By coincidence the great-grandson of a civil servant who made a dialect recording for the Humboldt-Universität’s Sound Archives in the 1930s contacted the Archives – and helped decipher the stories and the conditions behind the recording.
Many people know the faces of their forebears from photo albums, but what did their voices sound like? Friedrich Dierks is lucky enough to know how his great-grandfather spoke. The family knew that there was a recording of Hinrich Dierks’s voice in the Humboldt-Universität’s Sound Archives that had been made in 1936. When his great-grandson requested a digital copy he learnt that his great-grandfather’s voice was to play a part in the projected Humboldt Lab exhibition.
By a lucky coincidence Friedrich Dierks knows a great deal about his great-grandfather’s life and has historic photos that he made available for the exhibition.
Hinrich Dierks, born in 1867, was an enterprising man. He circumnavigated the world as a ship’s clerk and went on to become a senior civil servant in the Reich Navy Department. Yet he maintained close ties with his rural farming origins.
The Dialects of Bygone Days
The exhibition’s curators know quite a lot about Hinrich Dierks, due in part to the contact with his great-grandson. That is not the case with many people whose voices were recorded in the 1920s or 1940s. “That is why we were keen to find as many descendants as possible, says Antonia von Trott zu Solz. She is a linguist in charge of the Sound Archives presentation in the Humboldt Lab. The Archives have a collection of about 7,500 shellac records, wax cylinders and tapes. They include recordings of, say, the voices of well-known public figures of the German Empire and the Weimar Republic. But the core of the recordings in the Archives consists of a documentation of a wide range of languages and dialects.
“Some are the sole remaining testimony to language variants that no longer exist,” says Antonia von Trott zu Solz. A case in point is the recordings made in the Gottschee area of Slovenia. Resettlement processes have led to this language island largely disappearing, she explains. Recordings of this kind are important for minorities scattered around other countries to learn more about their history.
The Origin of the Voice Recordings
There are over 700 recordings of German dialect speakers made between the 1920s and 1940s. The recordings were made – for the most part voluntarily – either in the speaker’s home village or in recording studios in Berlin or Marburg. Some of the samples of German speech or song were recorded during WWII in resettlement camps for “ethnic Germans” who were considered to be German but lived beyond the borders of the Reich. “They often contributed toward National Socialist propaganda with statements that conformed to Nazi views,” von Trott zu Solz says.
Significant though these recordings may be for modern research, the origin of another part of the collection is problematic. When Hinrich Dierks made his recording the Institute of Speech Research was already part of an anti-Semitic university that had been brought into line by the Nazis. Many faculty members were members of the National Socialist party and played an active part in National Socialist teaching and research.
Many of the non-German recordings were made in WWI and WWII prisoner of war camps. In this situation of constraint PoW soldiers, mainly from French and British colonies, spoke in their native languages – classified as exotic – into the gramophone. Contact with descendants of those whose voices were recorded might help to clarify the circumstances and reveal more about the people whose voices we can still hear today.
In the Humboldt Lab the history of the Archives and the connection between politics, power and the media are examined. The recordings are also exciting because they provide an insight into cultural techniques that are now partly unknown. They include six recordings that deal with agriculture, including the recording made by Hinrich Dierks. Someone who does not speak Plattdeutsch will understand only scraps of his three-minute discourse. “There’s something I can talk about,” he begins, going on to mention spinning machines and cloth.
The passage in which he talks, in Low German dialect, about growing flax is taken from a book he wrote entitled “About Your Fathers’ Daily Tasks”. Dierks was worried that knowledge about farming techniques and his dialect might be lost. To unaccustomed ears the language and content do indeed seem strange today. “That testifies not only to linguistic change but also to a cultural change,” says Antonia von Trott.
The Life of Hinrich Dierks
Listening to his great-grandfather talking was a strange experience, Friedrich Dierks says. “The sound quality was as if he had recorded it today.” The vivid impression conveyed by the recording matched the image that he had of his great-grandfather. “I feel he was a man who was good at telling stories.”
His great-grandfather became a legend for another reason. “He rose from being a farmer to a senior civil service job at the Reich Navy Department,” Friedrich Dierks notes. That made him the epitome of an enormous social ascent.
Hinrich Dierks was born in Aschhauserfelde near Oldenburg in 1867. He grew up in a cottage where people and cattle lived together. He was bright but not very strong, his great-grandson says. At the age of 14 he was articled to a lawyer as a clerk. But that was apparently too boring in the long term. At the age of 17 he applied for a post as a ship’s clerk with the Imperial Navy. On the SMS Leipzig he sailed, inter alia, to China, Japan and South Africa. “He really did once circumnavigate the world,” his great-grandson says. He later worked at the Naval Department in Berlin. He was evidently always interested in preserving his memories. He left three volumes of memoirs, the first written in 1919 at the age of 49 and the last after he retired in Berlin.
He would undoubtedly be delighted to know that his voice recording will soon be presented to a wider public at the Humboldt Forum. “He was keenly interested in ensuring the survival of the dialect that he spoke,” says Antonia von Trott.
His fear was partly confirmed. Many of the words he spoke are no longer in use. But the prophecy that dialects would cease to exist – or that German would be replaced by other languages – has not been fulfilled. Change is part of a natural process, the linguist von Trott zu Solz says. “Spoken language is always changing, it was never set in stone.”
|Datum:||03. Dezember 2020|