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Urban Talks

Getting Involved in Linguistics

Big cities are as diverse in their languages as they are in their people. Dialects, accents, slang, and youth language – they open up most interesting fields of research for linguists. Heike Wiese and Christoph Schroeder, linguists at the University of Potsdam, bring together students and young people from the Berlin district Kreuzberg to investigate language in urban neighbourhoods.

It has 25 pages and includes 88 words. When you open this booklet, you read “dissen,” “chillen,” and “messern,” “Opfer,” “Digga” and “yallah”. The entry for “Azzlack” reads: “compound word from ‘azzl-’ for ‘asozial’ (‘scum’) and ‘-ack’ for ‘Kanacke’ (‘wog’), originally used in rap”. You find these words in the Kiezdeutsch Dictionary that explains the origin and meaning of terms used in youth language. Pupils from Berlin-Kreuzberg and the Hessian town of Hattersheim compiled this dictionary together with students of the University of Potsdam during their research project “Let’s do Language – Hood goes Uni”. Over a period of two semesters, 26 pupils and 46 Masters students of German studies, educational studies, foreign language linguistics, communication, and general linguistics investigated the language in their urban neighbourhoods using linguistic methods.

“The idea for this project was born when I saw a call for proposals of the Robert Bosch Foundation for their programme Denkwerk,” says Heike Wiese, Professor for Contemporary German Language at the University of Potsdam. The aim of the Denkwerk programme is to encourage young people to study humanities, she adds. With the idea to win pupils from schools in Berlin-Kreuzberg for this programme, she launched the project “Let’s do Language” together with Christoph Schroeder, Professor for German as a Second or Foreign Language. They initiated the project under the umbrella of the Centre for Language, Variation, and Migration. After getting the grant of about 45,000 Euros, the two professors from the German Department were able to start their project in autumn 2011. Its duration is three years. Each year new groups of pupils and students will come together.

Three schools in Kreuzberg took part in the experiment “Hood goes Uni”. The pupils are in the tenth to twelfth grade. They are between 15 and 18 years old, and most of them have a multilingual background. In addition to German, they speak Turkish, Russian, Arabic, or Kurdish. At Hector Peterson School, for instance, 97 per cent of the students have a heritage language other than German, at Carl von Ossietzky School, 84 per cent, and at Robert Koch School, 96 per cent.

A new dialect has emerged in the urban environment of these pupils over the past years – and this is Kiezdeutsch. “Kietzdeutsch is a youth language spoken in multi-ethnic urban neighbourhoods in Germany“, Wiese explains. The lexicon of this dialect is complex. Speakers often use loan words and neologisms from a number of different languages as well as grammatical innovations – an exciting topic for linguists.

In November 2011, pupils and students met at the University of Potsdam for the first time. The pupils attended a lecture and got a first glimpse of the campus. After that, they discussed with their mentor students which topics might be exciting for them. In eight different groups, the young people worked on research questions such as how Turkish-German families experience their multilingualism; or how one’s own language affects the person one is talking to. 

Abdullah, Furkan, Naciye, and Seyma of Hector Peterson School decided to record the language of their neighbourhood in a dictionary. On the schoolyard, on underground trains or in the streets of Berlin-Kreuzberg, the 15 and 16-year-old pupils looked out for words that were characteristic of Kiezdeutsch. “We observed how pupils communicated with each other, wrote down the words, and discussed them,” Naciye describes their approach. The young people analysed each word linguistically, establishing its origin, meaning, and grammar. Their mentors, the students Dominika Hrubcová, Anda Kruklina, and Larissa Friesen, supported them during the research process. In order to find out who recognises and uses typical Kiezdeutsch words, the pupils prepared a questionnaire and conducted interviews with parents, acquaintances, and friends. “It was exciting to find out what is actually the difference between Kiezdeutsch and conventional German,” Abdullah says. For the pupils, Kiezdeutsch is their everyday language. “This is just how we talk to each other,” Naciye says.

For the university students it was different. “I did not know many of these words,” Anna Kruklina admits. The same was true for the pupils of the partner school in Hattersheim. On the other hand, there were many words that the Hattersheim pupils collected, which the Berlin pupils heard for the first time. Kiezdeutsch is shaped locally. “Typically Kiezdeutsch,” Kruklina says. Her new favourite word is “baba”. According to the dictionary, the word “baba” means outstanding, top notch, or excellent. The Kiezdeutsch Dictionary exists as a prototype in ring binding at present, but work on a print version is in progress. Heike Wiese and Christoph Schroeder have been working with schools in Kreuzberg for years analysing grammar and youth language. Heike Wiese knows, “In public perception, there is often an association of ‘migration background’ – ‘in need of language support’. We have an entirely different experience.” She also points out that Denkwerk is a programme to support highly talented pupils. This is why they mainly ask pupils with good school performances to take part. Hrubcová, who is a student of communication linguistics, has been surprised by the high linguistic competence of the pupils. “They are very aware of their language and can analyse it,” she says.

Participation in this project aims to reduce apprehensions about university, and to open the perspective of university studies. Because: “A big problem at German universities is the fact that we are much too homogenous,” Heike Wiese says. There are not enough students whose parents are not college or university graduates and there are not enough with a migration background. “This is not good,” Wiese says. “At schools in Kreuzberg there are those groups who are underrepresented at our universities,” the linguist continues. It therefore makes sense to involve pupils from these places in scientific research. “If the pupils study German language and literature and teach German at school later on, we will kill two birds with one stone because we have the same problem at our schools: not enough teachers with a migration background,” Wiese says. 

15-year-old Naciye has already decided to study at university. It looks like she will not become a linguist, though: “I will study medicine.”

The Project

“Let’s do Language – Hood goes Uni” („Lassma Sprache erforschen – Kiez goes Uni“)

Participants: Professor Heike Wiese, Professor Christoph Schroeder, Centre „Sprache, Variation und Migration“, Carl-von-Ossietzky-Oberschule Berlin, Hector-Peterson-Schule Berlin, Robert-Koch-Schule Berlin, Heinrich-Böll-Schule Hattersheim

Duration: 2011–2014

Financed by: Denkwerk Programme of Robert-Bosch-Stiftung and

The Scientists

Professor Heike Wiese studied German language and literature and philosophy in Göttingen. Since 2006 she is Professor for Contemporary German Language at the University of Potsdam and speaker of the Centre for Language, Variation, and Migration at the University of Potsdam. She is the author of the book “Kiezdeutsch. Ein neuer Dialekt entsteht” published in 2012.


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Germanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10
14469 Potsdam
E-Mail: heike.wieseuni-potsdamde

Professor Christoph Schroeder studied English language and literature, German as a foreign language, linguistics, and educational sciences at the University of Bremen. Since 2007 he is Professor of German as a Second and Foreign Language at the University of Potsdam.


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Germanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10
14469 Potsdam
E-Mail: schroedcuni-potsdamde

Text: Heike Kampe, Web Content Editing: Julia Schwaibold, Translation: Susanne Voigt