“Your Accent Gives You Away…”
German philologist Dr. Anna-Maria Balbach researches the difference in language use between Catholics and Protestants in present-day language / German Research Foundation (DFG) funds the project with 315,000 Euro
Catholic or Protestant? Is this today, 500 years after the Reformation and in times of intensive ecumenical collaboration and cooperation, even of importance anymore? The question of which denomination one belongs to seems to be of little relevance, right? On the contrary, since listeners of the radio station 1Live of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR, West German Broadcasting Corporation), targeted specifically at young(er) audiences, ask themselves this very question as soon as the segment “Kirche in 1Live” (Church on 1Live) is announced: Will this be a Catholic or Protestant contribution? To guess the ‘right’ confession has become a popular game amongst listeners of the radio station.
Dr. Anna-Maria Balbach, academic at the Institute for German Studies at Westfälische-Wilhelms-Universität Münster (WWU), Germany, wanted to investigate this further: she gave a total number of 112 students the texts of said 1Live radio sermons. Then, it was the students’ tasks to guess which sermons were Catholic and which Protestant and to give reasons why they thought so. “The evaluation showed that the students were right about 70 % of the time,” according to Balbach. “Was the topic more serious, the text more on the moral side of things and the language rather religious, say words like “God”, “Church”, “Jesus” or “Easter” were used, students thought it to be a Catholic sermon. Was the choice of language more youth-like and the topic only loosely based on religious aspects, they assumed it to be a segment by the Protestant Church.”
And indeed: in a pilot study, Dr. Balbach was able to determine that the language of Catholic propagations is shaped by the use of an overall more religiously-coloured vocabulary whereas this is not so much the case with Protestant sermons. Furthermore, certain indications led her to believe that Catholics talk about God in different terms than Protestants do. She assumes that these differing speech formations, as evident by looking at the radio sermons at hand, point to a diverging image of God - which is still valid and of importance to this day.
“Both topics, ‘language’ and ‘religion/confession’ respectively have always been an interest of mine. This is why I studied German and Catholic Theology at university,” Balbach recounts. “I wanted to pursue and address the correlation and connectedness of religion, language and society. The deeper I dug into both disciplines, the more I understood how closely linked religion and language really are.” In her dissertation, developed at the WWU cluster of excellence ‘Religion and Politics’, Balbach was able to demonstrate that the confessional disputes of the Early Modern Age had an effect on and strongly influenced the language used. Catholics and Protestants sometimes chose widely differing varieties of the German language in order to distance themselves from the respective other, loathsome confession. As Balbach explains, “this even went so far as that Catholics chose different wording as well as spelling for the inscription of gravestones.” The need for linguistic delineation led to a distinct discrepancy between Catholic and Protestant language use as far as lexical, syntactical and structural features are concerned. This development can be traced back all the way to the late 18th century. But what has become of these differences in language use?
As concerns present-day language, Balbach notices a big research gap. Linguistic analyses of the topic at hand are nowhere to be found. In her project, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), “‘Denn deine Sprache verrät Dich…’ – Sprache und Konfession 500 Jahre nach der Reformation” (translates to “‘Your accent gives you away…’ – language and confession 500 years after the Reformation”), she wants to look for and analyse confessional idiosyncrasies as evident in excerpts of present-day language over the course of the next six years (starting in 2019). To Balbach, the modern-day format of public propagations of faith on the radio, such as sermons, is an especially suitable research topic since they have not yet been paid much attention to in either German studies or theological research. Balbach’s hypothesis: Even today – 500 years after the Reformation and not only the theological but also eloquent work of Martin Luther – there are still confessional differences in the use of language. “This results in a style very typical of each respective confession within which religious, communicative actions are shaped,” according to Balbach. “This is what I want to prove by means of a mixed-method approach consisting of quantitative and qualitative practices covering aspects ranging from choice of topic, textual structure as well as syntax to word formation and lexis.”