This is a difficult topic: Avoiding words that may discriminate those that are different from us, be it cultures, groups of people or peoples. A politically correct language does not imply that discrimination disappears, but more and more we are told to no longer use words that may highlight it.
It took me long to write about the carnival theme “censorship”, as I find it difficult. I was raised with curiosity, with respect and love for what is different around me or elsewhere, with an eagerness to learn and even adopt what I like. Cultures and people are different and I love that. It is an enrichment. Think of food, philosophy, language, religion or history beyond Europe centricity. I take traveling as an opportunity for experiencing diversity and enrichment. Blogging is my way of understanding and learning. Diversity requires deep roots – mine are in central Europe. Sharing my roots with others is also important for me – such as I do with my blogs about Basel and around.
Now this year, the carnival of Basel took up the sensitive topic of the politically correct language and censorship. Whatever I take notice of – people, phenomena – I give a name to them. It is a sign of awareness, respect and it is practical. But many names have now got the label “discrimination”. Yes, I agree, some of the names are related with a bad flavour, but where is the limit? The boundaries are being extended and I start to feel uneasy about what I am still allowed to say and what has now become a no-go. One example: Can I still say, Rome was founded in 753 B.C. which stands for “Before Christ”? Yes, the Romans counted their years “ab urbe condita” which reflects their Roman centric view of history. Counting years starting from the year Christ was born – this is surely a European centric view that has been exported from here to the Americas and to much of the world. It reminds of the European hegemony (now fading?). But it is a practical reference point that I have never thought about. Where is the limit?
Let us stroll through the lantern exhibition at the Münsterplatz (cathedral square) to study some of the lanterns that talked about politically incorrect names and censorship at this year’s carnival.
While looking at the line of houses across the cathedral of Basel in the morning sun, let us think about how the topic “censorship” came up: In the nineteen fifties two groups of “Guggemuusig” (playing a kind of brass and drum music) were founded under the name of “Negro Rhygass” and “Mohrekopf”. Perhaps they allude to the fact that Africans are known for being excellent musicians. Since then the groups have played each year and their names have not bothered anybody. But now, someone from a different city (that has their own procession with clichés about different peoples) attacked the two groups for discrimination or even racism. This triggered the topic “censorship”. Let me assure that at the Basel carnival, I have always discovered all sorts of coloured heads under the masks of the carnival groups. I think, the carnival is a great opportunity for integration, which is the contrary of discrimination and racism.
Let us check out the reflections about censorship that appear on some of the lanterns.
Reflection #1: Words and expressions forbidden by censorship
The Gundeli Gniesser are people that enjoy it – gniesse – from the Gundeli – an area in Basel. They list many words that will now be forbidden as they may nastily point at someone. Examples are:
- “Wienerli” (sausage pointing at the city of Wien with the disrespectful diminutive “li”),
- “Appenzellerkäs” (cheese from the canton of Appenzell with a rather strong smell),
- “Peking Ente” (Peking duck) or “Chinakohl” (a sort of cabbage with “China” in its name),
- “Älplermaggrone” (pasta made by the people in the Alps – called the “Älpler”),
- “Mongoloid” (a name for the Down syndrome),
- “Schwarzwäldertorte” (Blackforest cake, contains the word “black” and a region, the “Black Forest”),
- “Russezopf” (Russian braided cake),
- “Schwööbli” (small rolls named after the “Schwoobe” or the Swabians – with some fantasy the shape of the roll might remind you of one part of the body; with my own migration background I can easily smile about the “Schwööbli”),
- “das isch türkt” (this fact has been twisted – why should the Turks twist things?),
- “Idiotehügel” (idiot hill – small slope for beginners on ski – beginners are not necessarily “idiots”, they are just new to skiing),
- “Googlehopf” (the cake called “Gugelhopf” – a delicacy in Basel and its surroundings – could be mistaken as pointing at Google)
- etc etc.
Some of the verses on the lantern say:
- “Mängg Wort wird zum Politikum, doch ab und zue wird’s äifach zdumm (Many words become a political issue, but sometimes it is simply too stupid)”;
- “Nur ganz korrägt sötsch hütte schnuure, do blybbt nur s’Schimpfe hindeduure (Today you should only talk fully correctly, that is why you can only grumble covertly)”;
- “Dr Moorekopf isch inne wyss und usse bruun – was soll das Gschyss? (the “Moorekopf” is brown outside and white inside, why such a fuss?”; the “Moorekopf” is a sweet brown chocolate half sphere with white foam in it; Moor=African; Kopf=head);
- “Empöörsch Dy vyyl und mit Geduld, denn bisch au nie an öbbis tschuld (As you are often shocked and always point that out, you will never be blamed for anything” – this is very philosophical, I think).
The Rhygwäggi are the “stones – Gwäggi- from the river Rhine – Rhy”. Their Alti Garde (Oldies) list expressions that have now become a no-go… such as
- “Alti Dante” (elderly aunt, a very common mask at the Basel carnival, could be interpreted to be disrespectful of elderly ladies like me),
- “Schwarzbrot” (Black bread is our crunchy, delicious dark bread. But… it contains the word “black”),
- “Schwarzwurzle”… (we call the comfrey “black root” and, yes, “black” is censored, but, after having peeled them, they are all white),
- “Pariser” (used to protect lovers, but it reminds us of the city Paris),
- “Maitlibai” or “Schänggeli” (both delicious sweets called “girls’ legs” and “small thighs (of girls)”),
- “Zwätschgegompfi” (plum marmalade, but a plum or Zwätschge is also a “stupid lady” in Swiss German, “gomfi” stands for marmalade),
- “Indianer” (Indian; well I remember, as a child we loved to play “Indianerlis” and we dreamt of a wonderful world, where you would smoke the peace pipe to solve conflicts. As teenagers, we watched the film “Winnetou” with that handsome actor we all were in love with – was that wrong? Now in one kindergarden, the teacher forbid the kids to disguise as Indians for their childrens’ carnival),
- “Mannschaft” (oh yes – a team is called “manship” in German, why not “womanship”, what a discrimination! Hm, I am a lady, and I have never thought about that before, at work we talked about “teams” anyway…).
The Rhygwäggi conclude: “Värsli brünzle isch kai Schlägg, usser de losch d’Wörter wägg (Creating verses is no fun, except you leave out the words” – “kai Schlägg” for “no fun” alludes to the fact that there is nothing to lick (schlägge or schlecken) such as a delicious sweet ice cream, so there is just no fun).
Reflection #2: Shut up or remain silent to conform to censorship
The group Breo named their topic “Halt dini dumm Schnure” (literally: shut up your stupid mouth). On their lantern there is this face closed with a zipper.
The carnival group D’Gniesser had the same idea, a face with a zipper. They say: “Kai Sujet, kai Värs, so das wärs” (no theme, no verse, well that’s it) and “#kai Sujet, syg gescheit, sag nüt (#no theme, be clever, do not say anything)”. The name of the group “D’Gniesser” can be translated as “the ones who enjoy it”.
On this lantern, the pigs sit around a table with their mouths sealed up. “Sag lieber nütt – Stummtisch (Do not say anything – silent table)”. This is a play on words: stumm=silent, Stammtisch=regulars’ table; At the “Stamm-Tisch” the regular guests discuss politics and life over some glasses of beer, but due to censorship this table has become the “Stumm-Tisch” – by replacing the “a” by the “u“, “Stamm” turns into “Stumm” and “Stammtisch” into “Stummtisch” – with all regulars sitting silently around the table.
On the lantern of the Basler Dybli (Small Pigeons or Squabs of Basel), this Swiss boy hides his mouth behind his hands to avoid saying anything that might be forbidden. He stands in a maze, not knowing what is right or wrong and asks “Derfi oder derfi nid? (Am I allowed or am I not allowed?)”. In the wooden box you see the “Waggis”, a very common mask at the Basel carnival – but the Waggis with the long nose and wild hair can be taken as making fun of the farmers from neighbouring Alsace – and are we still allowed to make fun of them, is this not discrimination? And then there is the African man, the much disputed symbol of the group “Negro Rhygass”. Is it worse than the white sheep that kicks the black sheep out of Switzerland? I came across these sheep during the voting campaign about stopping immigration and this campaign was present all over in Switzerland. By the way, I believe the campaign with the sheep was invented in the town where attacking the Basel carnival came from… Everyone sits in a glass house. We all should reflect before throwing stones.
One of the verses on this lantern says: “Duesch aimol eppis lätzes saage, denn muesch grad e Muulkoorb draage. Jetzt miemmer unsri Sprooch uusmischte, sunscht lande mer no in dr Kischte. Dr politisch Drugg isch aifach zgross, drum heisst s jetzt Negro Freyi Strooss (If you say something wrong once, you have to take a muzzle. Now we have to clear up our language, otherwise we will end up in prison. The political pressure is simply too high, therefore we now say Negro Freyi Strooss”; meaning the carnival group is to be renamed from Rhygass to Freyi Strooss, as Freyi Strooss (Freie Strasse) is a much better address than Rhygass (Rheingasse) – hence the term “Rhygass” may be discriminating).
Reflection #3: Cleaning (Säu…bere) the Basel carnival (cleaning it from forbidden words, amongst other things)
Another carnival group is called “Seibi” which is the colloquial name for the Barfüsserplatz, where pigs (“Säu” or in the older Basel dialect “Sei”) were traded in medieval times. The German word “säubern” (“säubere” in Swiss German) means “to clean”. “Säubere” has been split into “säu…bere”, and “Säu” are pigs in Swiss German (in German: (“Säue”). “Seibi” and “säu…bern” are perfect plays on words: The “Seibi” group has selected pigs to clean the Basel carnival: “Mir Säu…bere d’Fasnacht.” They allude to censorship, but also to other issues that might need cleaning.
One verse on the lantern says: “Bym Orwell hän scho d’Sey regiert. Dert gsehsch wo das denn aanefiert (In Orwell’s novel, the pigs governed already. There you can see, where this leads to)”.
The Spoorepeter show this specific “dirty” emoticon on their lantern and say: “S’Engagement krängglet. (Engagement is getting weak)”. This may be a consequence of censorhsip – people are afraid get it wrong. Consequently they hide and do no longer engage toy say or do anything.
Two verses on the lantern say:
- “Engagement, dr Gerd hörsch lache, d’Hauptsach isch, ych muess nüt mache (Engagement – you year Gerd laugh, the main point is, I do not have to do anything)”
- “Seesch, ass en uufgob uff dy zue will koo, machsch e Schritt uff d’Syte zum se duure loo (if you see a task approaching, you make a step aside and let it pass by)”.
Post Scriptum: The Basel carnival is an event with thousands of participants and thousands of visitors
After the lantern exhibition I slender through the narrow streets of Basel. From the terrace of the Old University (founded in 1460), I can see many, many people on the “Mittlere Brücke” (middle bridge) and along the Rhine. They are not only from Basel, but also from many other countries. They enjoy our carnival which plays the role of a jester.
I do hope that censorship will not make the carnival shut up. I do hope that the carnival will continue to play its role as a jester for the people at power and for all of us. It is an organized and discrete valve for the feelings and thoughts of the citizens of Basel. The carnival group “Basler Bebbi” coined the term “shitblizzard” on their lantern: “Das git kai shitstorm of dym Handy, sondern a shitblizzard, Randy (this produces not only a shitstorm on your smartphone, but a shitblizzard)” – I do hope, it was a short shitblizzard.
Post Scriptum of post srciptum: In 2019, the Basel carnival took place from Monday, March 11th, 4 am, until Thursday, March 14th, 4 am. I participated like a butterfly enjoying the parades or the Schnitzelbängg, flour soup and cheese cake in one of the cellars managed by a carnival group and the lantern exhibition on the cathedral square.