Written by Jan Henrik Schimkus
Unserdeutsch – Definitely the most exotic Version of German
Due to its geographical position in Europe and its size, Germany is home to a diverse structure of dialects. Some of those dialects derive from old Germanic dialects so different they could count as languages. It’s actually not that hard to imagine that there were numerous very diverse languages in this country when you come from northern Germany and meet someone from a remote Bavarian village. Some of the differences between the various dialects still are quite big, in grammar as well as in phonetics. But by far the most exotic version or dialect of the German language is called Unserdeutsch (basically: Our German). And it’s spoken in Papua New Guinea and Australia.
Nuns and Colonies
The German empire was not only late to the colonial “game”, it also wasn’t by far as successful as its rivals from the British Empire to France or the Netherlands. Known most for the appalling genocide of genocide of the Herero people in Namibia, German colonial campaigns in Africa are pretty much common knowledge. But there was another large colony with the illustrious name of Kaiser-Wilhelm-Land. This territory was comprised of the northeastern part of Papua New Guinea as well as a couple of archipelagos. From around 1885, the territory became the protectorate of a German colonial company, but after the company did not perform as expected, it became an official German colony in 1899. At the beginning of the first World War, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Land was occupied by Australian forces and was handed over to Australia after the war ended.
Even though the German rule over this part of Papua New Guinea was relatively short, it had a few long lasting effects: among others, the emergence of Unserdeutsch, also known as Rabaul Creole German (named after the town of Rabaul). It is the only Creole language that is based in German. Unserdeutsch was created by children around 1900 in the capital of Kaiser-Wilhelm-Land. The children of German colonialists and adventurers with local women were raised in a catholic mission on the edge of town. The nuns taught the children German, which they mixed with English and the local language of Tok Pisin in their everyday life. As the nuns stayed in their mission even after the colony changed rulers, they taught quite a lot of pupils who gave the language to their kids. Today there are around 100 speakers left, most of whom migrated to Australia after Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975.
Unserdeutsch is only spoken, not written. The language is basically a simplified variant of German. But still, there are numerous differences to the superordinate language. There is only one article (de instead of der/die/das) and the plural is formed by putting “alle” (all) in front of a noun. “Die Männer” (The men) becomes “Alle Mann” (All man). Further, the interrogative pronoun is placed at the end of the sentence.
Unserdeutsch is especially exotic because there are only very few people left that actually speak it. We spoke about Namibia earlier and you might wonder whether there is an equivalent language to Unserdeutsch in the former German colony. There is. It is called Küchendeutsch (Kitchen German) or Namibian Black German. The name Küchendeutsch clearly indicates who its speakers used to be: slaves or employees of the German masters.
Küchendeutsch is still spoken by about 15.000 people, as opposed to the very few Unserdeutsch speakers. Apart from the linguistic differences, there is also a systematic distinction between the two languages. Küchendeutsch is classified as a pidgin language, whereas Unserdeutsch is categorized as a Creole-Language. A Creole-Language usually derives from a pidgin language when it becomes a native language.