Kölsch – The Cologne Language
Ever heard the terms Fisternöll or Fisimatentche? And what on earth is a Föttchesföhler? Even if your German skills are above par, you’re probably wondering what on earth they mean. And that’s because in Cologne, people don’t speak German – they speak Kölsch. At least a fair number of locals do, and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. Outsiders may be led to think that Kölsch is just a strong dialect with bells on, but most Kölsch speakers would vociferously disagree. Kölsch is certainly not a dialect, they’d say – it’s a language in its own right and a living one at that, spoken today by anything between 250 and 750 thousand people.
Opinions about the significance of Kölsch in the grand scheme of things may differ, but the fact is that in 1983, a local cultural foundation established an academy for the local lingo, the “Akademie för uns kölsche Sproch”. This had various reasons, chief among them the fear that one of the most “distinctive, robust and rich regional languages” in existence could eventually disappear. The term “regional language” was used deliberately, given that, as the foundation stated at the time, “Kölsch, unlike other dialects and vernaculars, is comparatively standardised and can hence be learned”. The Akademie has since documented its research in writing and publishes it on its website for anyone to read and enjoy.
The prominence of Kölsch notwithstanding, there’s no need to bring along an interpreter as long as you speak reasonable German: when interacting with outsiders the locals will happily and easily code-switch if necessary. Also, even the heaviest of Kölsch speakers have a good enough grip on high German to be able to translate the most baffling terms – see above – into their high-German equivalents, namely “extramarital affair”, “unnecessary faff” and “groper”.
The roots of Kölsch lie in the tongue spoken by the so-called Ripuarian Franks (Rheinfranken), who drove the Romans out of the Rhineland in the 4th and 5th century AD and subsequently settled in Cologne. Their language was a blend of Old and Middle High German with some elements specific to the region thrown into the mix. This formed the basis for what would develop into a regional vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. In the centuries that followed, Cologne became a significant trading hub in Europe, with the language absorbing further influences over time. The most prominent of these was the French occupation (1794 to 1810), which explains the existence of francophone terms such as Trottoir (pavement), Parraplü (umbrella) and Mostert (mustard), which are still commonly used by locals.
Besides the level of standardisation that makes Kölsch a learnable language, its distinctive vocabulary and grammar mark it out as an independent tongue. One grammatical specificity is what is known as the rheinische Verlaufsform, or progressive voice (example: ich bin am Arbeiten vs. High German ich arbeite). Language purists struggle with this, given that High German makes no allowances for constructions involving a preposition followed by a nominalised infinitive. That said, teachers of English are grateful since it helps them to explain to German students the progressive voice in English (I am drinking vs. I drink). Another characteristic grammar point is Kölsch’s refusal to acknowledge the genitive case, with Kölsch speakers preferring to speak of dem Fründ sing Broder rather than use the formally correct dem Bruder des Freundes (the brother of the friend).
Obviously, Kölsch is not the only vernacular language in the German-speaking areas. Bavarians, Viennese and Berliners all have their own much-loved regional tongues. In Cologne, besides the above-mentioned Academy there are a number of other institutions that ensure that Kölsch remains a visible and audible part of life in the city. Probably the best-known of them is the Hänneschen theatre in the old town, which stages a large variety of original plays all in Kölsch. The Volksbühne theatre on Rudolfplatz, too, is committed to preserving local oral traditions. And in the brewery pubs across the city, a framed version of the kölsche Grundgesetz, or Cologne Constitution, has pride of place.
This document, reminiscent of the Ten Commandments, consists of eleven articles that define life in this ancient Roman city on the Rhine. The second, for instance, simply reads Et kütt, wie et kütt (the Kölsch equivalent to “it is what it is”) – an aphorism that is known far and wide to be the quintessence of life in Cologne. It’s a strong reflection of the optimism and good-naturedness of the local population, as is the claim Et hätt noch immer jot jejangen (roughly, “Things always work out in the end”). However, this eloquence is by no means limited to the Grundgesetz. For instance, the phrase Küss de hück nit, küss de morje (If you don’t come today, you’ll come tomorrow) refers to some locals’ questionable talent for timekeeping. Another turn of phrase in this vein is Bis dohin läuf noch vill Wasser de Rhing eraf (Until that happens, much water will flow down the Rhine).
These kölsche phrases in their variety are not just telling, they also deliver a profound insight into the local philosophy and way of life. That said, the most illustrative iteration of the local lingo is music. No other city or region in the German-speaking area can claim as extensive a collection of songs in the regional tongue. What is more, the compositions by local bands such as Bläck Fööss, Brings or Kasalla are by no means performed just in Cologne – they are also well-loved and often sung in the sailors’ pubs of Hamburg and après-ski bars in the Austrian Alps, and the bands perform live to audiences across the entire country.
Besides the usual favourites, new songs are added every year to their ever-growing repertoire. This is partly due to Karneval, but the recently introduced band contest Loss mer singe (Let’s sing) also has a lot to answer for. Most of the lyrics extol the virtues of Cologne and its local population – and what better raison d’être is there for a vibrant regional language that has never been further from the threat of extinction?