention of removing all “pragisms” that suggested the regional linguistic usage of the city of Prague. Kurt Tucholsky and Hermann Hesse believed that Kafka had an “exemplary”, yes, “classic” German; At first sight this seemed to confirm the Prague writers' circles, who claimed for themselves “the pure and unmoved High German”, according to Johannes Urzidil. In contradiction to this, however, Kafka had just noted that he was noticeable outside of Bohemia because of his “Prague German”. Only the one that has been published by S. Fischer (Frankfurt / M.) Since 1982 Critical Kafka edition, which records all the text changes by Kafka's hand as well as the interventions of his editors, opens up an authentic look at the German that was widespread in Prague around 1900. Because in his literary writing process, which was characterized by speed, speed, spontaneity, but above all emotion and ecstasy, Kafka was latently susceptible to writing mistakes. In the resulting layer of immediate corrections, which depict the text in statu nascendi ‘, Kafka's oral use of language has left clear traces.
On this text-critical basis, an error grammar of Kafka's prose German could be created, which enables the formal reconstruction of his everyday language. In order to group recurring special forms in the autograph and assign them to a specific source (dialect, Yiddish, Czech), the methodological approaches of various linguistic sub-disciplines were linked: the Error linguistics, which examines the written German of dialect speakers with regard to the adoption of dialectal patterns, the Dialectology, which supports this procedure with grammars, dictionaries and language atlases on German dialect dreams, and the Contact linguisticsthat explores the (collective) stable transfer of elements from one language to another. In a further step, Ulrich Ammons Standard language model assesses whether the regionalisms identified in this way in Kafka's prose belonged to a regional (Austrian, Bohemian, Prague) standard or were excluded from the written language. For this purpose, it was checked whether they occur in contemporary reference sources (grammars, dictionaries, publishing guidelines, daily newspapers, fiction).

"East Central Bavarian city dialect with Viennese character"

For the most part (55 out of 103 types) Kafka's regionalisms are of dialectal origin. Kafka could be identified as the spokesman for an East Central Bavarian city dialect with Viennese characteristics. This is indicated primarily by phonetic features that are partly characteristic of all Upper German, partly also only for the Bavarian dialects or even exclusively for the Viennese: including the e- Failure in the prefixes ge and loading: “Glowing”, “gone away”, “dealing”; the rounding of ö, ü and eu: "Meglich" (possible), "Thier" (door), "trei" (faithful); b / p-, g / k- and d / t- Confusion: "Bult" (desk), "glein" (small), "Schulder" (shoulder); the failure (the vocalization) of the l after vowel: "sebst" (self), "Wöbung" (vault), "fühten" (felt); and the monophthongization of egg to Ä [ɛ:]: "Brete" (breadth), "irritability" (irritability), "fairness" (delicacy). Kafka's German also has numerous dialectisms in morphology: the personal pronouns "i" (I) and "mir" (we), the article forms "a" (ein, eine), "dee" (die) and "dees" (das ) as well as verb forms such as “rucken” (back), “goat” (to pull) and “known” (known) allow the contours of Kafka's primary language to emerge vividly. Kafka, who in his youth attributed himself to a German with an “Austrian tinge”, was evidently actually “austrophon”.

Linguistic characteristics of Yiddish and Czech

There are also traces of Yiddish in Kafka's German: 26 percent of all regionalism evidence in the area of ​​phonation can be assigned to the former language of the Prague Jews. Above all, this includes the distinctive spelling of z instead of s and from f instead of w at the beginning of the word; Kafka is likely to have said “Zache” (thing), “zondern” (but) and “Zessel” (armchair), “Färme” (warmth), “fissen” (to know) and “fickelte” (wound); pf he said at first as f, internally and externally as p from: "Fosten" (post), "Ferd" (horse) and "kramphaft" (convulsive). In the morphology one encounters conspicuous dative forms of the interrogative pronoun who: "Who is it", "Who are you looking for?"; and also Kafka's one-sided use of here- in compound adverbs of direction follows the Yiddish pattern: "Now I would soon have fallen out" (Yiddish aroys: out / out). In this respect, Kafka did not practice literary self-stylization when he attested to "German that we still have in our ears from our un-German mothers". These yiddisms are among the relics that were apparently still alive in German-Jewish circles in Prague around 1900 and were adopted by Kafka as a child with the German of his socialization milieu. As part of an ethnolect, they document the last stage of the language change of the Bohemian Jews in the 19th century and give Kafka's “Austrophonie” a “West Yiddish accent”.
Finally, the language patterns of Czech can be found primarily in the syntax. Here parts of speech are repeatedly omitted that Czech does not know, on the one hand, articles: “at the door”, “through the labyrinth”, “on the stove bench”; on the other hand the infinitive conjunction to: "Whether it was right, act like that", "they tried to push each other back", "he doesn't seem to have read it at all". Such violations of norms caused by language contrast are just as typical for Czech German speakers as Kafka's fluctuations between prepositions at and onwhich in Czech in equivalent n / A coincide: "hang on / on the ceiling", "hit the door", "hang something on / on something". This evidence of German-Czech language contact must also have been integrated into everyday German in Prague when Kafka was socialized in his mother tongue; In some cases they even turn out to be regional standard language, because they can also be found in the Prague daily press or in fiction. Thus it could also be proven that there was a special standard of German in Prague, which deviated from the official Austrian writing norm in certain areas.

Kafka's "most personal high German"

The standard regionalisms specific to Prague, Bohemia and Austria also make it clear that Kafka was ready to adapt to Imperial German norms. So carried out the correction of the turn forgot to (+ Acc.) By Kurt Wolff Verlag (Leipzig) in the course of the publication of the transformation (1915) said that the construction (which conforms to the standard in Austria) in his writings at the same time interrupted: "In the excitement he forgot everything else". Kafka's ", bis‘ dispute" with his Berlin fiancée Felice Bauer ended in 1917 with the fact that, after he had confirmed the admissibility of the premature meaning of the subjunction that was familiar to him to could not prove "after the Grimm", avoided this borderline case of the Austrian standard with immediate effect: "the shop empties and only when it is completely empty does the soldier leave". A Prague standard form, the indefinite used with null articles, shows that imperial German specifications were not always considered sacrosanct pair (some): “for a few minutes”, “only pair short question". Kafka took the articles supplements from his publishers in the text of the transformation although there, it could not be influenced in its further use of the language. Here the “delicate feeling for language”, said to the German-speaking Jews of Prague, prevailed, “that in German only the dialects and apart from them only the most personal High German really lives”.


Boris Blahak studied in Regensburg, Leicester and Brno and received his doctorate in German studies in 2012. He taught German linguistics, literature and cultural studies at universities in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany and is currently working at the Universities of Regensburg and Pilsen. 2015 Publication of the monograph “Franz Kafka's literary language: German in the context of Prague's multilingualism”.

Translation: Hana Staviařová
Copyright: Goethe Institute Prague

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