Plastik or Plaste? East vs West German

Plastik or Plaste? East vs West German

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For the average expat learning German, the words ' Plastik' and 'Plaste' seem innocuous, but for Germans they constitute a cultural shibboleth. Expatica's resident German expert Renate Grasstat looks at the linguistic differences between them.

When I woke up last Tuesday, I thought a roaring aircraft was about to land on the floor above. My alarm-clock showed 6:14. And my memory came back slowly: This was the day when a company would start to strip the planks in the apartment on the next floor.

Usually - unless some urgent business matter hinders me - I stay in bed till eight, and I choose the time to go to sleep accordingly. I am able to start the day at - let's say - seven, but never, ever, at 6:14.

However, I had no choice. The machines were drumming constantly, and all I could do was sit in front of the computer, sipping extremely strong coffee and writing extremely angry emails to the landlord. No use calling somewhere at this time of day, and no use ringing the doorbell up there in that noise.

Kosmonaut? That's astronaut to you, buddy

Later that day I talked to somebody else living in my building, which is in Berlin-Kreuzberg. "That's a company from the East they engaged", he said grimly. And this meant: they are the only people who start working in the middle of the night.

I remembered my dentist in the eastern part of Berlin who once asked, when I said I would like to come early in the morning (which meant 9am to me): "At seven?" And I remembered a GDR TV series from the time shortly before the Wall came down where the whole family sat around the breakfast table while the clock showed 5.30. A normal day, as it seemed.

My day was quite successful, though: I found out that stripping planks was not allowed in Germany before eight in the morning, and that the people at work up there were actually Turkish, not citizens of the former GDR.

Persistent differences

What does this have to do with the German language?

First, there have been - and sometimes still are - differences in the way of living between the East and the West. Secondly, there are many stereotypes which are much more persistent than these differences. And third: this applies to the language of East and West as well - in exactly the same way.

Political expressions naturally are the most common examples, as they stand for two different political systems with all their institutions. The two most interesting GDR words probably are "Antiimperialistischer Schutzwall" or "antifaschistischer Schutzwall" ("anti-imperialistic/ anti-fascistic protection wall") for the Wall and "Jahresendflügelpuppe" ("winged year-end doll") for Christmas angels - as Christmas as well as angels were too religious to be officially accepted. (Although I guess this term has been much more cited in magazines and stand up comedy shows in the west than was actually used in the GDR…)

Other well-known examples for different words in both parts of the country are:

West East  
Supermarkt Kaufhalle supermarket
Lebensmittelladen Konsum grocery store
Hunger Knas hunger
Overheadprojektor Polylux overhead projector
Astronaut Kosmonaut astronaut
Exkursion Begehung excursion
Einzimmerwohnung    Einraumwohnung     one-room-apartment
Hähnchen Broiler fried chicken
Hot Dog Ket-Wurst hot dog
Beilage Sättigungsbeilage side dish
Plastik Plaste plastic

Still in use

Most of these Eastern terms are still in use, some of them - like perhaps "Konsum" - only in some rural parts of the country or used by elderly people, but most of them as remains from a society with other functions and traditions than the one we have now. It still happens at universities that students and lecturers with different backgrounds do not understand each other when using terms like "Polylux".

Plastik or Plaste?

But some of these words even managed to spread among "Western" parts of the country, at least in Berlin, where especially young people are merging easier than elsewhere. Some years ago I would still have said that I knew where somebody came from by hearing him say "Zweiraumwohnung" or "Zweizimmerwohnung".

But the eastern term, using the more official, more bureaucratic word "Raum" instead of "Zimmer" (as the space for living was organised by the state and less a private matter) is shorter and perhaps easier for foreigners as well, so that it has asserted itself  - last but not least through the music by "2raumwohnung", a new group featuring Inga Humpe who was already a very popular singer in the GDR. And, by the way, "Polylux" has become also the name of a TV magazine at RBB, the local Berlin/Brandenburg channel.

No need for English

Words that were originally English and have become "international" were not used in the former GDR. It was not more than three or four years ago when a lady living in East Berlin, aged perhaps 35, told me she didn't like "Kontaktlinsen". Why not call them "Haftschalen" (something like "sticking bowls"), as they used to call it?

People are said to have used "Brettsegeln" ("board sailing") instead of "Surfen" (in the water, not the computer), and these words sound really strange to me - but not stranger than some French expressions used to avoid English terms, by the way.

Surprisingly enough, there are also examples for the opposite: Words which were only used in the GDR in English (because taken from Russian or Polish where these words had been established earlier) like "Broiler" or even "Goldbroiler". The film "Goodbye, Lenin" shows problems with the word "dispatcher" - a job title unknown in the West. Ariane's new boy-friend has to learn it like new vocabulary when they expect him to present an "eastern" biography.

Jana Hensel, in her book "Zonenkinder", deals not only with her "disappeared" childhood in Leipzig, where all the signs of people's former way of living had been abolished, but also with words and expressions that had been replaced by others after the Wall came down. Vice versa, one of my colleagues coming from Cologne experienced exactly the same feeling of alienation in the midst of her Prenzlauer Berg neighbours talking about books they read in their childhood, about food they used to eat and words she never heard of.

So what does dealing with language differences show? Maybe that language always reflects social and political realities. As they change, the language changes, too. But sometimes words come up like stubborn little rebels.


To read more about Renate Graßtat you can click on Education - Language Instruction under Expatica's business directory.

Do you have questions about the German language? Write to Renate Graßtat and she may use your question in a future column.

November 2005

Copyright Expatica

Subject: learning German, German language, east and west German differences, German teacher in Berlin

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