I don’t think I’ve ever said much here about the years I lived in the Alps. It was a long time ago, so long it’s almost hard for me to imagine. In the summer of 1973 I went to Austria with the American Field Service exchange program (which still exists, and functions) and stayed with a family in the village of Andelsbuch in the middle Bregenz Forest in the northern part of Vorarlberg, Austria’s western most province. I was hoping there would be a high rez map of Vorarlberg at Google Earth but a huge swatch of central Europe, including all of Vorarlberg and the entire country of Liechtenstein are still low rez. So here’s a dopey little map instead.
The short version of this story is that I got so interested in the dialect spoken in the Bregenzerwald that I ended up studying linguistics, writing a dissertation on variation and change in a specific dialect of a specific village (Grossdorf), getting a PhD, and going off to teach linguistics and German at the university level. Eventually I ended up writing Homestead. I guess it must be clear that along the way I learned both (what I think of as) book German and various dialects of Swiss German. Swiss German is a bit of a misnomer as this group of dialects (which I’ll start calling Alemannic at this point, to warn you) is spoken in south-western Germany, western Austria, and all of German speaking Switzerland.
Why am I telling you all this. Because today I was listening to dialect stories recorded by a woman from Mellau, really gorgeous stuff that simply could not be translated either into book German or English, which always makes me a little sad. You will never hear the story of how the Mellauer and the Auer, in their endless inventive taunting of one another, ended up inventing yodeling. It’s a good story. So I was listening and feeling a little homesick for the Bregenz Forest. As a result I went to look up the author (Reinhilde Hager) to see if she had a website. Which she does not (unless she married since the recording was made, in which case I don’t know how to look her up). But I did find something that made my jaw drop, and that that there is a wiki for Alemannic.
If you go look at the Alemannic wiki, you probably won’t get very far because it is actually written in Alemannic. The equivalent might be if there were a wiki written entirely in Chaucerian English, which would also most probably give you severe pause.
I almost got teary, reading through the Alemannic Wiki. Of course the dialect represented there is not exactly the one I speak; if you’re going to write down a language, you’ve got to take some steps toward standardizing spelling, at least. But it’s very close, and it felt like running into an old friend on the street.
I don’t get the opportunity to speak Waelderisch (my particular variety of Alemannic) very often, and I’m a little rusty — but not very. I can read it without a problem and when I listen to the recorded stories, I’m right back there, thinking in it. If I got on a plane tomorrow it would take me maybe three days to get back where I was. Which leads me to a linguistics topic which may be of interest. Anybody ever hear of the black box, universal grammar, the critical period, and the distinction between language learning and language acquisition? Because it’s interesting stuff.