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A Rediscovery

The historical recordings of dialects from the Sound Archive can be heard in the Humboldt Forum

The inaugural exhibition of Humboldt-Universität in the Humboldt Forum will place in the public spotlight a collection that has attracted little attention until now: the Historical Dialect Collection of the Sound Archive. This collection was created between the 1920s and the 1940s by Wilhelm Doegen, the founder of the Sound Archive, and has been in the possession of the university since 1934. It is currently being scientifically prepared and will be available for scholarly purposes after its move to the Berlin City Palace.

The 730 dialect recordings of the German language and varieties of the closely related Frisian and Low German languages were recorded at central locations of the respective regions on shellac records with gramophones – at the time a spectacular, new method of language research. The recordings are currently being transcribed and translated for the exhibition, since visitors would probably not understand most of the dialects. In fact the dialects have changed so much in the course of the past decades that even current dialect speakers often have difficulty today understanding them.

An interesting discovery was the approximately 130 recordings from German linguistic minorities in Europe, many of which no longer exist today. These are not only the oldest, but also frequently the sole surviving audio recordings of individual varieties of German. In this regard as well, the dialect recordings of the Berlin Sound Archive are particularly valuable.

In the first half of the 20th century, dialectology was closely connected to folklore studies and was motivated not only by science. In the aftermath of the territorial changes prescribed by the Treaty of Versailles, dialectology served political purposes and was ‘used to identify historical German cultural landscapes and settlement areas in order to give demands for border revisions a quasi-scientific legitimation’, as historian Rainer Schulze writes in the volume Die “Volksdeutschen” in Polen, Frankreich, Ungarn und der Tschechoslowakei: Mythos und Realität.

At the time there were several major projects investigating the cultural space of German-speaking regions. The largest of these projects began preparing the Atlas of German Folklore (Atlas der deutschen Volkskunde, AdV) in 1920; the project headquarters were located in the Berlin Palace beginning in 1928. The AdV also documented “German habits and customs” beyond the borders of the German Reich.

Parts of the dialect collection were created together with linguists from another major atlas project: the Linguistic Atlas of Germany (Sprachatlas des Deutschen Reichs), later German Linguistic Atlas (Deutscher Sprachatlas), which had been founded by linguist Georg Wenker in Marburg in 1876. For this reason many copies of audio recordings in the Berlin collection can also be found in the Research Center German Linguistic Atlas (Forschungszentrum Deutscher Sprachatlas) at Philipps-Universität Marburg. A comparison of the collections in Berlin and Marburg has now been completed, and the missing recordings in both collections should be replaced by the end of 2019.

More than 100 Swiss-German dialect recordings from the Phonogram Archives of the University of Zurich (PAZ) have been made available for the exhibition. Between 1924 and 1929 the Berlin Sound Archive and the PAZ carried out a joint recording series. For the exhibition the PAZ has provided all of the transcriptions that were previously unavailable in Berlin.

The Dialect Collection of the Sound Archive was created by a network of specialists in linguistics and folklore studies using innovative recording technologies. Around 90 years later, this network has now been partially re-activated and expanded in preparing the collection. Linguist Heike Weise, who will begin researching and teaching at Humboldt-Universität in April, is responsible for drawing connections between the historical recordings of dialects and current, especially vital language variants such as Kiezdeutsch. Her work focuses in particular on how new language variants arise and how diverse and changeable the German language has always been and continues to be. ‘A language stops changing only when it is no longer spoken.’ At the exhibition Wiese’s research can be seen and heard at video and audio stations as well as in a photo project on urban linguistic graffiti.

Author: Antonia von Trott zu Solz

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