Language expert: German Catholics speak differently than Protestants


Central Europe


A woman examines a Gutenberg Bible. Photo EPA, Britta Pedersen

Catholics speak differently than Protestants. According to Anna-Maria Balbach, who studied them, language distinguishes members of the two denominations, starting with the image of God.

For almost ten years, Balbach studied the language of Catholics and Protestants. To do so, she listened to around 3000 radio sermons. The German Roman Catholic news website Katholisch.de spoke with her.

According to Balbach, up until around 1800, you could tell from certain linguistic features whether someone was Catholic or Protestant. "In the early modern period, after the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics had different usages of language in certain areas. Simply put, the reason for this was Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible. It was written in Luther's dialect, East Central German, and Protestants used it and their language as a guide. As a result, the Catholics soon perceived East Central German as "the language of heretics", as we can read verbatim in the historical sources." Catholics, meanwhile, oriented themselves to the language used in the Catholic South: Upper German. "The desire to distance oneself from the other denomination was so pronounced at the time that it was reflected in architecture, art and even fashion, and everyday language."


Today, the spelling is indifferent. Therefore, Balbach had to look at other characteristics. Therefore, she decided to analyse radio sermons. And there were also notable differences. "Catholics often dedicate themselves to current social issues and are also critical. Especially when it comes to the church, on the other hand, evangelical radio sermons rarely talk about social or church-critical topics. The focus here is more on typical religious topics related to the Bible and its interpretation of everyday life. As a result, the posts often contain less personal information."

According to Balbach, there are far more references to the Bible in evangelical contributions. Quotations or stories from the Bible are discussed twice as often on average. This has to do with the fact that, because of Luther's principle of sola scriptura, the Bible has a higher priority and is, therefore, more central to Protestants than it is to Catholics - despite corresponding efforts by the Second Vatican Council to change this.

Furthermore, in Catholic radio sermons, a personal image of God is conveyed based on experience and hope. "The evangelical image of God in the radio sermons is less personal. Here God is an agent in biblical stories who is not so closely related to one's experience or opinion."



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