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Wenker Phrases

1. The Wenker questionnaires

Photo: Archive DSA
Photo: Archive DSA

The Wenker questionnaires are the data basis for Georg Wenker’s language atlases, with which the individual local dialects were surveyed in the years 1876 to 1887. The data were obtained by indirect survey, i.e. Wenker sent his questionnaires to schools to be filled out by local informants. As can be seen from the cover letter addressed to the teachers, the task was to transcribe preformulated standard-language sentences into the respective local dialect using the means provided by the “commonly used alphabet.” The sentences were composed in such a way that typical phonetic and selected grammatical features of the dialects concerned had to stand out in the translation. If, for example, the German word Äpfelchen [small apple] was given in the questionnaire, it was to be expected that in areas where linguistically historically the plosive /p/ had not been shifted to the affricate /pf/, the students would write a form with inlaid /p/. In the sum of such dialect features, individual linguistic landscapes should be distinguishable from each other, Wenker had assumed.

2. Development and data collection phases of the questionnaires

The survey was carried out in various stages with different questionnaires. It began with Wenker’s survey of the immediate and wider surroundings of his hometown Düsseldorf in 1876. The questionnaire of this first survey comprises 42 sentences (“rheinische Sätze”).

After the promising start of the enterprise, the plan was made to survey all of Westphalia, for which a form with 38 sentences (“westfälische Sätze”) was conceived, abandoning specific phenomena of the previously relatively small study area. This survey took place in 1877. In a further extension of the survey area, all of Prussia was now to be surveyed. At the instigation of the “Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften” [Prussian Academy of Sciences], however, this plan was abandoned and all of northern and central Germany was declared the survey area. For this purpose, a survey form with 40 sentences was designed (“Wenker phrases” in the actual sense). Compared to the Westphalian form, two phrases were added, the others slightly revised. The survey of this large area lasted from 1879 to 1880. To ensure the supraregional comparability of the results, this revised questionnaire was sent to the Rhineland again in 1884, which had already been surveyed seven years prior – but with a different form.

After the “Sprachatlasunternehmen” [language atlas enterprise] was placed under state management, the survey area was finally to be expanded to include the entire southern German region. For this last large-scale survey, the sentences of the form from northern and central Germany remained unchanged, but additional keywords were asked for on the reverse side, such as days of the week or individual number words. Also, for the first time, teachers were asked in the cover letter to indicate phonetic peculiarities – such as nasalization or open vs. closed /e/ qualities – by given spelling conventions. The survey of southern Germany was carried out in 1887.

After completion of the surveys, a total of 44,251 questionnaires from 40,736 school locations were available. Separate follow-up surveys were carried out for the areas outside the German Empire. The model for these explorations was the South German questionnaire, which was extended by individual keywords where necessary. The first follow-up survey was conducted in Luxembourg in 1888 (325 forms). From 1926-1933, the following were surveyed: the Sudetenland (2,854 forms), Austria (3,628 forms), Liechtenstein (24 forms), Burgenland (28 forms), Gottscheerland (35 forms), Switzerland (1,785 forms), Poland beyond the old imperial border (396 forms), South Tyrol (485 forms), the seven and thirteen communities of Cimbrian dialects in northern Italy (20 forms), North and East Frisia (67 forms). In addition, 2,050 foreign language forms were received (e.g. Yiddish). Thus, a total of 51,480 forms from 49,363 German-speaking places were collected. Furthermore, Wenker forms from German-speaking areas of foreign countries – such as Russia – have since also become available.

Southern Germany: The following German words were collected as additional lemmas: heiß, nein, blau, grau, hauen, Hand, Hanf, Helm, Flachs, er wächst, Besen, Pflaumen, Brief, Hof, jung, krumm, Sonntag, Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag, Freitag, Samstag, elf, fünfzehn, sechzehn and fünfzig. Nasalization, closed vs. open /e/, apical vs. uvular /r/, voiced vs. voiceless /s/, lenis vs. fortis, and dialectal pronunciation of the place name were also queried.

Luxembourg: The following lemmas were additionally queried: Norden, irden, morden, Vorderbein, mit seinen Pferden, Herde, Hirten, Gürtel, Karten, die harten Wörter, Gartenbohne, Kraft, Luft, stiften, Hintergeschirr (vom Pferde) and du haust. The lemmas Brief and Hof were dropped.

Switzerland: For the survey of Switzerland, the South German form was supplemented by the lemma Kartoffel [potato].

3. Digitalization

The historical Wenker questionnaires, which form the data basis for Georg Wenker’s "Sprachatlas des Deutschen Reichs" [Language Atlas of the German Empire], are severely threatened by deterioration. Despite careful storage in the archives of the Research Center for the German Language Atlas, the survey forms are subject to a constant process of damage caused by the quality of the acidic paper and the iron compound-based ink, as well as by frequent use. The condition of the sheets is particularly evident in the mostly heavily damaged page edges.

In a complex process, the forms were digitized with an optical resolution of 400 DPI. The sheets can be viewed via various search functions in REDE SprachGIS [geolinguistic information system] as well as via the Wenker questionnaire catalog.

4. Literature

A detailed overview of Georg Wenker’s surveys is provided by:
Fleischer, Jürg (2017): Geschichte, Anlage und Durchführung der Fragebogen-Erhebungen von Georg Wenkers 40 Sätzen: Dokumentation, Entdeckungen und Neubewertungen.  Hildesheim/Zürich/New York: Olms. (Deutsche Dialektgeographie. 123) 201 S.

A complete edition of Georg Wenker’s writings on the Language Atlas of the German Empire as well as a systematic register of all language phenomena considered is available with the following three-volume work:
Lameli, Alfred (2014): Erläuterungen und Erschließungsmittel zu Georg Wenkers Schriften. Unter Mitarbeit von Johanna Heil und Constanze Wellendorf. Hildesheim/New York/Zürich: Olms. (Deutsche Dialektgeographie. 111.3) 310 S.
Georg Wenker: (2013): Schriften zum "Sprachatlas des Deutschen Reichs". Gesamtausgabe. Band 1: Handschriften: Allgemeine Texte, Kartenkommentare 1889–1897. Herausgegeben und bearbeitet von Alfred Lameli. Unter Mitarbeit von Johanna Heil und Constanze Wellendorf. Hildesheim/New York/Zürich: Olms. (Deutsche Dialektgeographie. 111.1) 466 S.
Georg Wenker: (2013): Schriften zum "Sprachatlas des Deutschen Reichs". Gesamtausgabe. Band 2: Handschriften: Kartenkommentare 1898–1911; Druckschriften: Veröffentlichungen 1877–1895. Herausgegeben und bearbeitet von Alfred Lameli. Unter Mitarbeit von Johanna Heil und Constanze Wellendorf. Hildesheim/New York/Zürich: Olms. (Deutsche Dialektgeographie. 111.2) 510 S.