Linz children's speech: … aber

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Geoff Pullum posted a little while back on the way the language of the imprisoned children in Amstetten, Austria was characterized in the Daily Telegraph, under the outrageous headline Dungeon children speak in animal language. Last year I spent some time trying to track down the facts in another imprisoned-Austrian-children story (this time in Linz). In the first coverage I saw, from The Times on 12 February 2007, the children (three girls) were said to have developed their own language, an "almost unintelligible" form of German, with an astonishing twist: the girls "reportedly finish all sentences with the word "but" [that is, German aber]".

(Hat tip to Doug Kenter.)

The Times headline, at least, didn't compare the children to animals: Mother kept girls locked away from the world for years. Here are excerpts from the piece:

Bojan Pancevski in Vienna

Three girls who were imprisoned by their mother in a house of indescribable filth for seven years may never recover from the ordeal, experts said last night.

The girls were shut away from the outside world, existing in almost complete darkness, playing only with mice and communicating in their own language.

When they were discovered, their home in a smart, upper middle-class suburb had no running water and was filled with waste and excrement a metre high. The floor was corroded by mice urine.

The case has stunned Austria, still reeling from the Natascha Kampusch kidnapping, and the authorities were struggling last night to explain how such a horror story could have gone unnoticed.

… The girls, Viktoria, Katharina and Elisabeth, were rescued only when police broke into the house after a neighbour, who had reported his suspicions several times, threatened a local council official with a lawsuit.

Although that was in October 2005, and the three have been in a specialised therapy centre since, the scandal was only revealed at the weekend.

… Waltraud Kubelka, a therapist who is now treating the three girls, said that their psycho-social and physical development was “catastrophic”.

“The oldest one is doing very badly and has no prospects of recovery. She was severely undernourished and practically anorexic after her release. The two younger ones will need years to come to terms with their horrific childhood.

“In the first weeks after their release they were hiding under a bench in the kitchen [in the therapy centre] because that was the darkest spot. They could not endure light . . . they had not felt sunlight or fresh air for years.”

It is believed that the children had contact only with their mother during the seven years of captivity and, as a consequence, developed an almost unintelligible language of their own, described as a “singing-like” form of German.

Even after a year of therapy the oldest daughter, Elisabeth, now 21, is said to be so disturbed that she stands only on one foot for long periods staring at the floor. She often bursts into tears.

She and her two sisters also reportedly finish all sentences with the word “but”.

Yes, the story was old news. And, as it turned out, most of the details were in dispute. From a Wienerzeitung piece (in English) on 12 February 2007, under the headline District denies newspaper stories:

By Pat Maadi

Aufzählung Says girls were not locked up.

Aufzählung Mother still faces charges of abuse.

Vienna/Linz. Details of a case in which a mother is accused of keeping her three girls locked up for seven years now appear to have been reported incorrectly. Several newspapers reported on Monday that a fifty-three year old woman had kept her three daughters locked in a house without contact with the outside world. After her separation from her husband, the girls were reportedly kept in darkness at the family home and lived amid human filth. The house was also said to have had no running water and only one light bulb. The girls reportedly developed their own language and played with mice, isolated in the filthy house. Their isolation began when they were aged six, 10 and 13.

But Helmut Ilk, the head of the district where the family lives, told the "Wiener Zeitung” that the youngest child went to school as late as September 2005 although school attendance was sporadic. He said the children appeared to be clean when they were in school.

The story then spun off in several directions, having to do with factual claims and counter-claims and various legal proceedings. My interest in the story, of course, was in the assertions about the girls' language. Some hours of searching the German-language media (thanks to Ned Deily for help with this search), as well as other English-language outlets, unearthed no source for these assertions, and Pancevski's account provides no attribution for them. In fact, the relevant part of Pancevski's piece is a little forest of agentless passives and other devices for avoiding attribution: it is believed that the children had contact only with their mother; their language was described as a "singing-like" form of German; Elisabeth is said to be terribly disturbed; she and her sisters reportedly finish all their sentences with "but". I am not a proponent of Avoid Passive as a general thing, but there are times when passives and other agentless constructions are annoying as hell.

So I don't know what a "singing-like" form of German is supposed to be like, and I am deeply dubious that the girls finished all their sentences with aber (though it's entirely possible that they finished some, or even many, of their sentences this way; this is a linguistic feature that would strike hearers as noteworthy). But at least they were said to be speaking some (idiosyncratic) version of German, and not "animal language".


  1. Dan T. said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    Stephen Pinker once claimed (I think in his Words and Rules book) that irregular plurals like "mice" are rarely used as part of compound phrases. So that article's reference to "mice urine" would sound better as "mouse urine", wouldn't it?

  2. joel said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    all of those "agentless passives" you refer to might be translations of the German "indirekte Rede," which is very precise in German to show second-hand information, but which are sloppier passives in English. In German, these assertions would read more authoritatively than in English, I think.

  3. Philip Newton said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 11:00 am

    Dan: Yes, "mouse urine" would be better in English.

    In German, combination forms of nouns often look like plural forms, as in this case: "Mäuseurin" is probably what the writer had in his mind when he wrote the English piece.

  4. Jonathon said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    That doesn't solve the problem of knowing where the newspapers got the information, though.

  5. Breffni said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 11:49 am

    joel: German journalists might well use subjunctive, especially the form reserved for reported propositions (Konjunktiv I), to mark assertions as second-hand. But in English, devices like reporting verbs and "reportedly" do exactly the same job. There is no failure to signal the second-hand nature of the claims in either case; the sloppiness is in the absence of attribution. Unless the original source is cited at some point, German sentences with subjunctive leave the reader every bit as much in the dark as their English counterparts, and in that sense there's nothing inherently superior about either construction.

  6. John Cowan said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    English can tolerate plurals in the non-head positions of nominal compounds much better when they are irregular, like "?mice urine", than when they are regular, like "*rats urine". Occasionally one finds an exception, in which case one ought to send it to Stephen Pinker to add to his exceptions list.

    As for German, the form "Mäuseurin" looks plural because it is plural (many mice are involved, after all), and German can easily tolerate such plurals because almost all German plurals *are* irregular. Only the rare -s plurals are regular (as in "governed by rule"); consequently, forms like "*Autosbahn" are as unacceptable in German as "motorsway" would be in (British) English.

  7. Dan T. said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

    You're right; I actually remembered that Pinker reference backward… he was actually saying that it was regular plurals that didn't combine well.

  8. Dan T. said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

    (Still, "mice urine" sounds strange anyway.)

  9. Fred said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    Last time I was in Germany it struck me how many of the sentences I was hearing from perfectly ordinary, well-adjusted Germans ended with either "aber" or "oder". Could this actually be no more than another case of a usage that's perfectly normal being reported as strange and new by the ignorant media?

  10. Steve Harris said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

    In my limited experience, ending a German sentence in "oder" is a way of inviting a confirmatory or non-confirmatory response–"That's right, isn't it?" It strikes me as somewhat similar in spirit to ending a sentence on an up-note (in English), to indicate the speaker isn't entirely sure of the statement, inviting the hearer to comment positively or negatively.

    In a closed environment, it's not unexpected, I'd suppose, that speech habits would develop are geared towards intimacy of conversational participation. But the actual environment in question seems to be uncertain here, absent attributed reportage.

  11. felix culpa said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

    Speaking as a layperson, without clerical authority:
    In the early eighties I worked in a theater whose caretaker was Italian; he was a kindly person and we had many friendly exchanges. His speech was liberally scattered with ma. If I recall correctly, he used it as a pause at the end of a sentence before plunging into the next, almost as if it were a brief suspension in his flow of rapid speech; (plunging here into murky waters of linguistic ignorance) a ‘suspended ending’, as might be.

  12. Kris Rhodes said,

    May 3, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

    In Japanese it is very common to end sentences in "ga" meaning "but." It adds a note of openness, for example, to differing opinion or correction.

    We do this sometimes in English, too, and above people report that it's not uncommon in German. Maybe kids isolated and "evolving" their own dialect could pick up on this and think of it as more of a standard setence ender than it is in standard German.

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    May 3, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

    'Aber' is a kraut tag question, innit?

  14. David Marjanović said,

    May 3, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

    Only the rare -s plurals are regular (as in “governed by rule”);

    …and this way of forming the plural doesn't even exist in all kinds of German, though I don't think it can be avoided in Standard German.

    ‘Aber’ is a kraut tag question, innit?

    No, it's not a question. It's like sentence-final "though".

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

    —-"No, it’s not a question. It’s like sentence-final “though”.:—

    Question tags aren't questions either, though.

    A question tag sometimes has the same meaning as 'though' at the end/

    Just as a matter of interest, is there a specific German question tag form, as the Spanish have 'no' and the Catalans 'Oi'?

  16. Jennifer said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

    Many German speakers that I have known end sentences with "aber" or "oder." I have also known English-speakers who have lived in Germany for a length of time, and when they speak English they end sentences with "or." I even found myself doing that after a few multi-month stints over there. It gets into your head after a while that patent assertions are rude somehow. I always found this a bit strange and disconcerting — Germans can be such assertive people, and yet this lends a weird degree of passiveness to a conversation.

  17. Allison said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

    Is it possible that when they described the children as speaking "animal-language" they were suggesting the words themselves sounded like animal noises? Not that the children speaking "a language native to animals" but a "animal-sounding" language.

  18. John Cowan said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

    "Nicht wahr?" is the formal tag question that foreigners are taught, or I should say were taught 35 years ago or so when I tried to get German into my head and failed.

    Pinker says the -s plural got into Standard German from Low Saxon and English, I think, and he mentions Auto and Baby (both obvious borrowings) as the most common nouns that take it.

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