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Vegetables Mixed Style – Linguistic Diversity at a Weekly Market in Berlin

At a Weekly Market in Berlin. Photo: Jana Scholz

At a Weekly Market in Berlin. Photo: Jana Scholz

Salam alaikum, abi! Alaikum salam. İki tane Aubergine. Bitteschön, yenge! The weekly market in Berlin-Neukölln is a busy place, humming with people, even in unpleasant, drizzly weather. Every Tuesday and Friday the popular market next to the Landwehr Canal attracts customers of many nationalities. Apart from German, many other languages can be heard: Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish, as well as English, Spanish, French, Swedish, Hindi, Bengali – not to mention regional dialects such as Berlin, Swabian or Bavarian German. And this enormous diversity can also be seen on the signs advertising “honey pomelo,” “sultanas”and “pear forelle.” This Babylonian mix of languages raises the question: How does communication at the market succeed? And when does it fail?

That’s what Heike Wiese and Ulrike Freywald want to find out. The German language experts and their team are researching the linguistic ecology of the market, visiting one vegetable stand over several weeks. They have permission to make audio and video recordings of what is going on so that they can analyze their encounters at the stand. Two of the salesmen have also agreed to interviews with the linguists. Both men were born in Turkey, but have lived in Berlin and worked at this market for many years. “We were very lucky to find them,” Wiese and Freywald say.

Although the salesmen say they speak Turkish and German, in practice they use many more languages. Everyday words taken from Arabic, English or Spanish are used in various combinations. Similar phenomena have been found in Asian countries. Here the researchers observed multilingualism at work and came to a remarkable conclusion: Although many of the respondents report that they speak only one or two languages, they actually use many more in their work as fast-food vendors or barbers. It seems that they picked them up unwittingly in everyday life.

People at the market know little about their counterparts’ linguistic skills

“Many tourists use other languages than the community in this neighborhood,” Freywald says. One American customer bought a zucchini for one euro and paid with a fifty-euro note, recounts student assistant İrem Duman. “I’ll give you the change next week,” joked the salesman in German. But the American did not get it; he did not speak German. To understand such situations, project participants conduct mini follow-up interviews. They ask people at the market about their language skills and their linguistic biographies. One researcher remains at the stand as a silent observer, taking notes on conversational situations and the atmosphere without interacting. Later, this ethnographic fieldwork will be complemented by grammatical analyses.

“Many interactions take place without language,” Wiese and Freywald explain. People point at a vegetable, squeeze it to find out how ripe it is, and then hand it to the salesman, who weighs and packs it. But there has to be some verbal communication, at the point of payment at the latest, as there is no register to show the price. Seller and buyer now have to decide on a language. If all else fails, they resort to body language. “Actually, it works quite well,” says Kathleen Schumann, a Ph.D. student in the project. “But how and why it works, has not yet been investigated in detail.”

Does the market have its own grammar?

The study focuses on grammatical structures. When switching between various languages, many things are combined, but not randomly. One hypothesis the researchers have is that nominal phrases are formulated according to the grammar of one language, even when various languages are used in it. The next nominal phrase – consisting of an article or numeral, a noun and adjectives – can then be expressed in the grammar of another language, as in “iki tane Aubergine, bitte” – literally, “two pieces of eggplant, please”. The sentence follows Turkish grammar, which indicates the plural not by adding a suffix to the noun, but by inserting a function word such as “piece” after the numeral, explains Serkan Yüksel, another Ph.D. student. The project is focusing on these kinds of morphological structures.

But lexis, or vocabulary, also plays an important role. One sign says “Çıtır Gurke.” It is meant to advertise “crunchy cucumbers,” but usually the word “çıtır” is not used in combination with vegetables in Turkish. Is this expression typical of a certain region in Turkey? Or specific to this market? Or is it widely used among speakers of Turkish in Germany? Experts are brough in to answer these types of questions. Two of the project’s researchers are native speakers of Turkish. Other linguistic experts will help later in the analysis. Once data collection is completed, the team will also elicit the opinions of several market salespeople on certain linguistic phenomena.

The language experts and their team are especially interested in the question of whether there is a market-specific grammar. Could it be that local ways of speaking develop at the market, a special language belonging to the people who communicate here on a regular basis? “The speakers behave in ways that indicate that they systematically opt for certain structures,” Wiese explains. But according to what rules? And what do these rules say about the organization of language in general? “Maybe there are parallels to creole languages,” Freywald adds. Such languages develop through intense contact between people of different native languages, and such languages have their own grammar. The Potsdam project is examining whether an explicit “market language” has developed at Berlin’s weekly markets.

Years of researching urban linguistic contacts

The researchers are regular shoppers at the market who have also been interested in the topic of multilingualism in neighborhoods for quite some time. In their “Kiezdeutsch” project, they studied the way young people in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg speak. Most of these young people grew up bilingual and speak – in addition to German – Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, or Slavic languages as their native languages. The specific focus in the “Kiezdeutsch” project was on how the German language develops in such multilingual contexts, including what new resources young people develop among themselves in terms of everyday language and dialects.

The situation is a bit different at the weekly market because many more languages are spoken. “The people who interact here don’t know much about each other,” explains Henrik Willun, a student assistant on the project. “So how do they decide which language to use?” After all, shoppers at the market are unaware of the language skills of the salespeople – and the salespeople do not know which languages their customers speak, unless they are regulars. The research team has already made one important observation: Yüksel and Duman explain that, when the sellers assume that their customers speak Turkish, they address them as “abla,” “abi,” “yenge” or “baba,” that is elder sister, elder brother, aunt or father, respectively. Women identified as speakers of German are addressed as “Madame.” “It might be that factors such as appearance, sex or age play a role when deciding on a language,” Wiese and Freywald suggest. They will only really know whether this is true once their material has been analyzed. 

The data obtained in the “Kiezdeutsch” study is also useful for the current research project. It can shed light on the question of whether there are market-specific ways of speaking, and whether the linguistic structures of young people differ from those used at the market. The researchers would like to study another market next, such as the Vietnamese Dong Xuang Center in the Berlin district of Lichtenberg. This would enable them to compare the linguistic peculiarities of the two markets and gain insights into whether distinctive market languages exist. In any case, they plan to collate the results with those of other projects in the Collaborative Research Centre. Wiese and Freywald expect a fruitful exchange with the “Variability in Bilingual Language Processing” project, paying particular attention to German-Turkish speakers.

“In a highly diverse urban setting such as the weekly market in Berlin-Neukölln, people are used to adapting linguistically to the person they are speaking to,” Wiese explains. Several people here have an international background and have lived at various places around the world. “Many of them have a very colorful story,” Freywald adds. And you can hear that.


Over the coming four years, the “Integration of linguistic resources in highly diverse urban settings: Stretching the limits of variability” project will research variability in language at a weekly market in Berlin. The project is part of Collaborative Research Centre (Sonderforschungsbereich, SFB) 1287, entitled “Limits of Variability in Language: Cognitive, Grammatical, and Social Aspects.” In addition to the project’s directors, Prof. Dr. Heike Wiese and Dr. Ulrike Freywald, Ph.D. students Kathleen Schumann and Serkan Yüksel are working on the project, as well as student assistants İrem Duman and Henrik Willun. 



Prof. Dr. Heike Wiese studied German and philosophy. She has been Professor of Contemporary German Language at the University of Potsdam since 2006.

Email: heike.wiese@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Dr. Ulrike Freywald studied German linguistics, historical linguistics, journalism and communication science. She has been a research assistant at the Institute of German Studies at the University of Potsdam since 2007.

Email: ulrike.freywald@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de


Text: Jana ScholzTranslation: Monika WilkeOnline gestellt: Alina GrünkyKontakt zur Online-Redaktion: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.de